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Schlock & Awe: DUNE

Schlock & Awe: DUNE

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.

Dune 7

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.

Dune 4

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.

Dune 8

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.

Dune 2

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!

Dune 3

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.

Dune 6

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.

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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.

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Comments

  1. You Don't Know Me says:

    As someone who read the book, even I have to admit that it’s hard to follow at times. There were parts that I thought to myself, “Okay, they cut this, this, and this out and jumped to this point with almost no explanation. I understand why this movie would be confusing.” The Sci-Fi Channel mini-series (which is 3 episodes that are each almost as long as an episode of Sherlock) does develop and explain a lot more but they also make some really weird changes to certain parts and it just looks cheap as hell. The Sci-Fi Channel mini-series overall is only marginally better than the David Lynch movie since you’re trading production value for story and characters.

  2. danticvs says:

    Lynch’s Dune is a masterpiece. Complicated, long and flawed, yes. Original and beautiful, also. Lynch is a man of vision. The Dune film was rich in texture, dialogue and strangeness. Strong actors, characters. I love this movie.

    I hated it in 1984 because it was nothing like typical science fiction of the day. Sometimes you have to see a movie more than once.

    Also, I was a child.

    This review seems to compare the amazing pre-production of Jodorowsky’s possible Dune to Lynch’s. The documentary makes my mouth water with what might have been but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater!

    Jodorowsky’s Dune would have probably been amazing! We will never know. You may have an opinion of Lynch’s Dune but I think it is an unfair and biased opinion. Maybe Jodorowsky’s would have been better than Lynch’s. We will never know (unless it is miraculously made).

    It is foolish to let Jodorowsky’s possible great movie bias an actually great movie.

    Just my opinion, but I suggest you give Lynch’s Dune another chance. And then enjoy it several hundred more times.

  3. danticvs says:

    Lynch’s Dune is a masterpiece. Complicated, long and flawed, yes. Original and beautiful, also. Lynch is a man of vision. The Dune film was rich in texture, dialogue and strangeness. Strong actors, characters. I love this movie. 
     I hated it in 1984 because it was nothing like typical science fiction of the day. Sometimes you have to see a movie more than once. 
     Also, I was a child.
     This review seems to compare the amazing pre-production of Jodorowsky’s possible Dune to Lynch’s. The documentary makes my mouth water with what might have been but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater! 
     Jodorowsky’s Dune would have probably been amazing! We will never know. You may have an opinion of Lynch’s Dune but I think it is an unfair and biased opinion. Maybe Jodorowsky’s would have been better than Lynch’s. We will never know (unless it is miraculously made). 
     It is foolish to let Jodorowsky’s possible great movie bias an actually great movie. 
     Just my opinion, but I suggest you give Lynch’s Dune another chance. And then enjoy it several hundred more times.

  4. I first saw Dune when it came out on VHS, I think I must have been around 10 at the time. I really enjoyed it. It played to my love of the Star Wars movies with the whole evil empire and blue eyed, spice snorting Jedi guys. I had the action figures (Sting would later meet his end at the blade of a lawn mower), I had the poster magazines, it’s fair to say I was a fan. However, I can’t help but to agree with Kyle.
    I think what Kyle is saying here, is that Dune is a beautiful mess of a movie. I’m not sure that I understood the intricacies of the plot, if I did it would be due to my mother being a fan of the book and explaining as we watched, but that didn’t matter to me then.
    I’ve since read the book myself, and seen the movie several times and with each viewing it has become more of a frustrating experience. While I applaud the ambition of trying to cram all that plot into an easy to swallow running time, it just doesn’t work. As Kyle points out, it’s a beautifully made and visually stunning film and that’s what keeps me coming back to it. Thanks for giving an honest opinion Kyle, from someone who’s not too precious to accept it as a valid one.
    Maybe, just maybe, that lawn mower had a point.

  5. Hope says:

    I haven’t read the cimments , but I totally got this movie. Then saw the extended. Then read the books. Am I alone?

  6. FrankenPC says:

    Actually, if you JUST read the book, you might find it is incomprehensible as well.   I watched the movie and was bewildered but intrigued by the style.  Then I read the book and everything clicked for both.  The book is genius.  Genius like how Tolkien’s world building is genius. But, it takes a little work to absorb the lore.  Anyway, I don’t necessarily like how the book was translated, but the movie is still an amazing example of visual style that shouldn’t be dismissed.  

  7. Aaron Cogan says:

    This review told me too much and not enough all at the same time. Also, it was too wet whilst somehow being too dry, concurrent with it having great taste, but being less filling.
    Hey, I don’t speak Russian and I haven’t read any Tolstoy; can I review “War and Peace” for you? 

  8. BigTime says:

    Your article is indecipherable…

  9. vismund says:

    although i agree the movie is kind of a disaster i was never confused about anything in the film

  10. Bethany B. says:

    Oo, I knew as soon as you said, “And then you actually watch Citizen Kane and you’re like, ‘Damn, this actually IS the best movie ever made'” the comments would be ugly. Though they may exist (the internet is full of interesting things), I’ve never met a Citizen Kane fan who was a Dune fan, and vice versa – each group thinks the other movie stinks (I’m in the “Citizen Kane stinks” group; although Dune is not high on my watchlist, I’d watch it long before I’d watch CK).

  11. Incomprehensible? Only if you didn’t pay attention.

  12. G-Force says:

    i must totally disagree, I have loved this movie since I first saw it during it’s theatrical release and both own the Steel Book DVD with both versions and the Theathrical BD which, I just saw the other day!!! It is amoungst my favorite films and will always be, just stop over anaylizing and enjoy it for the excellent cast and what it is.

  13. Ray says:

    Read the book in Jr High. (accidentally read the next 2 out of order, got completely confused)

    Saw the movie when it came out in the theater (high school).

    Read the review.
    Completely boggled by reviewer’s take.
    Folding space weird? Didn’t catch dad telling Paul the sleeper must awaken? Compared the naming of the clans to Game of Thrones?

     o.O
    Not likely to read another article written by said author due to extreme WTF!?!?!?

  14. Null says:

    Um, sorry you were confused by this movie, but I saw it when I was 8 and understood it.
    For instance, the Kwisatz Haderach is basically a human god, which you get from story bits which you were complaining about (inner voices, etc).  It’s a complex story, with a complex plot line, and isn’t for everyone, especially if you can’t manage deep thoughts about a topic.

  15. Carlos says:

    star wars saga and avatar are just copy

  16. HabitualGypsy says:

    OK, so obviously a lot of people disagree with Kyle’s review, myself included. I just don’t understand all the vitriol about it. Sure, I have a hard time seeing how Kyle didn’t seem to be able to follow it; I first saw it in the theater when I was 13 and it more or less made sense. And I get that there are people who totally LOVE the movie. I’m kinda surprised – though I shouldn’t be: because the Interwebs – that so many people seemed to have taken this review so personally. Also, I’m curious if those same people have read the book. I hadn’t when I first saw the movie but had by the time I’d seen it again. And while I still thought the movie was overall entertaining and looked great, my view of it had been lessened tremendously. To this day, Dune is easily my favorite book. And yes, the beginning is slow; but just like a quality Joss Whedon project, you have to deal with quite a bit of exposition so that he can really set up the awesome intricacies down the road. Anyway, despite the unnecessary changes from book to movie, I still thought it was a decent flick. Again, I can’t but wonder if the people who loved the film/considered it a classic have also read the book…

    • Aaron Cogan says:

      I was a bit miffed that a reviewer would attempt a review of a movie he/she clearly didn’t pay attention to enough to understand, and comment on “source material” (the 412 page novel it’s based on) he/she hasn’t read.
      I’ve read the novel and enjoyed it and the movie.

    • J says:

      I’m not sure it’s exactly vitriol (things always read worse online), but more annoyance that Kyle seemed to have put a lot of work into the article, yet it reads as though it were written by someone paying more attention to their phone than to the movie.  It’s hard to say that I grasp these things when I was 13, because I’ve seen the film so many times since then that it’s just a part of my permanent memory.

      I will also disagree with those calling this a “classic”.  While I love the film,  it was a box office failure and, for the most part, disliked by everyone including sci-fi fans.  I was definitely in the minority with my love for it.  Most of my friends said “you like that boring movie where everyone whispers ‘The Spice’ all the time?”  Yes.  Yes, I did 🙁

  17. menspantsuit says:

    Jodorowsky’s Chilean, not Mexican.

  18. Squirrel says:

    The Sci-Fi channel’s miniseries for Dune was waaay better. Sticks to the source material.

    • HabitualGypsy says:

      Agreed that it followed the source material far more faithfully. The problem was that it seemed very low-budget and suffered from an embarrassingly bad production design. The Lynch movie was the opposite. The look and feel (aside from the unnecessary mutation of the Weirding Way) was spot on, IMO. The implementation of story (either edit)… not so much.

  19. Michael Thompson says:

    I’ve always found Dune to be, by far, Lynch’s most straightforward movie.  Eraserhead?  No, don’t get it at all.  Dune?  Sure.  It’s pretty much straight up religious science fantasy.

  20. Hollie says:

    You write for a website called “THE NERDIST” – your audience is NERDS. 

  21. vismund says:

    ^brilliant

  22. HabitualGypsy says:

    The editing may have been bad, but it had nothing to do with Lynch’s desire to be faithful to the source material. He claimed in several interviews that he’d never actually read the book. That his “vision” came solely from the screenplay and his own imagination.

  23. One of my favorite all time movies and yes it became my favorite when I was roughly ten.  I spent my allowance to buy the vhs which came with a companion dictionary of terms used in the movie.  If this author doesn’t get this, I would hate to hear what he has to say about Game of Thrones.

  24. Meagan says:

    I totally agree! While a lot of the point is obscured, as Lynch does, I was able to follow the plot as a small child.  It stands out as one of my early memories of cinema.  Granted, that probably has a lot to do with the visuals, as Andersen says, but the story was understandable enough to be compelling to a girl who had not yet been to 3rd grade.Perhaps this type of story-telling is received well by a certain type of person with a capacity for complex and layered communication.  Not everyone thinks that way. 

  25. firozahn says:

    The real problem with the original dune is the 2 hours plus that was cut out of the threatrical version that helped explain things in more depth. Other wise I agree with Paul the writer of this article really needs to go back and watch the film rather then whatever he was doing and he’d see a lot of his problems were explained .

  26. HabitualGypsy says:

    In fact, they do an amusing visual demonstration using a centerfold in Event Horizon.

  27. HabitualGypsy says:

    OK, scratch that… partially. I just saw an interview on YouTube with Lynch from ’85 where he explicitly said that he DID read the book. So I decided to do some more research to see where I remember seeing interviews to the contrary. One was a recent one where he was lamenting the whole thing and he made a statement that implied that he may not have read the book. Also, I saw something in print years ago where he had stated that he didn’t WANT to read the book before making the film because he didn’t want that to influence how he made the film, as it was a different medium. I inferred from this, incorrectly, that he NEVER read the book. Since he is listed as the screenwriter on both Wiki & IMDB, this was obviously not the case. Also, the blatant misrepresentation of several key components of the book falsely validated my original assumption. For instance: incorporating the ridiculous “sonic attack” by needlessly combining The Voice with The Weirding Way. Also using actors up to fifteen years older than the characters they portrayed perverted the story arc of Paul and Feyd-Rautha.  These are two (significant) examples of Lynch’s lack of faithfulness to the original story – whether he’d read the book or not…

  28. Dan Casey says:

    Yeah, it’s really rude of him to not have the exact same viewing and reading interests as you. 

  29. Justin Couron says:

    Umm no. Didn’t read the book until my 20’s. Been watching the movies since I was 8. I had no hard time understanding the movie.