At the 94th Academy Awards, Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s challenging sci-fi masterpiece, won six Oscars, the most out of any film in the ceremony. Since its premiere last October, Dune has received near-universal acclaim from critics and audiences, who praised it as one of the best sci-fi epics of the new millennium, up there with Goerge Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
Villeneuve is no stranger to daring, thought-provoking, critically acclaimed films. 2016 saw the release of Arrival, one of the most challenging, philosophical, and beautiful sci-fi pieces in recent memory. The following year, Blade Runner 2049, his neo-noir follow-up to the 1982 classic Blade Runner, opened to universal critical praise but commercial disappointment, grossing only $259 million against a production budget of between $150 and $185 million. While a narratively accomplished and technically proficient director, many questioned Villeneuve’s commercial viability; however, Dune grossed $400 million worldwide despite a day-and-date release in HBO Max and an ongoing pandemic. Mixing commercial and critical success, Dune finally put to rest any questions about Villeneuve’s standing as one of the greatest directors in the business.
Denis Villeneuve is the perfect example of an auteur filmmaker who consistently delivers challenging and introspective pieces that are not always to the audience’s tastes. The commercial popularity of his films isn’t necessarily a reflection of their quality or cinematic significance, but they do provide an interesting insight into audiences’ tastes and behaviors.
In the last few years, audiences have seen a rise in auteur-driven blockbusters. Based on popular and in-demand IPs, these films bear the unmistakable mark of their helmers, for better and worse. At best, they represent the next step in blockbuster execution; they are distinct, innovative, fresh, visually striking, and thematically resonant. They don’t settle for the easy message and aren’t afraid to mix genres, and while not always awards players, they are almost always critical darlings. At worst, they come across as disingenuous and pretentious, unnecessarily complicated pieces that get lost in their self-importance, vanity projects with filmmakers sunk in a too-big-to-fail ideology reinforced by an industry that won’t hesitate to tear them down at the faintest sign of weakness. For every Dune, there’s a The Matrix Resurrections.
It’s intriguing to look at and compare these two films since they are both from Warner Bros. and based on notoriously demanding and not particularly viewer-friendly properties. However, Dune compromises, providing enough visual spectacle for sci-fi aficionados without neglecting its source material’s famously hefty themes. In sacrificing some aspects of the novel’s intentionally demanding content, Dune transforms into a cinematic triumph, layered while remaining sufficiently accessible for audiences to digest.
The Matrix Resurrections goes the other way, openly challenging and even antagonizing its eager audience. The film mocks its very existence, and while it maintains the care and love for its characters, it can’t help but feel like a spit on the face of the audience it purports to entertain. It’s a ballsy and even admirable move by writer/director Lana Wachowski, especially after years of having Warner Bros. threatening to continue the franchise without her or her sister’s involvement; alas, the move backfired. Resurrections was a box-office bomb, grossing only $156.6 million against a production budget of $190 million. Reviews were mixed, with many praising Wachowski’s distinct voice and unapologetic earnestness and others claiming the film was unnecessarily unsympathetic to its loyal audience.
Resurrections is unabashedly Wachowski. The filmmaker’s trademark touch is all over the film, contributing to its divisiveness. Indeed, Wachowski delivers a film that berates itself and, by extension, the audience’s interest in it. Resurrections openly criticizes the current cinematic culture, shaming the cult of the franchise and asking the same of its audience while still encouraging sentimentality through its blatant love towards Neo and Trinity. The result is an erratic and somewhat jarring piece that tries to have its cake and eat it too.
Wachowski is hardly the only director to let ambition take over. Sci-fi maestro Christopher Nolan experienced something similar with Tenet, a $200 million exercise in excess. Tenet is Nolan at his Nolan-est; everything is bigger, louder, faster, and less approachable. The director has always been daring with his themes and ideas, but Tenet finds him at his most pretentious and least sympathetic, crafting a film that loses itself in a jumble of bold but underdeveloped ideas. Nolan’s reach has always exceeded his grasp, but Tenet shows a remarkable lack of self-awareness from a director many considered too big to fail.
Like Resurrections, reviews for Tenet were mixed and indecisive. Some praised Nolan’s craft and staunch commitment to cerebral spectacle, while others questioned whether the director even knew what he was trying to say with the movie. The mixed critical reception, coupled with Nolan’s insistence on a theater-exclusive release at the height of the pandemic, meant that Tenet was a box office disappointment, grossing $363.3 million against a production budget of $200 million. The film’s box office may have influenced Warner’s decision to release its entire slate of 2021 films day-and-date on HBO Max, which in turn led Nolan to part ways with the studio after more than 20 years, although that’s a different story entirely.
Like Nolan, many auteurs struggle to reach a middle point between their distinctive vision and mainstream audiences’ tastes. Following his commercial success with Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky received the green light and $160 million to bring to life his ambitious biblical epic, Noah. The film polarized audiences, although it received mainly positive reviews from critics. His follow-up — the unhinged and uncompromising mother! — was even more divisive, cementing him as one of cinema’s greatest provocateurs.
Horror auteurs like Ari Aster and Robert Eggers often deliver deeply alienating films that provoke a passionate response from their audiences, although hardly ever positive. Film lovers adore them, but mainstream audiences openly reject their intensity and deliberate provocativeness. Eggers’ most recent effort, The Northman, carried a $70 million production tag but grossed only $64 million at the worldwide box office. And while there are many reasons for the film’s financial disappointment — among them the lack of a genuine bankable star in the leading role, Eggers’ esoteric reputation certainly didn’t help.
And yet, The Northman is as epic a film as possible, a genuinely gripping experience that’s as brutal as it is moving; it’s also his most “commercial” film to date, and it still couldn’t break through commercially. Eggers won’t be joining a major franchise any time soon — mind you, he shouldn’t do it –, but what does The Northman‘s box office disappointment mean for his future directorial efforts? His Nosferatu film seems stuck in development hell, and after The Witch, The Lighthouse, and The Northman, will any studio be willing to back his brand of ambitious art house productions?
Auteurs have found a new home in the superhero genre. Traces of this unlikely marriage go back to Sam Raimi’s game-changing Spider-Man trilogy and Nolan’s noir and hyper-realistic take on the Dark Knight. Recently, Marvel and DC have shown particular interest in featuring respected directors in their respective cinematic universes. Matt Reeves’ The Batman successfully revitalized the Caped Crusader following the bitter aftertaste of Batman v Superman and Justice League. The film abandons any trace of absurd heroic shenanigans in favor of a Fincher-esque thriller that works because it finally showcases Batman as the World’s Greatest Detective. Balancing hefty themes without ever going overboard with its examination, The Batman reframes the Bat as a symbol of hope, away from the increasingly dark road on which Nolan and Zack Snyder took him.
Marvel’s incursions on auteur territory have been less successful. Chloé Zhao’s Eternals struggled to balance the director’s naturalistic and humanistic approach with the MCU’s worldbuilding factory, delivering an uneven film that never quite fulfills the promises it makes. Similarly, Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness features everything fans expect from a Raimi production — indeed, the director’s style becomes even more obvious against the MCU’s standardized formula, even at its most restrained — but failed to create a logical progression between its storytelling and Marvel’s ever-changing canon.
And then there’s James Gunn. It might be generous to call him an auteur, but the director’s oeuvre lives up to the term. Gunn found great critical and commercial success with the Guardians of the Galaxy at Marvel, taking what used to be a B-list property and turning it into one of the MCU’s pillars and the foundation of its cosmic corner. His work at DC — unrestrained and unapologetic, bolstered by the R rating Marvel will never give him — received universal critical acclaim. Indeed, The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker are the most refreshingly subversive entries in the DCEU and two of the best comic book adaptations of all time. Yet, audiences seem divided about his bolder side; The Suicide Squad was a box office disappointment, particularly domestically. Peacemaker will return for a second season, but HBO Max’s infamously secretive numbers make it hard to declare it a success.
With the superhero genre dominating every corner of the pop culture landscape and franchises becoming the order of the day, is this the new path for big-budget auteur filmmaking? Can we expect Quentin Tarantino’s long-rumored Star Trek film sooner rather than later? Will Terry Gilliam travel to a galaxy far, far away or will Michael Haneke turn the Fantastic Four into a jarring family drama? Perish the thought. It’s truly frightening to think the movie business is heading in that direction. After all, if The Northman didn’t even recoup its budget while Spider-Man: No Way Home grossed almost $2 billion, what will a studio executive support?
There is nothing wrong with commercial films. They provide much-needed escapism in a world where bleak news reports are the order of the day. But when the commercial landscape shifts to reward only the safest and most basic storytelling, is there any room for anything that breaks the mold? There should be. There will always be audiences invested in something as brutal as The Northman; the question is, should a film with such a niche target call for a $70 million budget? It’s not a question of “who is this film for?” because art shouldn’t have to justify its existence; the film industry is still largely an entertainment business and denying that is a fool’s errand.
Not all films can be Dune; indeed, it is the exception, not the rule. But the industry needs to support auteur’s most ambitious efforts because those are what make them auteurs. In return, they need to meet their audience halfway, especially if they want a $70 million budget to bring their vision to life. Everything Everywhere All at Once is the perfect example of an ambitious and layered film that’s undeniably entertaining while remaining rich and affecting, managing to break through to mainstream audiences. Compromise is crucial for a healthy existence; as it turns out, it might also be the key to commercially successful auteur filmmaking. What a concept.
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