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Photo illustration featuring a montage of the main characters from the Movie DUNE on a dark background and a glowing planet Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: Warner Bros. Pictures

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Why Dune deserves to win the Best Picture Oscar

It’s what the movies need: desert power

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Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

The 2022 Oscars ceremony is coming up on March 27, and 10 new movies are up for the Best Picture title: Belfast, CODA, Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Dune, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, and West Side Story. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and any of them might end up winning big. In the lead-up to the Oscars, we’re making a case for why each of them might deserve to take the big prize.


Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve.


Adapting the first half of Frank Herbert’s landmark novel, Villeneuve’s Dune is about the fall of the powerful House Atreides, an aristocratic family sent to the desert planet of Arrakis by a powerful empire to serve as proxy rulers. Dune follows the young Paul Atreides on his journey to a new land, where his family is betrayed and forced into exile. And the whole time, it’s suggested that Paul might be destined for something more, and that deep in the desert, he might find the power he needs to avenge his family and claim his heritage.


Denis Villeneuve is quickly becoming one of the foremost purveyors of prestigious genre cinema, pulling off wildly ambitious projects like a Blade Runner sequel with aplomb. Villeneuve’s films are craft-forward displays of awe-inspiring yet understated spectacle, the sort of movies that make people believe in big screens and bigger sound. It would be presumptuous to say that he’s trying to win awards with his science fiction projects, but not to say that his sci-fi films have a better shot at winning than most.


Ambition, mostly. Dune is a seminal work that has influenced countless sci-fi works over decades. It’s understandable that David Lynch’s 1984 film version couldn’t properly convey the book’s monumental stature: Herbert’s novel is sprawling, dense, and not amenable to fitting into a single film, which explains Villeneuve’s decision to break it in two. But Dune is also a reminder of how Villeneuve and his collaborators like cinematographer Greig Fraser are powerful visual storytellers, relying on imagery as much as dialogue or action to bring viewers into their carefully constructed worlds.


We’re only getting half a story here. Dune does have a complete-feeling arc chronicling the fall of House Atreides, but as a faithful adaptation of a book with plenty of other stuff to get to in the back half, it isn’t terribly clear what it’s striving for. Those who want their Oscar picks to achieve some kind of clear relevance might also find Dune lacking: It’s a story about empires and the violence that sustains them, the subversive power of faith, and lots of other weighty ideas that don’t entirely land without the story’s full scope. What is clear from this half are the novel’s weak points, most notably its dense mythology and clumsy use of Middle Eastern and Islamic aesthetics to color its science fiction future.


JASON MOMOA as Duncan Idaho in the movie DUNE standing in an attack position with two sticks Photo: Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures

Jason Momoa’s performance as Duncan Idaho. Dune is a pretty severe and serious sci-fi story, but Momoa’s turn as Idaho, Paul Atreides’ swordmaster and mentor, is a breath of fresh and breezy air. While not quite comic relief — he’s funny, but not that funny — Idaho is a guy who’s good at what he does and generally has a good time doing it. Hopefully, you’re having just as good a time watching Dune.


Dune is currently available to stream on HBO Max, as well as to rent and purchase on home video and digital on-demand. For the other nominees, check out our streaming guide to every 2022 Oscar nominee.

The rest of the series:

Why Don’t Look Up deserves to win Best Picture
Why The Power of the Dog deserves to win Best Picture
Why West Side Story deserves to win Best Picture
Why Belfast deserves to win Best Picture
Why Nightmare Alley deserves to win Best Picture
Why King Richard deserves to win Best Picture
Why Licorice Pizza deserves to win Best Picture
Why CODA deserves to win Best Picture
Why Drive My Car deserves to win Best Picture