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DUNE (David Lynch, c.137 min, color, 1984)

What's Happening: On desert planet, psychic youth leads rebellion against evil dynasty

Famous For: Ambitious attempt to film Frank Herbert's science fiction epic


Dune is the only Frank Herbert book that I've read, but I've read it twice, closely.  It is the most popular science fiction novel in history with a reported 20 million copies sold from 1965-2015 (number two, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, is far behind with seven million).


This film version was produced by Dino De Laurentiis (King Kong, Flash Gordon) and his daughter Raffaella.  It failed in the 80s but it's actually a great film - if you know what to look for.

Though fans have been arguing since 1965 over what the book is "about," there is certainly a feel, an aura to the book that I think the film captures well.  It's a mystical Holy Land vibe, a mixed Coptic Christian, Islamic, and ancient Egyptian vibe with touches of Hebrew ("Kwisatz Haderach") or Zen (with Paul's quoted words of wisdom).


Yet it's as much mechanized as religious: even the mystical Fremen utilize several specific machines.


In the book there is a sense of balance, like opposites weighed in a scale, and sometimes paradox when the opposites mix.  Arrakis is a paradoxical place where physical deprivation and spiritual promise depend upon each other.  Things seem to come in pairs.  Triples, or multiples, are somehow dangerous.

As the book emphasizes protocol, prudence, planning, and ritual, the film positions many characters stiffly or upright on screen.  Yet instead of cold or empty, everything feels warm and dreamlike.  The colors are olive and wood, punctuated by blocks of black or spots of gold.  It's like a weird prophetic dream, not quite the nightmares for which Lynch is best known (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet).


The book is filled with fast conversations, plots within plots, and enough intrigue that it could almost be classified as an espionage novel alongside a science fiction and fantasy one.  The film is more about images and brief intense illustrative scenes.


If you know the book, you can follow the story with no problem.  Otherwise… it's extremely difficult to catch important information, so instead you'll get the feel and aura rather than the story.


I liked how the movie opens with the Emperor and the Guild uniting against the Houses, giving a sense of the tripartite balance of civilization which is doomed to collapse.  In the book, we don't meet the emperor until the conclusion.


I also liked the squidlike mutation of the Guild Steersman a la Lynch and Carlo Rambaldi.  The book suggests but doesn't describe the Steersman mutations.  It's a startling and memorable way to grab our attention after the opening narration.

Unfortunately, the later scene with the Steersman warping space is awkward, with ugly special effects.


This is perhaps the biggest flaw in the film: several superimposition and blue screen effects - most notably the giant sandworm sequences at the conclusion - are too obvious on screen.  In pre-Star Wars days, one could forgive inferior effects.  Watching a big-budget film from the mid 1980s, it's very hard to do so.


Another notable flaw is the cartoony behavior and appearance of the Harkonnens.  It's overdone, especially since the rest of the film is so serious.  The heart plugs are gross.  (I did like the insect drink and the milk cat, though.)



You can sense that Lynch is not an action director.  Both duels could have been more dynamic.  Piter's death could have been highlighted (choking, falling).


The final 30 minutes would have been much more rewarding if the audience had more sense of trial and danger beforehand.  In the book, we see more of how the Harkonnens oppress the people (not to mention the planet) of Arrakis, so we are overjoyed when they are overthrown.  In the movie we hear about the oppression but see little.


Likewise, it takes time and tribulation for Paul and Jessica to truly join the Fremen.  In the movie it takes all of five minutes.  Paul had to observe several Fremen riding worms and practice riding himself, before finally achieving his triumph.  It's still good in the movie when he rides it, but there's not enough time beforehand for us to realize what's at stake.


In a way, these criticisms contain praise: I wish the movie were longer.  I would have loved another hour at least.

Luckily, the general set, costume, and production design is excellent.  In the book, Stillsuits are described as brighter and hooded.  But in the film, the hoods are wisely eliminated and the suits look dark and tough.


Other production choices are just as wise.  Mesopotamian designs meld with Colonial European designs on Caladan or Kaitain.  It's beautiful if a bit showy.  But on Giedi Prime, exteriors resemble air conditioner filters, and interiors resemble Communist housing projects from the 1940s.  It's oppressive, making Harkonnen grins seem extra sinister.


The electromagnetic energy that accompanies the worms was another nice touch; it suggests that the worms are not simply random monsters but a powerful force of nature.


The "weirding modules" were unnecessary, though I like the sense that psychic powers can be augmented by mechanical means.  The book itself tries hard to balance mysticism with science.


For film purposes, it made sense to bring the sandworms into the climax like giant living tanks.  It also made sense to make Rabban the Baron's nephew with Feyd his paramour.  And the film makes one tiny improvement on the book (if you ask me): there is no suggestion that Jessica might be the Baron's daughter.

All the actors are very serious.  Kyle MacLachlan (most famous for Lynch's Twin Peaks) brims with youthful eagerness but exhibits wise hesitation.  Francesca Annis (Krull) appears soft and elfin but can sound frightening when using the Voice.  Dean Stockwell in just his few scenes is able to convey Dr. Yueh's moral complexity.  Everyone else is also great, though you'll wish they had more time on screen (especially Patrick Stewart and Sting).


The Paul Atreides character is mostly idealized, but you can briefly sense his dark side as he prompts the Fremen toward holy war.  We still love Paul - as we do in the novel - but we can sense that great power will glut even the greatest of men.


A final epic touch is the music, especially the four-note main theme.  Toto would seem an unlikely candidate for the score, but Hydra (1979) had several prog tracks, including one inspired by THX 1138.


My usual guidebooks are unimpressed, with John Stanley and Michael J. Weldon calling it confusing, and the Phantom dismissing it with two-and-a-half stars.  Siskel and Ebert famously lambasted it.


Perhaps it's simply impossible to fit the 800-page Dune novel into a two-hour film.  There won't be enough of the plot, enough of the characters, enough ritual and intrigue to satisfy anyone completely.  If you haven't read the book, you may have no idea what's happening for the final 30 minutes.


Lynch probably sensed the disjointedness when he complained he wasn't allowed to make final cuts.  Yet when the film was expanded (with 50 cut minutes restored) and presented on TV in two parts in 1989, Lynch disowned it entirely.  He later referred to the project as his "one big failure" and "a nightmare" to make.

But decades after its initial critical, popular, and financial failure, Lynch's Dune has found many admirers.  You can count me among them.  Influences include the 1930s Flash Gordon serials and the 1980 Flash Gordon also produced by De Laurentiis.


Whether or not you see Lynch's 1984 Dune, I highly recommend Jodorowsky's Dune (2013), the story of Alejandro Jodorowsky's noble failed attempt to adapt the film in the mid 1970s.


Action: 7.  Gore: 6.  Sex: 5.  Quality: 7.  Camp: 1.

Don't miss: Lynch is the miner who asks "ordered by whom?"

Notable line: "Never one drop of rain on Arrakis…"


Review post date January 6, 2020

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