1980s, Scifi

Dune (1984)

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Director: David Lynch

By Roderick Heath

Frank Herbert’s Dune, published in 1965, is my favourite science fiction novel and a clear contender for the greatest of the genre. A vast and complex work of neo-mythic imagination, it marked a bridging point of the literary scifi form, linking the mind-bending modern genre with the zesty spaceships and stellar princesses of so many early adventure tales. David Lynch had only two feature films to his credit—Eraserhead (1976) and The Elephant Man (1980)—when he was chosen to direct Dino de Laurentiis’s huge-budget adaptation of the novel. Lynch’s film of Herbert’s novel hardly lived up to the stature of either artist. Instead, it signaled Lynch’s retreat from a mainstream career and the beginning of the end of the cinematic scifi boom of the late ’70s and early ’80s.

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Why was Dune such a big bust? There are a few standard answers that can be offered. That the book was too long and complex to adapt. The FX demands too great even for post-Star Wars Hollywood. The cinema is inimical to much of what the novel was about—metaphysics, moral complexity, speculative physics, political intrigues, oh my! As far as Lynch’s career goes, Dune is sort of a black hole these days—too weird for fanboys and not weird enough for fans of Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks. Dune surely needed the love, running time, and technical wizardry Peter Jackson gave to The Lord of the Rings. It needed to encapsulate a huge amount of geek expectation while selling itself to a mass audience.

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In essence, the plot of Dune isn’t that complicated. In the distant future, computers are banned. We who are fed up with Windows might sympathise. The goodies—the Atreides family—are assigned to take control of the planet Arrakis, where spice is mined. Spice is really cool stuff that lets some people who make up the Spacing Guild fold time and travel through space, lets others live really long, and inspires many to develop incredibly bad fashion sense. The spice is produced by giant worms that infest the sands of Arrakis. The baddies are the Harkonnen clan, who used to run Arrakis, and they plan, with the aid of the Emperor (Jose Ferrer) who fears the Atreides’ growing popularity, to take over again. The Atreides arrive on Arrakis and begin learning about their new world, encountering the biologist Liet Kynes (Max Von Sydow), officially an imperial officer but actually secretly in league with the local population of desert dwellers called the Fremen.

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Despite the best efforts of the Atreides’ triumvirate of stalwart guardians, Thufir Hawat (Freddie Jones), Duncan Idaho (Richard Jordan), and Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart), the Harkonen plot succeeds, thanks to the clan physician Dr Yueh (Dead Stockwell), whose hatred for the Harkonnens has been ironically subverted to their use. The Duke of the Atreides, Leto (Jurgen Prochnow), is betrayed and the House’s bastion on Arrakis infiltrated: Thufir is captured, Idaho killed, and Gurney exiled. The Duke’s wife Jessica (Francesca Annis) and son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) escape and meet up with the Fremen. Paul meets Kynes’ daughter Chani (Sean Young) amongst their number and becomes her lover, and eventually learns he is the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy and the product of generations of selective breeding by the weird, quasi-religious, scientific sect called the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. Paul is a potential superhuman who can read minds, kill with a shout, and see the future. He leads the Fremen in a guerrilla war to halt spice production, avenge his father, and bring the universe to its knees.

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Boiled down to essentials, it reads like a fast-paced adventure yarn, not so far from Star Wars. Indeed, Lucas borrowed elements from Herbert—a universe ruled by feudalism and pseudo-scientific religion. The Force, like the Spice, is a metaphysical trope that contradicts the generally technofascist drift of scifi, although it’s also a metaphor for the all-pervading impact of oil on modern life. De Laurentiis undoubtedly thought he’d be making an upscale Star Wars. But it’s the endless story digressions, background folklore, and implicit and overt ideas fuelling the narrative which distinguish the novel. Working out what to stress and what to render inconsequential always separates a good adaptation from an awkward one. Peter Jackson, for instance, never let Tolkien’s goobledygook get in the way of sword fights and battles, trusting that an intelligent audience will absorb a new glossary in the experience.

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Lynch, writing his own script, fell down badly in this challenging experience, for he insisted in trying to outlay every small point, like, for instance, having the voice-overs that explicate the characters’ unspoken thoughts point out repetitive and obvious things, or things that aren’t really elucidating or necessary. His efforts to get these details across are admirable on one level but also often infuriating, and he was not at all helped by the forcefully hacked-down release version that most people initially saw. Dune, a novel filled with complex manoeuvres not just of plot but also of thought and philosophy, is not so much an action story as a tale of characters thinking of how, why, and when to take action. The story’s nature inevitably changes on the big screen.

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But Lynch’s film is rife with intriguing aesthetic choices that can seem excessively eccentric and inspired all at once. Lynch’s breadth of imagination and comfort with alien imagery undoubtedly landed him the job of making the film, and Lynch is indeed most at home with the novel’s most difficult aspect—the webs of vision, prophecy, and mysticism that beset Paul. Lynch’s most arresting work comes in the associative, psychedelic montages that reveal Paul’s prescience, and indulge familiar tropes of his visual imagination, such as alien planets, falling stars, and perverted births. However, Lynch’s approach elsewhere is a pasteboard affair, shunning the detailed realism Lucas, Kubrick, and Ridley Scott worked so hard to give to the genre, in favor of a broad, almost cartoonish atmosphere.

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It’s hard to tell the degree to which Lynch conspired with or was undone by the shoddy work of his special effects, set design, and costume departments; de Laurentiis’ associates seem to have thought they were still working on the parodic Flash Gordon (1980). A good illustration of the wild swings between good and bad ideas can be noted in two prominent costuming choices. The Fremen Stilsuits were inspired by Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man, a smart concept that’s both eye-catching and appropriate, considering that the Fremen represent the innate possible strength of the human form. But they combat the Harkonnen’s men who, improbably, wear ’50s style anti-radiation suits, intended to render them chilling and alien, but the visual effect of this is simply clumsy and self-conscious.

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Possibly Lynch, a true surrealist, was delighted with the pastiche, matching his thinking that film should be flagrantly unreal. If The Matrix was a selection of systematic, market-driven images—techno chic, leather jackets, and drugs of choice—without a narrative to match, Dune is the opposite, offering an absurd proliferation of Austro-Hungarian and Stormtrooper uniforms, big bushy eyebrows, and toy spaceships. The effects, despite being the work of masters Albert Whitlock and Carlo Rambaldi, are startlingly unconvincing in comparison with the contemporaneous work in Alien (1979), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Blade Runner (1982).

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The action scenes, from the lame-o ray gunfire to the cheap battles of the extras from a leftover sword-and-sandal movie, are lacking. But that’s still a part of Lynch’s chosen style, a style that works more confidently, for instance, in the way he establishes the Atreides’ home on the planet Corrino, where their home fortress is a Roger Corman-style model castle above a thundering sea. When the black-clad Bene Gesserit matriarch Reverend Mother Mohiam (Sian Phillips) and her entourage arrives, lashed by rain and howling winds, Lynch stages it with all the aplomb of a midnight visitation in a horror film. For a film that offers a vision of a future run by feudal government, religious orders, and unimaginable homunculi, Lynch then made it his prerogative to render it often much closer to a kind of perfervid gothic nightmare than a bright and shiny space opera.

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One aspect of this film that is definitely Lynchian, and yet bugged genre critics and fans most, are the grotesque villains. Lynch’s manifestations of evil are often leering, caricatured, extreme visions (think Frank in Blue Velvet or the old couple at the end of Mulholland Drive), and the Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth MacMillan) and his progeny Feyd-Rautha (Sting) and Raban (Paul Smith) fit right in. Lynch’s hobgoblins are slightly different to Hollywood patent villainy; Lynch tries to evoke the weird, threatening people who inhabit the corners of adolescent nightmares, like escaped pieces of the Id. That’s not Herbert, however. the novel’s Harkonnen is monstrous and a sadistic homosexual to boot, but he’s also a wily tactician and intellectual villain, a figure fit to be a Roman Emperor. Lynch’s Harkonnen viciously slaughters toyboys and drools over Sting’s oiled pecs, has boils weeping from his face, and rants a lot, a step away from a Popeye opponent. The cumulative effect is one of Lynch’s major miscalculations, removing from the story the necessary sense of the overwhelming difficulty of effecting any kind of change in this bottomlessly corrupt, cruel, even obscene future.

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And yet here, too, Lynch can offer some startling and memorable images, as when Harkonnen gives the captive Thufir a cat and a rat that have been stitched together to form an unholy hybrid, from which the captive has to milk the antidote to a poison in his body each day, a vision that communicates a truly memorable variety of futuristic, utterly contemptible malignancy. Dune was edited down by De Laurentiis, destroying much of the potential texture and clarity. I’ve seen both Lynch’s original cut and the extended network television edition he took his name off, which sports a long prologue and new voiceover explanations in addition to extra footage. That version is rather more fluent and achieves a far more confident dramatic pace and texture. But it did strip the original cut of one masterful, quintessentially Lynchian quality—the dreamy tone, set by Virginia Madsen’s Princess Irulan’s appearance at the start (echoing the final image of The Elephant Man), and continuing to infest the subsequent narrative’s entire structure. The TV edit, on the other hand, is far more literal.

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Disappointingly, Dune fails to come to grips with Arrakis as a place, for the most part. Where the novel captures a sense of vastness and infinite possibility, Lynch’s often setbound action reduces epic scope to some tinny cavorting, and hordes of Stilsuited extras running across sands without any more suggested sophsitcation to the action than what you would have once seen in a ’50s matinee flick. If the stygian tilt to much of Lynch’s imagery is fascinating, it works against the very core of a film that is built around the necessary sense of the physical grandeur of the desert, which is barely apparent. But Lynch, aided by the striking photography of Freddie Francis, still offers a rich proliferation of engaging scenes. The opening, when the Emperor (Jose Ferrer) is confronted by one of the mutated, bizarre, prescient Guild members, is keenly handled, with a sense of drama and foreboding immediately implied, and the settings appropriately colossal, as is the Guildsman himself.

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Likewise, the first appearance of a worm during which a huge machine is swallowed from below, and Paul and Jessica trying to survive in the desert under a worm’s attack. The gory placenta shots of Paul’s embryonic sister Alia being transformed by the Spice’s influence carry a real charge of the forbidden, and the sequences in which Paul learns to conquer the worms and lead the Fremen and then drinks the potentially poisonous Water of Life in order to conquer the unknown, are rhythmic and intense. On the other hand, Lynch, surprisingly, fails to convey some of Herbert’s gorgeous perversities, like the orgies of the Spice-drunk Fremen, and the deeply transgressive notion of the wild Alia as a fully sentient infant (played here by Alicia Witt) who cavorts on the battlefield, slaying soldiers and the Baron alike, with primal glee.

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This inadequacy leads to another failure. Herbert’s novel portrays a future whose most genuinely alien quality is a lack of contemporary morality. Herbert provokes us with notions—Paul’s victory bringing on a reign of bloodshed, Alia as a child housing a sexually knowing and psychotically violent adult—that upend idealistic expectations and easy identification, and are poisonous to the type of melodrama Lynch finally made. In Dune’s universe, modern liberalism and democracy have been replaced by a nascent medievalism, Byzantine webs of loyalty, intrigue, power mongering and servitude. The universe is infinitely corrupt, and change will be brutal, as Paul, in his visions, realises his ascension as the “Kwisatz Haderach,” the great male witch and messiah, will bring on a cosmic-scale slaughter, his “good” distinguishable from “evil” only in being dedicated to collective renewal rather than self-interest. In this way Herbert evokes the undiluted pagan strength of classical myths like those in Die Niebelungen and the Trojan cycle, where the forces of history, identity, and spirituality warp and overwhelm petty human concerns.

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Lynch, caught in an inenviable position of trying at once to provide a blockbuster whilst remaining true to his own, very individual aesthetic, can’t come anywhere near this type of monstrous catharsis, with the end merely promising love, order, and peace, as Paul brings the rain to Arrakis by magic tricks. For all this, the film is not just watchable but very enjoyable, and looked at from a slightly different angle, its apparently egregious failures often seem like intriguing possibilities—a notion any Bene Gesserit would appreciate. If the film is not as triumphantly weird and mythic as the novel, it is bold, original, and odd in its own, distinct way. Lynch’s anarchic design, which evokes long-discarded technology (for example, a translation device with the large, round head of a vintage microphone), and including all that bizarre costuming and set design, is authentically New Wave in attitude. Lynch embraces rock-accented music in trying to make a new-age kind of epic, and the score, by progressive-pop legends Toto and Brian Eno, is perhaps the film’s most truly, inarguably fine feature.

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The film’s flourishes, I think, sank as deeply, but more stealthily, into the zeitgeist as the more widely appreciated Blade Runner, providing visual counterpoints and inspiration for the then-embryonic cyberpunk genre, graphic novel illustration, and music videos. I sense the special influence on the early films of Jeunet and Caro. The film still has the heft of a mega-production, and the casting is, for the most part, perfect. Kyle MacLachlan, Lynch’s discovery for the movie, makes a pretty, dashing hero. Further down the cast list, Patrick Stewart as the Atreides’ steward Gurney Halleck, probably won his role as Jean-Luc Picard with his nobly hammy diction, and both he and Sian Phillips, who plays the Bene Gesserit leader, came out of the TV production I, Claudius. Yes, Dune is an eccentirc and frustrating experience. But as big-budget cinema has become increasingly unadventurous and impersonal, its qualities only seem to brighten.

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