The other night I Facebooked and Tweeted: If you're channel switching on the free to air my Perthian FBB's, David Lynch's DUNE (1984) is on 9. "Muad'Dib!” Among the replies the following morning were some quotes:
“For he IS the Kwisatz Haderach!”
“The spice must flow.”
“His name is a killing word.”
“Walk widdout riddum, It won't attract the worm.”
“I see the truth of it...”
“For once I regret my lack of an actual TV”
“Soooo much unnecessary voice over”
If you saw DUNE at the right time, somewhere around its release, or perhaps at the right time in your development as a fangirl, geekboy whatever, there is some chance you love this movie. Obviously, my filmhead friends and I have a great affection for it, but in many ways, it’s not an easy movie to love.
It’s probably best enjoyed by people who have read the Frank Herbert novel on which it is based. If you don’t know the book before you see the movie and if the movie itself doesn’t turn you off with its weird pacing and bizarre choices, then surely you will be driven to the source material in order to have the faintest idea what is going on.
According to the Wikipedia this is a précis of what is going on:
Dune is a 1965 science fiction novel by Frank Herbert, Set in the far future amidst a feudal interstellar society in which noble houses, in control of individual planets, owe allegiance to the imperial House Corrino, Dune tells the story of young Paul Atreides, the heir apparent to Duke Leto Atreides as his family accepts control of the desert planet Arrakis, the only source of the "spice" melange. Melange is the most important and valuable substance in the universe, increasing Arrakis's value as a fief. The story explores the multi-layered interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion, as the forces of the empire confront each other in a struggle for the control of Arrakis and its "spice".
If you never read the novel, it’s a great work of science fiction. Television’s GAME OF THRONES, would appear to take many storytelling cues from the Dune series, if you need some cultural bearings. The first DUNE novel in particular is a rich, densely-written and detailed story. The 1984 movie captures almost none of this.
The end result is not a David Lynch film per se. It is a compromise between Lynch’s surrealism and the expensive blockbuster that producers Dino De Laurentiis and Rafaella De Laurentiis wanted. It was poorly reviewed at the time and although its reputation has gained a little since its release, more than 25 years later it is still a deeply flawed movie.
The biggest problem is the screenplay. The first Dune novel is a lengthy work. The story would have benefited from being sliced into two or possibly even three parts. Unless you’ve read the book, there is little chance you will work out who is doing what to whom and why. When the Atreides family travel to Arrakis in their giant fleet of ships, they park them in a much larger, cylindrical vessel which they enter through a vast "steam-punk" slot. Those uninitiated into DUNE world are then left to puzzle an odd sequence where a manatee-like creature apparently sucks in and craps out pulses of animated light as it floats in a plasmic void surrounded by motes of light suspended in some kind of cosmic fluid. The cylinder ship then fades into existence in orbit around Arrakis. Turns out the manatee is a navigator from the Space Guild. The ingestion and evacuation of light pulses represents the manipulation of Tme and Space. The manatee eat-craps enough Space Time to shift an entire fleet of ships half way across the galaxy! And I thought Allied Pickfords did a good job when they moved the contents of our entire house in three hours.
This is only one of a dozen moments entertaining in terms of eye-catching production design or high camp weirdness, but they do not add up to a coherent whole into which one may immerse onself. There’s a great scene where a Space Guild manatee is rolled through the palace of the Emperor (Jose Ferrer) in a structure that is somewhere between an old-fashioned museum display case and a Pullman sleeper car from the 1950s. Conversation with the manatee is effected through a flunky who looks like Rob Halford in the early stages of a Borg assimilation. Rob Halford has a flunky of his own, whose job it is to lug about what looks like a giant 1930s style microphone but is in fact Halford’s translator device. It’s 20,000 years in our future, and no one has thought to download a universal translation app onto their Samsung Galaxy Melange? Halford, the manatee and the Emperor have a chat about how they’re gonna destroy House Atreides real good. If you read the book, you’ll know it’s because Duke Leto (Jurgen Prochnow) is popular and is a threat to the Emperor. The Space Guild can see into the future and know that his son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) will affect the flow of the all-important Spice. They’re probably not all that jazzed with his stint as a cast member of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, either. If you haven’t read the book, it’s a WTF scene where Eurotrash extras have seemingly gathered in a ballroom, awaiting the arrival of Falco.
The acting is rather variable. Lynch has his regulars amongst the huge cast. Everett McGill is great as Stilgar the hard-fighting leader of the Fremen. Jack Nance is some kind of flunky to Baron Harkonnen. He never looks quite like he knows why he is there, which is usually the point with a Nance character in a Lynch film. Worst acting awards go to Paul L Smith as an allegedly evil character called Raban. Smith has the feel of an old-school wrestler. He really ought to be calling out Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat and Hulk Hogan. His acting chops are non-existent. Every moment that involves his hammy leering and face-pulling effectively take you out of the movie. Almost as bad is rock star Sting of Police fame. He is particularly painful to watch despite having very little dialogue. He is supposed to be a vicious killer but his main purpose is to serve as eye-candy for the ladies. Virginia Madsen plays Princess Irulan who is vouchsafed the confusing opening narration and then has no lines for the rest of the movie. Unlike M. Le Sting, Madsen can act and one can only speculate that all her dialogue was cut. A pre-STAR TREK Patrick Stewart is good in the role of warrior Gurney Halleck, but is also underused.
My “favourite” moment in the film is a small one. Sting and the Evil Baron arrive to taunt Thufir Hawat. Jack Nance is there playing an accordion or operating a torture device. Hard to tell. The next part is actually somewhat irritating for real world reasons. Sting arrives with a crate that has a neon tube in it, which helps to reveal there is an actual live Sphinx cat inside (and therefore no Shrodinger gag to be made). The cat has its hindquarters in a sling device and it looks like it would rather be elsewhere. Even though I assume their animal action was overseen by the ASPCA, I don’t like seeing an animal made uncomfortable for any film. It’s enough that we in the audience are suffering. Right next to the Sphinx cat, in some kind of tube, is a live rat looking very relaxed. The Baron informs Thufir that there is now a poison in his bloodstream and that unless he milks the cat daily for the antidote, he will die. This all feels like pure Lynch.
LEFT: Sting, Kenneth McMillan, Jack Nance and Freddie Jones. “I have brought you a little cat, Thufir.”
The movie ends in a welter of old-school special effects that show their age. There is a myriad of Mexican extras flying backwards as stuff explodes. Kyle Atreides leads an attack riding on the back of a “giant’ sand worm. These worms never look like anything more than sophisticated sock puppets. Getting us through the visual silliness is the rocking score by Toto. The Grammy award-winning American band responsible for such Australian commercial radio mainstays as Rosana and Africa do a great job in creating an epic sound to accompany the desert warfare. I was so impressed that I geeked out and bought a copy of the soundtrack.
So, if you’ve never seen DUNE the movie, I suggest reading the first Dune novel before you do. If you regard the film more as a highlights reel or the longest montage in sci-fi movie history, then there is plenty to enjoy.