Denis Villeneuve’s $165 million take on Frank Herbert’s “Dune” and Marvel’s $200 million “Eternals” went head-to-head at the box office, and the latter, which opened on Nov. 5, took top prize, earning, to date, about $118 million in U.S. and Canada; it has since grossed $280.7 million worldwide. “Dune” opened on Oct. 22, showing on HBO Max and in the cinema, and has earned $93 million in the U.S. and Canada; worldwide gross is $352.7 million. (Last I heard, “Eternals” didn’t open in China, because of the LGBTQIA angle, and they have a problem with director Chloe Zhao.)
Both have similar running times — about 2 ½ hours. But the reception has been different. “Dune” has been mostly lauded and sits at an IMDB rating of 8.2/10; “Eternals” has had mixed reviews and has 6.9/10. I saw them both last weekend. (I have avoided going to the cinema since COVID began, but I braved it — masked up — because I wanted to see “Eternals” so badly; I watched “Dune” at home.) The verdict? I loved “Eternals,” ranking it in my Top Five Marvel films; “Dune” was beautiful but bored me to tears; I was counting the minutes for it to end.
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Funny enough, I have gotten into several “debates” online with acquaintances about both films. One person effused about how Herbert’s vision had finally been realized with “Dune”; that Villeneuve’s film was a masterpiece. Then, when talking about “Eternals,” which I don’t think he has seen, he lumped it in with other “crash, boom, wallop CGI-laden cinema” that essentially rots the brain and poisons it to anything “artful.” This person isn’t the first to throw serious shade on “superhero” films. Martin Scorsese has also been very public in his criticism, and so has Ridley Scott, as of late. Since I vehemently disagree with him, and these “old men shouting at clouds” directors, I’m going to give you the lowdown on both efforts.
Most importantly, people need to get out of the mindset that a film about superheroes that employs CGI is somehow inferior cinema. I think this attitude harkens back to a time when “only children” read comic books, thus, they were denigrated by adults as being frivolous. The reality is that comic book legends like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby — he created “Eternals” — used the medium to tackle social issues, such as racism, militarism, xenophobia, jingoism and misogyny. Like sci fi, comic books, and subsequently films based on them, offer the creator a wider berth in dealing with philosophical issues, such as why we are here, what is the responsibility of protectors (Who watches the Watchers?), and even issues of identity.
“Dune” is not based on a comic book, but on the 1963 sci-fi novel, which is the first in a six-book series. It’s set in the year 10,191, and begins on the planet Caladan. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) is told that he will take over the mélange (spice) mining operations on the desert planet of Arrakis. He must move there with his concubine, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and his son, Paul (Timothee Chalamet). Previous rulers were the brutal Harkonnens, lead by Baron (Stellan Skarsgard), who are not happy about having their money-making enterprise being taken over by someone else. The people who live there on Arrakis, the Freman, have tried retaking control of their sacred land and resources without much luck. As a way of making the Atreides governance more acceptable to these people, the Bene Gesserit, a group of powerful “witches,” have sowed the idea that Paul is their prothesized savior. It’s high-brow “Avatar,” offering commentary on colonialism and zealotry.
Interestingly, “Eternals” deals with similar themes. Written by Zhao, Patrick Burleigh and Ryan and Kaz Firpo, the newest Marvel film focuses on a group of immortal human-like superheroes who were sent to Earth to protect humanity from the Deviants, which are more “monster like.” Unless Deviants are involved, the Eternals cannot intervene in human affairs. This is an important detail as the film takes place not long after “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), when Thanos made half of humanity disappear; and the Avengers brought them back.
Even though “Eternals” is CGI heavy and has a lot of exciting fight sequences, it, like all Marvel films, has characters wrestling with philosophical issues, primarily what are your responsibilities as a guardian and should you follow orders no matter what? The Eternals were sent to Earth by the Celestial named Arishem, and the leader of their group, Ajak (Salma Hayek), who is a healer, converses with him on a seemingly regular basis. Not to offer too many spoilers, but she is privy to details of their mission that she keeps from almost everyone. When these details are discovered, the group splinters. On the one side are those who have blind allegiance to the mission; and on the other are those who realize they can no longer follow. You can see Arishem as “god” or as a battle commander, but the result is the same: You have a being giving orders that you aren’t supposed to question; that you can’t question. But what happens when he/it has been duplicitous? What if by following orders, you are complicit in inexcusable actions?
The film also deals with ideas of leadership. Who gets to lead and why? For instance, Ajak appoints Sersi (Gemma Chan) as her successor, but many believe that this was a mistake. Instead, they think that Ikaris (Richard Madden) should take the reins. To me, this is interesting, because Sersei is not your typical superhero. She is empathetic, some think to a fault, and she’s indecisive and unsure of herself. She is “weak,” in many ways. Also, her superpower isn’t dynamic and showstopping; she has the ability to change one thing into another element: To wood, stone, water, and metal. Ikaris is your stereotypical confident, strong, muscular, white male who shoots lasers out of his eyes and flies. He’s Marvel’s answer to Superman, while Sersi belongs in “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” The question is: Is it better to rule with empathy or strength?
The other Eternals are equally fascinating. Angelina Jolie, probably the biggest name in the film, plays Thena, a masterful fighter who is dealing, essentially, with dementia. Her confusion hits her, unexpectedly, and sometimes, dangerously, during battles. This means the Eternals must fight her and the Deviants. In this role, Jolie balances strength with vulnerability. She broke my heart. Kumail Nanjiani plays Bollywood superstar, Kingo, who can shoot beams out of his hands. He and his valet, scene stealer Harish Patel, provide the film with some levity. Lia McHugh plays Sprite, the “youngest” of the Eternals. Even though she’s thousands of years old, she never ages. Her storyline was reminiscent of Claudia’s (Kirsten Dunst) in “Interview with a Vampire.” What sort of hell would it be to “grow up,” but always appear as a child? There is no chance at romance or marriage. (Remember, these are god-like beings.) Brian Tyree Henry is Phastos, the techie of the group. He has the challenge of wanting to help humanity advance — by giving them the plow; the atom bomb (yikes) — without really being able to do it as quickly as he would like. Phastos is Marvel’s first openly gay character, who is married to Ben (Haaz Sleiman) and has a cheeky son, Jack (Esai Daniel Cross). Deaf actress Lauren Ridloff plays Makkari, who is lightning fast. (She might be Marvel’s answer to the Flash). Ma Dong-seok/Don Lee is Gilgamesh, the character I loved to watch fight. He is like the One-Punch Man; fists of steel. He ends up being the protector of Thena. And finally, Barry Keoghan plays Druig, who can control everyone’s mind. He might have the biggest challenge of all the characters; he has the power to stop humanity from fighting and killing each other, but because of their “prime directive,” he can’t. Very frustrating.
One thing I love about Marvel films is that casting director Sarah Finn always gets it right. Not one misstep. Creating an ensemble that has great chemistry cannot be easy, and yet, she does it time and time again. Guardians of the Galaxy seemed hard to beat, but that was child’s play compared to this. That was just six core characters; this is 10. And yet, when they get together, these Eternals seem like a family; like they had truly known each other for centuries. I could have watched another hour of this film and not become bored. It had me in its tractor beam from beginning to end.
And then there was “Dune.” I enjoyed the first hour. The costumes were great. The cinematography, beautiful. Art direction, settings, gorgeous. In fact, at one point, I turned to my partner and said, “I would love to have a framed still of that for my wall.” There is no doubt that Villeneuve is a masterful creator of moving images. But this is also his problem. He is all about images, and not very much about story. I was with him for the first hour. During that time, he introduced characters and conflict. Everything looked lovely. But then I realized, after another hour, that nothing really had gone on. The characters are flat with next to no development or personality. (If I live to 1,000, I will never understand Chalamet’s appeal.) There were many, way too many, slow motion shots of a dragonfly looking helicopter. Villeneuve must have been proud of it, because you see it from the top, the back, the sides, over and over again. He also spends a lot of time on dream sequences. We get it, Chani (Zendaya) is the key to the future of this endeavor, but do we need to keep watching her, also in slo-mo so many times? It all became repetitive, and my interest waned. A lot.
I also find it curious that whereas “Eternals” pushes the diversity envelope: Giving us an openly gay character, examples of strong female leadership — including a Latina and an Anglo-Asian; a South Asian and South Korean superhero; and a deaf character played by a deaf actress. “Dune” gives us more macho males — Jason Momoa is flexing alongside Josh Brolin and Isaac — and a promised savior who is a white male. The women are either beautiful, objects of desire (Zendaya and Ferguson); or they are dangerous witchy hags (sorry Charlotte Rampling. I think you are great.) Furthermore, whereas “Eternals” has all body types represented, the heavier ones (Tyree and Patel) aren’t used as sight gags or cruel jokes. In “Dune,” the most ruthless, grotesque villain is played by Skarsgard in a fat suit. I don’t care if that’s how Herbert wrote the character, I think we can advance as far as representation goes. His character was created nearly 60 years ago.
Representation matters. I will keep saying this until my lungs burst. People of all ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, identities, and sizes need to see themselves as good guys; as heroes. But more importantly, the rest of the world needs to see them as heroes, too. I’ve read articles about viewers leaving “Eternals” and wanting to learn American Sign Language, because of Makkari. In interviews, Nanjiani has talked about how rare it was for him to come on set and be in a room full of South Asian actors. And how many Pakistani actors are cast as funny, charming, and handsome? I’ll wait. Trolls were so upset that there would be an openly gay superhero — who kisses his partner and has a child — in a Marvel film that they started posting negative reviews and giving bad ratings before the film had even opened to “tank it.” Any film that can have this kind of impact is more than “boom crash pow.” It makes a difference.
“Dune” will get a sequel and probably another one, if Villeneuve has his way. And “Eternals” will return. I’ll be there, watching whatever comes next, but there is only one sequel that I’m actually looking forward to, and (hint) it doesn’t have a white male savior at its center.