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Dune (1984)

“Now remember, walk without rhythm, and we won't attract the worm.”

Dune is a film about conflict. Not the one on screen about various factions fighting for control of the spice rich desert planet of Arrakis. No, I mean the much more brutal battle that took place behind the scenes between the director and the studio.

The suits at Universal took one look at Frank Herbert's 1965 novel, saw a sci-fi epic set on a desert planet, and obviously thought they had the next Star Wars. So they hired the guy George Lucas had actually been looking at to make the next Star Wars. That guy was David Lynch, the up and coming young talent who had impressed everyone with Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, and he wanted to make a very David Lynch version of Dune rather than the straightforward adventure film the studio was expecting. These vastly incompatible goals, as well as numerous production difficulties, inevitably resulted in an absolute mess of a film that was a critical and commercial flop on its original release, although many now regard it as something of a cult classic. Lynch is not one of them. He had a terrible time making this film and has all but disowned it, refusing all offers to make a director's cut, and even having his name replaced with “Alan Smithee” on the extended versions the studio put together without him.

Dune pretty much fails at everything it tries to be. It fails to be a faithful adaptation of Herbert's novel, it fails to be an epic sci-fi adventure, and it even fails to be a David Lynch film. Much of that is due to the fact it came out at a time when studios were more focused on franchises and merchandise than creative freedom. If Lynch had been able to make it during the 1970s, the age of auteur excess, where a director could convince a major studio to fund a film like bloody Zardoz, he probably would've been able to make the trippy, three hour version of Dune he wanted. Sure, Alejandro Jodorowsky had failed to get his version made during that time, but his plans for Dune were insane even by 70s standards. Lynch's Dune is practically a Ron Howard movie compared to all that crazy shit Jodorowsky had planned.
But would a completely Lynchian version of Dune really have been any better than the one we ended up with? Frankly, I'm not confident it would. Lynch is an exceptionally skilled director and a master at creating memorable and nightmarish imagery, but I just do not think that he was ever the right person to make Dune into a movie. I get the sense that Lynch was drawn to the metaphysical aspects of Herbert's novel more than anything else, and was at his most comfortable when the story allowed him to explore the various ways spice consumption twisted and changed people, from Paul's emerging superpowers to the grotesque giant fetus navigators of the Spacing Guild.

But Dune isn't just a psychedelic sci-fi story about people getting really high on space cocaine. It's also a full blown epic with a huge scale and scope. To turn it into a movie you need someone who is comfortable and adept with big budget, large scale, special effects-driven filmmaking and that just isn't David Lynch. He's might've been able to conjure up some amazing visuals at times, but it's painfully obvious that he was out of his depth here and the whole film suffers as a result. The direction is often as flat and lifeless as half the cast are. For every great set and costume there are loads more that are cheap and ugly. The special effects and action scenes are all pretty dire. The two big battles are nothing more than a lot of people running around and firing lasers at each other while things explode around them. The film does itself no favours by replacing the Fremen's fighting skills with those stupid weirding moduels, forcing it to become even more reliant on special effects it just wasn't capable of doing well.

The script makes the big mistake of trying to do all of Dune in one film. You can do some of Dune in one film, you could probably even do all of Paul's story in one film, but you just cannot do ALL of Dune in one film. Lynch tries his best though, cramming almost every single one of the novel's many characters and subplots into the movie, which the studio then mandated be cut down to just over two hours. This version devotes so much time to the fall of House Atreides that there's barely any left for everything else. The last hour of the film has to blast through huge chucks of the novel and does so in such a haphazard way. Paul meets the Fremen, falls in love Chani, and begins leading the rebellion all within the space of ten minutes. Subplots like Thufir Hawat's capture and enslavement by the Baron are kept in, but then not given any resolution. Thufir just randomly appears, disappears and reappears in the background during the final scene.

The first hour is loaded with so much unnecessary explaining you'd think Chris Chibnall wrote the script. This is a film where the narrator will explain something right before a scene where the characters are explaining that same thing and then have whispering internal monologues where they think about the thing that was just explained. There are even two whole scenes of the bad guys outlining their entire plot to each other just in case you weren't sure what they're up to. This film just drowns you in exposition. Even the bloody poster contains more explaining than any poster ever should.
Many of the novel's best ideas and themes are lost in translation. One of most frustrating losses is the moral complexity of the protagonists. Herbert never painted the Atreides as being noble heroes. While they were better than their depraved enemies, they still saw Arrakis and its people as resources for them to exploit. The prophecies that make the Fremen see Paul as their messiah are all lies spread by the Bene Gesserit to make the locals more accepting of the superbeing they are trying to create. Paul takes advantage of how these people been manipulated to further his own goals, knowing full well it will eventually lead to fanaticism, tyranny, and genocide. This film does away with all that. Instead of being the Michael Corleone of this saga, Paul just becomes the Luke Skywalker, a standard chosen one hero with magical powers who defeats the evil empire and brings about an age of peace and love. He even makes it rain at the end.

Like Dennis Villeneuve's recent adaptation, this one is full to the brim with amazing actors (and Sting), but many are either phoning it in or greedily gobbling up all the scenery. Kyle MacLachlan is alright as the young and innocent Paul, but gets progressively more wooden as the film goes on. J├╝rgen Prochnow gives the film's best performance by far, bringing a lot of warmth and nobility to the doomed Duke Leto. At the other end of the spectrum is Kenneth McMillan's Baron Harkonnen, a disgustingly over the top creation that doubles down on the unfortunate homophobia of the novel. Sting is just utterly vacant as Feyd and barely has anything to do besides strut around in his winged undies and have a lame fight with Paul in the end.

The novel's female characters are the worst served with Chani and Jessica reduced to just being the love interest and the concerned mom who tags along with her son on his adventure. Irulan is just a glorified extra, silently standing next to her father, her prominent role as narrator no doubt perplexing to anyone unfamiliar with the novel. Alicia Witt, though, does make for a suitable creepy Alia and gets one of the film's most arresting images. Mercifully, most of Linda Hunt's terrible scenery chewing was left on the cutting room floor.
Notes and Quotes

--This was Kyle MacLachlan's very first screen role. He would later reunite with Lynch for the much more successful Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.

--Toto and Brian Eno do provide a pretty great score.

--I really want to know what the story is with the Atreides' pug that just keeps randomly appearing throughout the film.
--Despite doing the prologue and the narration, Irulan only speaks one word in the entire film.

--If you are wondering why there are often two Fremen kids standing around in some scenes, including at the end where one of them is also holding the pug, that's because the original cut included a subplot from the book about Paul being forced to fight and kill a Fremen warrior and then taking in that man's family. These scenes are included in most of the extended versions.

Duke Leto: “I'll miss the sea, but a person needs new experiences. They jar something deep inside, allowing him to grow. Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens.”

Paul: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.”

Paul: “Gurney, we had practice all this morning. I'm not in the mood.”
Gurney: “Not in the mood? Mood's a thing for cattle and loveplay, not fighting!”

Piter: “As you instructed me, I have enlightened your nephews concerning my plan...”
Baron Harkonnen: “MY plan!”
Piter: “...the plan...to crush the Atreides.”

One and a half out of four grotesque giant fetus navigators.

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig

5 comments:

  1. It's been a long time since I saw this awful movie, but you brought it back for me, Mark. It was one of those situations where even knowing the book didn't help because the movie was just so bad.

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  2. I watched a whole quarter of an hour of Children of Dune earlier in the week which was so awful I gave up on it. I was thinking perhaps I should watch this film again, but thankfully your review has reminded me why that wouldn’t be a good idea… going back to the book instead.

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  3. I watched both miniseries years ago and tried rewatching them again recently, but just couldn't get past how bland and cheap they are, especially Children of Dune.

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  4. I've never watched either series but do remember watching this movie when it came out. But I have to disagree with Billie slightly here...you might be more disappointed by the movie if you'd read the book, but at least you were able to follow what was going on. Cautiously optimistic about the film, although it's reunited the whole "white saviour" debate about Dune. I've always felt that was a bit of a red herring, since Paul doesn't so much save the Fremen as use them, much like T.E. Lawrence.

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  5. Not true Billie Doux -- I saw the movie without any premise that it was based on the book and found it to be boring (though I was young and thought Flash Gordon was prime cinematography). A "D-", not quite an "F", but mostly just a drag.

    Years later I would read the book, and then going back to the 1984 footage, found that my first attempt, I had missed out on most of the movie; it was even more bloated than I had initially experienced. 1.5/4 is fairly generous.

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