Wednesday, December 24, 2014

On the Fence: Dune

(1984) Written and directed by David Lynch; Based on the novel Dune, by Frank Herbert; Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Sean Young, José Ferrer, Linda Hunt, Jürgen Prochnow, Kenneth McMillan, Brad Dourif, Jack Nance and Sting;

Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ** ½

“There’s something wrong with that movie… I don’t really know what it is, and I’m not certain you could ‘fix’ it. It’s just so big, you know, and there’s so much there. A lot of it I like, but a lot of it I don’t like. It’s just got problems…” – David Lynch (excerpt from 1986 interview with Tim Hewitt, David Lynch Interviews, edited by Richard A. Barney)

As the year draws to a close and David Lynch Month winds down, it seems the ideal time to inaugurate a new semi-regular feature, “On the Fence.” Since this blog’s inception, I wanted to cover movies that I’m perennially conflicted about, and continue to fascinate and frustrate me over the years. One such film that has fostered such ambivalence is 1984’s Dune, which has cultivated a 30-year love-hate relationship.

Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction story followed a rocky path on its journey from book to movie, with a series of false starts. After a proposed film with David Lean as director fell through, Alejandro Jodorowsky attempted to bring Dune to the big screen in the mid-70s, assembling an impressive team of artists, filmmaking professionals and actors. When Jodorowsky failed to secure investors in the project, another attempt was made, led by producer Dino De Laurentiis and then-unknown director Ridley Scott. When this third effort failed, De Laurentiis managed to pick up the pieces and successfully mount a production, with relative newcomer David Lynch at the helm.

Lynch had graduated from the low budget Eraserhead, to the modestly budgeted The Elephant Man, and was suddenly thrust into a $40 million production with a team of 1,700 personnel. The finished product went on to garner predominantly negative reviews and lukewarm audience response. Lynch has been reluctant to talk about Dune and its shortcomings in detail, but unlike the preceding two films, he didn’t have final cut.  Although Lynch has provided little insight into the shortcomings of the film, it’s clear that Dune was antithetical to what he did best, crafting smaller, more personal projects, rather than big budget, grand scale productions.

Despite the film’s many faults, Dune has quite a bit going for it, engaging the eyes and ears (if not the heart). The massive ornate sets, such as the Emperor’s throne room, are impressive, creating a sense of time and place. Similarly, a host of intricately detailed matte shots provide scale, successfully transporting the viewer into another world.  Bob Ringwood’s inventive costume designs do a nice job establishing the characters, from the regal Atreides family to the treacherous Harkonnens. Carlo Rambaldi’s creature effects bring the leviathan sandworms of Arrakis and slug-like Guild Navigator to life. Brian Eno’s “Prophecy Theme,” provides an appropriately epic sweep to the story.

Unfortunately, not all of the visuals are quite up to snuff. A shot depicting the Guild Navigator floating through space resembles Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animation. While some of the model work is effective (the spice harvester), some look particularly shoddy (the ornithopter*). Possibly the biggest offense takes place during a key scene when our hero Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) mounts a huge sandworm. Instead of marveling at the immensity of the creature, we’re treated to a laughable shot of him riding the sandworm as if it were a surfboard.

* Anyone who’s read a description or seen an artist’s rendering of the insect-like ornithopter, as described in Herbert’s novel, could only be disappointed by the gold, blocky device with stubby immobile wings that ended up onscreen.

The story remains a mess, with such a complicated list of characters and lexicon that a cheat sheet was provided to audience members upon the film’s release. Even after repeated viewings, I still can’t keep everyone straight. Much of the dialogue is awkward, with its over-reliance on expository dialogue to explain the extensive background details. The studio execs must have hedged their bets by tacking on hokey narration by Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen), to further explain what was going on. As Paul continues his self-discovery and ascension to messiah status, the story becomes increasingly muddled, and one gets the distinct impression that key points in the source material were skipped over. Although I was fortunate enough to read the novel prior to watching Dune, I can only imagine how baffling all of this must have seemed to anyone who had no knowledge of the book or storyline.

At the time Dune was released, MacLachlan was criticized for being a bland lead, but that seems a trifle unfair, considering that most of the cast acted in a similarly wooden, humorless manner. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sting creates one of the most egregious displays of scenery chewing as Paul’s nemesis, Feyd Rautha (“I will kill him!”). Another questionable choice is the film’s depiction of the chief antagonist, Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan). As presented here, with his bloated body and boil-covered face, he’s arguably one of the most repulsive villains in cinematic history. Considering Lynch’s penchant for the grotesque, I suppose it was his intent to illustrate how decadent and corrupt the character was, but the effect is consistently off-putting and distracting.  

And yet, despite all of the aforementioned transgressions, I find it impossible to condemn this film. It’s an experience that’s mostly great to look at, but leaves me hollow; a mixed bag, rather than a complete failure. As I’ve mentioned before, I doubt that Jodorowsky’s proposed version of Dune would have fared much better than Lynch’s film in the end, collapsing under the weight of its ambitions. Maybe it’s impossible to produce a definitive version of Herbert’s story, and Lynch’s version was the best possible outcome at the time. There will always be a divide between our expectations and the finished product. Anything would likely pale in comparison to the story that’s played out in the cinema of our collective imaginations.


  1. The book's not bad, suffers a bit from over veneration but Herbert was a solid writer, with good observational skills. The film is, I'm sorry to lapse in this manner but it was: shit. The problems start with the fact that it completely ignores, the roles delineated in the novel. The Baron is relegated to clown, his sexual proclivities the obsessions of a deranged imbecile, and so, like a row of neatly placed dominoes the entirety of the narrative collapses in a tangled heap. WTF is up with Sting, I mean what does all that googly eyed stuff mean? Almost nothing, except the most wooden exposition, remains of the original narrative. It's a lesson in how not to adapt a novel in film, you might as well replaced the worms with rampant ac powered dildos and hired Bob Guccioni.

    1. To be honest, the novel was never one of my favorites, but it deserved a better adaptation. Although I agree with your points, I can't quite condemn the film. The things I actually like about it have nothing to do with narrative or characterizations. It's not good enough to recommend, either. I like to think of it as a splendid failure, rather than a piece of excrement.