Sometimes you hear things about movies and you just kind of take them for granted. Lots of people say Citizen Kane is the best movie ever made, and even if you haven’t seen it, you can just say, “Oh yeah, Citizen Kane‘s the best movie ever made,” without much context for it. And then you actually watch Citizen Kane and you’re like, “Damn, this actually IS the best movie ever made.”
A similar thing happened with me concerning David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The movie is one of the most notorious disasters in sci-fi history, and Lynch himself has all but disowned the picture. Recently, I saw the brilliant documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune about Chilean surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to make the “unfilmable” novel into a film, and I, who has never read anything in the Dune-verse, was sufficiently intrigued enough to seek out the Lynch version. And guess what; it’s just as incomprehensible as everyone said, and probably even more so.
Jodorowsky had been trying to get Dune made in the pre-Star Wars 1970s and a lot of his ideas would have been revolutionary had the film actually come to fruition. By time it was actually made in the early-1980s, it was yet another attempt by Italian mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis to cash in on the space opera craze Star Wars created. In 1980, of course, he got the Razzie-winning Flash Gordon made. While Dino served only as executive producer, his daughter Raffaella was the on-hand producer for Dune. To handle writing and directing duties for the incredibly dense source material, they handed it to Lynch, who had only made Eraserhead and The Elephant Man prior to this.
I should point out yet again that I’ve never read any of the Dune novels, and the version of the film I watched was the Theatrical Cut. I understand there’s an extended version which is longer and explains more, but I also hear it uses production photos and drawings since lots of it weren’t ever filmed. That might be nice for Dune fans, but I’m talking about a sci-fi movie, so the cut that people saw at the time is the one I care about. As such, I had next to no idea what was actually going on, especially toward the end of the film. However, I will attempt a brief synopsis for those who have no foreknowledge. There’s also a good five minutes of spoken-to-camera prologue and world set-up by Virginia Madsen as Princess Irulan, a character who doesn’t even show up until the end of the movie, to guide us plebs.
Way out in space, there are aristocratic houses that rule various planets. They’re all designated as “House _____,” just like in Game of Thrones. One of these planets produces a very important spice called melange which powers most of the galaxy’s stuff. Most importantly, this spice allows for “folding space,” a way for spacecraft to travel excessive distances without ever moving in physical space (a pretty weird thing to invent, it has to be said). The Emperor of the galaxy (played by Jose Ferrer) senses a threat to his throne by the leader of House Atreides, Duke Leto (Jurgen Prochnow), so decides to stave it off by giving him control of the planet Arrakis, a/k/a “Dune”, the only planet that produces melange, and then having the Atreides’ sworn enemies, House Harkonnen, attack and kill them. While all this is going on, the Duke’s son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) is learning how to be more awesome and has some ability, that his mother also shares, to persuade people using a deep monster voice and then he eventually teams up with people who live on Dune whose eyes turn bright blue and fights back against Harkonnen and the Emperor.
Okay, that’s fairly complicated, but it’s not the hardest thing to figure out, right? Well, you’re forgetting that we’re talking about David Lynch here, who goes out of his way to make things as muddled and oblique as possible. I was with this movie for about the first hour (of its 2 hrs 17 min runtime), or as much as I could be, but by the midway point, I was lost like so much sand on Arrakis. It doesn’t help matters that probably 55% or more of the spoken words in this film are internal monologue. We hear the thoughts of every character, not just our lead, and a lot of what they think to themselves could and should be inferred from facial expression. Parentheticals are for the actors to know, not for the audience.
The other problem is that characters will say lines that I guess are meant to have meaning but they don’t because we’ve never known what they’re doing in the first place. At one point, Paul triumphantly says “The sleeper has awakened,” and there’s a musical cue to punctuate it. This prompts me to ask several questions: Was the sleeper ever in danger of not awakening? Is the fact that the sleeper has awakened a good thing or a bad thing? Who is the sleeper and why is he awake? Another example comes at the end of the film after Paul has defeated his sworn enemy that he’s only just met Feyd Rautha (Sting. Oh yeah, Sting is in this movie) and then the little girl with an adult voice who is apparently real powerful says, “And how can this be? For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!” Oh wow! So Paul’s the Kwisatz Haderach? Good for him; he really deserves to be the Kwisatz Haderach. WHAT THE FUCK IS A KWISATZ HADERACH?!?! You can’t end your movie on a line proclaiming something that we don’t know what it is!
I could go on and on about the problems with the script and the way the story makes no sense at all and the lines (like Paul’s “If a person can destroy a thing, a person can control a thing”) were probably taken directly from Herbert’s book, but I’ll stop doing that so I can talk about the stuff in the movie that’s actually good. VERY good in fact – the music, the effects, the costumes, the set design, and pretty much everything in the movie not having to do with story and character. This movie is technically marvelous. Each set is enormous and highly detailed and seem to be entirely of a piece with each other. The costumes, too, are ornate and complex and you can tell where everybody’s from based on what they wear, which I appreciate in a space opera, especially one so confusing otherwise. The model work is also very impressive, which is not what I expected given the film’s reputation. I mean, the parts where people are riding the giant Graboids doesn’t looks amazing, but the rest of it is really well done.
It’s a very well shot and well designed film, and even fairly well directed from a visual perspective; it just doesn’t have anything going for it otherwise. The characters are aloof and impossible to relate to, the story tells us too much and not enough all at the same time, and the actors clearly have no idea what’s going on from moment to moment. This might be a fault in Herbert’s novel, or the fact that maybe the source material is just unfilmable. Jodorowsky was going to make his version 4 hours long or something like that, and the Sci-Fi Channel made a big long miniseries of it that probably allows for more development in, well, everything. The only good thing that came from Dune is that it gave Lynch the spark to make Blue Velvet, which is pretty much his masterpiece.
Dune is worth watching for its visuals and score, and the fact that there are a billion and one recognizable people in it, but just don’t expect to grasp anything without copious Cliff’s Notes or an annoying friend who’s read everything.