In retrospect, it was a Herculean task. Even visionary filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowski believed the only way the movie version would conceivably work was as an ambitious 10 hour mega-epic. His eventual treatment ran nearly 14. Directors as diverse as Charles Jarrott and Ridley Scott were considered (and hired) for the project, yet each eventually turned away, recognizing the almost impossible struggle (and expectations) ahead. Desperate to maintain his well won rights, producer Dino de Laurentiis followed his daughter Raffaella’s advice and hired Elephant Man upstart David Lynch to take the reigns. Talk about taking a risk…
Six months later and the Eraserhead auteur delivered a semi-coherent script which packed on the voiceover narrative, internal monologues, secret thoughts, and arcane design conceits. For 1984, it was heady, risky stuff. Now, in a far less Star Wars saturated landscape, Dune can be viewed as what it is: a brilliant mistake, misguided from the start but still aesthetically satisfying. While it takes liberties with Frank Herbert’s famed political/social/religious allegory, it introduces elements and ideas within said framework that expand on the Messianic material being forwarded. The result is pure Lynch, like it or not.
As part of a plot to undermine the popularity of Duke Leto and destroy the entire House Atreides, known Emperor of the Universe, Shaddam Corrino IV conspires with the Guild Navigators (a mutant race that can fold space to aid interstellar travel), the evil despotic Harkonnen clan (including their diseases leader, the perverted Baron), and the Bene Gesserit mothers (telepathic females who have amazing, “weirding” powers) to send the clueless clan to Arrakis, the desert planet also called Dune.
There, they will be placed in charge of spice manufacturing (the most important substance in the cosmos) and, with the help of some saboteurs and spies, murdered. Somehow, the Duke’s son Paul is spared, sent secretly into exile with his mother Jessica. There, they meet up with the indigenous Freman. For the tribe, the boy represents the fulfilling of a prophecy, the coming of Muad’Dib, the leader who will help them rise up and defeat the invading hordes. But Paul may also be the ‘Kwisatz Haderach’, a super being sent by God who the Gesserits believe will free the universe.
With its desire to warp minds instead of instill exciting and its soap opera-ish narrative overload, Dune often looks like the least effective artifact in Lynch’s otherwise Olympian career. When placed alongside such masterpieces as Mulholland Dr. , Blue Velvet, and Lost Highway, it does seem like a mild mainstream letdown. But if you look deeper, if you take the movie in as a whole an not a real attempt to tell Herbert’s heavy-handed tale, you will come away with a greater appreciation of the imagination, and outright gall, it took to bring such a vision to life (especially on the brand new detail delivering Blu-ray release from Universal).
Lynch is first and foremost a painter and sculpture, far more interested in how things ‘look’ vs. how they play out emotionally or logistically. Dune therefore becomes a portfolio of potentials and possibilities, from the Art Deco meets Rococo look of the Atreides household to the festering boils oozing from Baron Harkonnen’s fleshy face. We get all kinds of interesting oddball touches – the cube-encased insect that is smashed and sipped as a beverage, the cat/mouse machine used to torture information out of individuals. From the sphincter-sick mouths of the Guild Navigators to the oversized eyebrows and red stained lips of the human computer Mentat, Lynch’s imprint is all over this work.
The director also digs some interesting performances out of some unusual places. Newcomer Kyle McLaughlin (who has since gone on to become something akin to the filmmaker’s deadpan DeNiro) is excellent as Paul, regal without being fop, strong without giving away the entire narrative purpose. He is destined to be a deity and all throughout the performance we ‘sense’ it, not ‘see’ it. On the opposite end are outright scenery chewers like Kevin McMillan and Jose Ferrer. Both are bad guys (the Baron and the Emperor, respectively) and both spit and rant with the best of them. In the middle are performers like Brad Dourif and Everett McGill. The former puts his amazingly arc mark all over the role of Harkonnen house advisor Piter De Vries. The latter essays a Freman leader as kind of a laidback commune boss. As with many of his movies, Lynch’s casting can be far more intriguing than the characters said actors end up playing.
What will really bother some devotees of the dogfight and eye-candy subsection of the sci-fi genre is Lynch’s love of words. This is a talky, talky, talky, film, verbose in both outward and implied dialogue. Almost every character gets externalized internal thoughts, comments and asides heard only by the audience and meant to help them understand the subtext involved within a specific scene. They can be off-putting at first, and when taken together with a narration meant to further streamline things, it seems like the movie is explaining itself to you, not visualizing the events at hand. Still, Lynch believes in the device and sticks with it to a fault. By the time we get to the finale, we’ve grown to accept the practice. Taken in total with everything else he has to offer, Dune does deliver – it’s just that, sometimes, what it’s bringing isn’t necessarily what fans of the saga or the style want.
The Blu-ray release will face some of the same criticism. The image looks good, but has not been polished or cleaned up for high definition transference. There are still age spots and grain visible, especially in the now archaic greenscreen shots. Hey, Universal – if Paramount could make the same false frontage look real in The African Queen, how about putting up a few bucks to post-production out the F/X halos here? Similarly, the bonus features are very limited. Raffealla shows up to refute rumors of a four-hour director’s cut (Lynch has also denied such tampering-for-TV adaptations) and offers 20 minutes or so of deleted scenes. We then get four featurettes that delve into the design aspects of the film. That’s it. While no one expects Lynch to step up and explain himself via a commentary track, Dune has always seemed to beg for more added context. Sadly, what is offered here is fine, if lacking in insight.
Still, Dune can be viewed as part of the filmmaker’s maturation process. After Eraserhead‘s marathon creation and Elephant Man‘s easy acceptance, Lynch needed to struggle a little. He needed to know that movies like this and Return of the Jedi (which George Lucas actually wanted him to direct, go figure) were not his true calling. Instead, he needed to apply his ample artistic skills to cinematic experiments so wild at heart that they beg the inland empire seething in his sane/psychotic brain. If you need your speculative fiction with more action than attitude, if you believe that the future is more fun when it provokes awe rather than thoughts, then avoid Dune at all costs. It will barely register with the Buck Rodger brigade. Those who give it a chance, however, will be rewarded with something surreal and strangely evocative – two terms that easily describe the man who finally made it.