Monday, January 06, 2020

"Dune (The Alternative Edition)": quick review

I don't know why, but I have a real soft spot for David Lynch's clunky, embarrassing abortion of a movie, "Dune," from 1984. Lynch's "Dune" is awful on so many levels—a real cringe-fest. Lynch himself claims the studio had too much control over the final product, but I can see problems that are less the result of studio interference than of Lynch's own poor direction: he's culpable, too. There are times when I think that Lynch didn't really have his heart in the project: the special effects were shoddy, and the corniness factor was dialed way past 11. How could a serious auteur like Lynch possibly crank out such cheese, especially in the wake of 1983's "Return of the Jedi," which marked the end of the Star Wars saga for that era?

But whatever the film's many flaws, there were and are parts of it that I enjoy and appreciate. The set design remains impressive, and some of the casting choices are positively inspired: José Ferrer, Patrick Stewart, Richard Jordan, Jürgen Prochnow, Brad Dourif, Paul Smith, Max von Sydow, the awesome Siân Phillips, the equally awesome Kenneth McMillan, the gorgeous Francesca Annis—and Sting? Amazing, I tell you! Give that cast better direction, a worthier script, and improved special effects, and a revamped "Dune" would bring the house down. I've heard that young, delicate-looking Timothée Chalamet is going to play Paul Atreides in this year's version of "Dune" by director Denis Villeneuve; for me, Kyle MacLachlan will always own that role, but I remain hopeful: Villeneuve has proved himself to be a talented director, having made "Sicario," "Arrival," and "Blade Runner 2049."

While we wait for Villeneuve's much-anticipated remake to arrive much later this year, though, we can watch Lynch's "Dune," re-edited by a fan to create "The Alternative Edition." I don't know where else this might be available outside of YouTube, which is where I watched it. This "fan edit" includes voiceover narration that makes the story easier to understand, and this version of the film also includes discarded footage not seen in the theatrical release—all of which also makes the story more comprehensible and fleshed-out.

I had a ball reliving all the badness of Lynch's movie, but I also appreciated the fan editor's efforts at making the story more digestible. It's a shame, really, that Lynch's original theatrical release proved so confusing: the 1965 novel Dune, by Frank Herbert, was very clearly written. Maybe Lynch's problem was his inability to provide a faithful rendering of the novel; his compulsion to "art" things up got in the way, and because, as I suspect, his heart wasn't in the process, he arted things up sloppily and shoddily, resulting in this cinematic turd that nevertheless contains a few almost-redemptive qualities (three cheers for the awesome costume design!). Then again, as Alejandro Jodorowsky said, when you adapt a work for the screen, you have little choice but to violate it in the act of translation from one medium to another. To use Jodorowsky' indelicate metaphor, it's the rape of a bride: once you commit to her, you cannot merely stand back and honor her chastely from a distance—you have to get in there: you must dominate and consummate. A distasteful image, to be sure, but one that makes a clear point. Maybe Lynch's flaccid adaptation was his fumbling attempt at violating the bride that is Frank Herbert's novel.

In watching this fan edit of "Dune," I once again mentally reviewed the would-haves and could-haves and should-haves—the many different ways in which the film could have been improved. The special effects would definitely need some major upgrades, and the hilariously Shatnerian overacting by some of the otherwise-talented principals would also need to be drastically reined in. The Guild navigators, and their method of folding space to cross great distances, would need to be completely rethought and re-depicted for a modern audience that has seen such heady movies as "Interstellar." Peter Jackson and his Weta Workshop would need to be brought in to re-shoot the large battle sequences, and God knows what else would have to be changed if we truly wanted to salvage Lynch's film.

But it's too late; the deed is done, and Lynch's "Dune" is what it is. Just like when you try to save a patient who is dying from thirty different maladies, all you can do is give up, let the patient expire, and turn toward the future. I'm fervently hoping that Denis Villeneuve will give us a splendid, fantastic vision of Frank Herbert's epic science-fiction story. I understand that this year's movie is only Part One of a two-part saga, with the second part coming out in 2021. But for those who, like me, might need a "Dune" fix while they wait, there's this fan edit, "The Alternative Edition," available on YouTube until someone gets the movie banned for copyright infringement. Watch it while you can.

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