The crowds outside the historic Sale Grande theater were chanting the name of an American superstar in Italy like it was the Oscars. On Friday night, Warner Bros. premiered “Dune” at the 78th annual Venice Film Festival, with a star-studded movie premiere that brought to mind how Hollywood used to throw a party in the days before the pandemic.
But given the current realities of the world, the stars of “Dune” — including Javier Bardem, Zendaya, Stellan Skarsgaard, Oscar Isaac, Chen Chang, Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Josh Brolin — all donned masks inside the theater for the entirety of the film’s sprawling 155-minute runtime.
The “Timothée” that practically all of Italy could hear about was, of course, Timothée Chalamet who plays Paul Atreides, a duke in a futuristic sci-fi society born out of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel.
When the lights came back on, director Denis Villeneuve and Chalamet were enthusiastically greeted with a six-minute standing ovation, the longest at this year’s Venice Film Festival so far. (It surpassed the five-minute standing ovation of this year’s opening night movie, “Parallel Mothers,” by a narrow margin.)
Chalamet was the main event at “Dune,” as he spent about 15 minutes walking up and down the red carpet. The 25-year-old was an impish presence, darting back and forth between his co-stars, embracing Villeneuve and Ferguson, who plays his on-screen mother, the bad-ass Lady Jessica. He even chatted up Warner Bros. chairman Toby Emmerich outside the theater.
At one point, Chalamet — dressed in a sparkly black suit from French designer Haider Ackermann — cheekily turned his back on the cameras and faced the festival screens and appeared to be stealthily zipping up his fly. And then, without a moment’s hesitation, he scurried off to screaming fans at the other end of the red carpet to sign autographs and pose for quick selfies.
After the cast of “Dune” entered the theater, they were introduced one by one to a wave of applause. “Alright,” Villeneuve teased. “Let’s watch a movie.”
“Dune” — a big-budget spectacle that cost at least $160 million to make and lands somewhere between the galaxies of “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings” — is a huge gamble for Warner Bros. And it represents the kind of risk that Hollywood would take before the pandemic cratered box office receipts.
But late last year, Warner Bros. made the decision to release all of its 2021 movies in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously, given the health realities of the pandemic that made the prospect of cramming strangers together in an indoor dark space seem improbable.
At a press conference on Friday, Villeneuve encouraged audiences to go see his film — which is being given a day-and-date release in the U.S. by Warner Bros. — in movie theaters given the choice between a theatrical experience and watching at home on HBO Max.
“When you watch this movie on the big screen, it is a physical experience,” said the Quebecois director. “We tried to design it to be as immersive as possible.”
Variety critic Owen Gleiberman called the movie “eye-bogglingly vast adaptation” of the original Herbert novel — one of the densest and sometimes inscrutable science-fiction novels of all time.
And indeed, the movie dazzled audiences in the Sala Grande, where security paced the aisles every 20 minutes in a bid to curb piracy — efforts that were understandable but occasionally distracted from the all-engrossing experience of “Dune.”