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After festival kudos, director says ‘Dune”s biggest test is the box office

Montreal’s Denis Villeneuve needs success in order to green-light part two of epic sci-fi adaptation
Director Denis Villeneuve and actor Rebecca Ferguson pose for a photo as they promote the film “Dune” in Toronto during the Toronto International Film Festival, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. Villeneuve says he’s relieved to see many rave reviews for his sci-fi epic “Dune” on the festival circuit, but the real test will be how it performs in theatres next month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve says he’s relieved to see many rave reviews for his sci-fi epic “Dune” on the festival circuit, but the real test will be how it performs in theatres next month.

The highly anticipated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel had a world exclusive IMAX screening at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday after its recent premiere in Venice.

The sprawling interstellar story of warring families stars Timothée Chalamet as the protagonist antihero and Rebecca Ferguson as his mother.

Oscar Isaac plays his father, who oversees a dangerous desert planet containing the most valuable item in the universe.

As of Sunday afternoon, “Dune” had an 88 per cent approval rating from critics on movie review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes.

Villeneuve says he’s seen the positive reaction but doesn’t want to celebrate until he hears the box-office results when “Dune” hits Canadian and U.S. theatres on Oct. 22.

“I know that there are great reviews out there. It’s a relief in a way,” the Montreal writer-director, whose previous projects include “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049,” said in an interview Sunday.

“As much as I’m happy because of the way the movie has been received so far, I will say that the test will be to see how people are excited enough to go back to the theatre and live the big-screen experience — what cinema is meant to be.”

The theatrical turnout is doubly important to Villeneuve because he created the film specifically for the IMAX experience and wants audiences to see it on the big screen.

Plus, his vision for the story won’t be complete if it doesn’t do well at the box office.

As the director, co-producer and co-writer, Villeneuve split the story in two, with the current film serving as Part 1.

He made an agreement with Warner Bros. that part two won’t get made unless the first one does well when it hits theatres.

But theatrical turnout may be hampered by concerns over the COVID-19 Delta variant and Warner Bros.’ decision to put “Dune” on the HBO Max streaming service in the U.S. the same day it hits theatres.

Still, the story of “Dune” has legions of fans and the adaptation is one of the buzziest films of the year. The hype and anticipation intensified when the film’s release was delayed several times due to the pandemic.

Its debut on Canadian soil at the Cinesphere IMAX Theatre for TIFF was “very moving,” said Villeneuve, noting the festival “has been very good” to him over the years.

“I need to give a shout-out to all the people who are working at TIFF this year, because it’s a very tough year for a film festival and these guys are heroes right now, to try to keep TIFF alive in difficult times,” said Villeneuve, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth.

“They have all my gratitude and respect and I feel very privileged to have the chance to screen my movie at this year’s film festival.”

Villeneuve was especially thrilled with the apt location of the premiere: the Cinesphere IMAX Theatre at Ontario Place, which is shaped as a futuristic-looking dome suspended in water.

“It’s the most surreal film theatre on Earth and at the same time it’s one of the most beautiful ones, but the setting is quite sci-fi,” he said.

“It’s very impressive. A sphere in the middle of the water — how can it be better than that.”

The Toronto film festival runs through Sept. 18 with a mix of online and in-person screenings.

—Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

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