Sunday, November 28, 2021

"Dune" (1984): review

[WARNING: some spoilers for a 37-year-old movie.]

After watching Denis Villeneuve's version of "Dune," I went back to the 1965 Frank Herbert novel upon which it was based and reread it, then I sat down and re-watched David Lynch's 1984 cinematic version of the story, which pales in comparison to Villeneuve's only half-realized version. From what I understand, Lynch is on record saying he had creative differences with the studio, which he felt placed unfair demands on him. Several versions of Lynch's "Dune" exist; Lynch has disowned most of them.

While I gave a quick summary of the basic story in my review of Villeneuve's "Dune," I'll offer a summary here for those who didn't read that review. The basic story takes place some ten thousand years in the future; the galaxy has been organized into an empire, with Shaddam IV at the helm. Interstellar travel is possible thanks in part to the spice, which comes exclusively from the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. Of the many great Houses in the empire, House Harkonnen has managed spice production on Arrakis for decades, but the Harkonnens are now leaving, to be replaced by the Atreides family. Where Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is barbarous, Duke Leto Atreides is dignified and honorable, but Leto doesn't know that the Emperor and the Harkonnens have a secret arrangement that will bring down House Atreides and restore the Harkonnens to the management of Arrakis. Leto's son Paul is central to the story, which focuses on his journey of self-discovery and his eventual union with the fierce warrior-people of Arrakis, the Fremen. Paul's mother Jessica, concubine to Leto and not his wife, is a formidable member of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, which has been clandestinely guiding galactic history for centuries. Jessica's choice to bear a son, Paul, has thrown a monkey wrench in the Bene Gesserit plan, but Paul may turn out to be a messianic figure called by various names: Lisan al-Gaib and Kwisatz Haderach. Paul himself has visions of a potential destiny in which he leads a bloody jihad across the galaxy, and because the Bene Gesserit order long ago planted the seeds of prophecy and legend among the Fremen as part of their Missionaria Protectiva (a measure to help preserve the lives of any stranded Bene Gesserits), the Fremen view Paul as a mystical figure and leader. Paul himself cringes at this worship but sees no way to stop the coming jihad.

That's the background of Frank Herbert's universe. As with several other seminal works of science fiction, Herbert's novel Dune is said to have inspired movies like "Star Wars." 1984's "Dune" offers bits and pieces of the background I described above (and I left out many other details; it's a rich and complex world that Herbert created), often through loads of expository dialogue and, on top of that, voiceover narration giving us various characters' inner thoughts as well as Princess Irulan's insights (Irulan is daughter of Emperor Shaddam). A person who knows nothing of Herbert's novel might be forgiven for coming into Lynch's "Dune" cold and not understanding a damn thing.

"Dune" nevertheless has some positive qualities. Believe it or not, Lynch's movie actually contains faithful recreations of many story beats from the novel, including lines from the novel that have been reproduced word-for-word in the dialogue we hear. "Dune" also features some ambitious sets and costume designs, and the sandworms—which play a huge role in all versions of this story—aren't too bad-looking for 1984-era special effects. "Dune," despite its poor reputation, also contains plenty of iconic moments—images that the viewer will retain long after the movie has ended. One of the creepier images has Paul's little baby sister Alia standing victoriously on the field of battle, holding a knife and smiling while the wind whips around her in slow motion, making her look like a four-year-old Santa Muerte. The ensemble cast for the film is also fairly impressive. Kyle MacLachlan plays Paul Atreides; Jürgen Prochnow is Duke Leto Atreides; Francesca Annis is Lady Jessica; Kenneth McMillan is Baron Harkonnen; Patrick Stewart is Gurney Halleck; José Ferrer is Emperor Shaddam IV; Siân Phillips is the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam; Sean Young is Chani; Dean Stockwell is traitorous Doctor Wellington Yueh; Max von Sydow is Dr. Kynes, also known as Liet; Alicia Witt is Alia. It's a talented cast, and I've named only a fraction of the people involved.

But "Dune" fails for multiple reasons, and while there's a part of me that views the film as a guilty pleasure, that's primarily the thing I want to talk about in this review—all the aspects that didn't work, and there were many. 

We'll begin with costume design, which was generally good for most of the roles, but absurd when it came to the emperor's elite shock troops, the Sardaukar. Dressed in uniforms that resemble a fusion of a welder's getup and a bulky space suit, the Sardaukar are hard to take seriously. In the novel, the Sardaukar are feared because they are recruited from the harsh world of Salusa Secundus, the emperor's prison planet, and trained to be among the deadliest of fighting forces in the galaxy. For Lynch, the Sardaukar are little more than anonymous cannon fodder—people in cumbersome suits with vision-restricting rectangular visors who do little more than die at the hands of Paul Atreides's Fremen.

Another aspect of the film that fell flat was the musical soundtrack. The 80s band Toto is credited with much of the music; it would have been better to rely on John Williams or James Horner, two composers who excel at composing grandiose scores. (Horner died in 2015.) Instead, "Dune" ended up with electric guitars attempting to carry the film's profoundest moments. The non-Toto bits of the score were created by Brian Eno, who apparently styles himself a "non-musician." He wouldn't have been my first choice for the score.

While I praised the talent of the ensemble of actors, I have to note that many of the actors were directed to say their lines with over-the-top Shatnerian energy. Francesca Annis, as Lady Jessica, looks fantastic (I had a crush on her in the 80s and still think her Jessica looks damn sexy) but over-emotes, screaming and crying and gesturing dramatically at inappropriate moments. Annis's Jessica bears little resemblance to the internally strong, self-possessed Jessica we meet in Herbert's novel. Kenneth McMillan, as Baron Harkonnen, dials his performance way past 10, offering us a deranged antagonist who is also a sharp contrast with the wily, scheming baron depicted in the novel. Covered in boils that are lovingly drained by his perverse doctor, Baron Harkonnen checks all the boxes of the typically out-there Lynchian character. The same goes for Brad Dourif's Piter DeVries, the bizarre, twisted Mentat who serves the evil baron. (Mentats are super-logicians who take the place of computers because AI has been abolished in the Dune universe after an AI rebellion—the Butlerian Jihad—devastated humanity.) Dourif, often typecast as the oddball, invests the role with all sorts of tics and weird gestures. Sean Young, a strong feminist in real life, isn't given much to do as Chani, Paul Atreides's love interest. She gets one halfway badass moment when we first meet her, but after that, she's all solicitude and submissiveness. Most of these problems are not the fault of the actors, but of the director, who apparently felt he needed to wring maximum emotion out of every scene instead of following the cooler, more cerebral tone of the novel.

And while I praised the special effects for the sandworms a few paragraphs ago, I have to say that the rest of the special effects for the movie were embarrassingly bad. "Dune" came out in 1984, a year after "Return of the Jedi" showed us what was possible with special effects back in that era. "Dune" makes no effort to hide its obvious use of models and miniatures; the mismatched lighting of the blue-screen effects is obvious to 2021-era eyes; the poor quality of most of the effects sucks away the dignity of certain scenes that should have been ponderous or ominous. Lynch also introduces things not found in the original novel, such as the "weirding modules" and the way the Guild Navigators affect space to travel among the stars. If ever there were a movie in need of a George Lucas-style special-effects remake, David Lynch's "Dune" would be it. If someone were to go back and redo all the special effects using current technology, the movie's quality would improve radically.

And that's the thought that dogs me most when I think about this movie: if there were some way to redo major aspects of it—the overacting, the special effects, the music—the movie might almost be salvageable. But such a thing can never be, so the best we've got now is Denis Villeneuve's "Dune: Part I." We'd also need to change Lynch's ending, which is a radical departure from the novel. The novel ends soon after Paul kills the Harkonnen pretender Feyd-Rautha, with Paul now betrothed to Princess Irulan while keeping Chani as his beloved concubine. Jessica reassures Chani that the concubines of this new dynasty will be known by historians as wives, while Princess Irulan herself will receive nothing from Paul—not his love, not his respect, not his inner self. She will be technically married to Paul, but the marriage will be little more than a pact made for political convenience. In the movie, though, Paul kills Feyd and calls himself an instrument of God, then it rains on Arrakis. Remember, in the novel, Arrakis is a desert planet, and while the Fremen have labored long to create vast caches of water all over the globe via their wind traps, none of that water ever sees the sky. Arrakis has static-lightning, windstorms, and sandstorms, but no rain. The planetologist Liet-Kynes instilled in the Fremen people a vision of the future—of a planet lush with greenery, with water falling out of the sky. But this vision was always eschatological; it was never meant to be realized too quickly, and certainly not by magical or miraculous means. I haven't read the later Dune novels, but I don't think Paul's special gifts include the power to create rain ex nihilo. The movie shows this miracle as Paul assumes power, but the novel does nothing like this.

I still wonder how it was that Lynch, of all people, was given the job of trying to make a movie from what was long thought to be an unfilmable novel. Lynch is at his best as an arthouse director, creating and handling fucked-up characters who are put through weird, convoluted, twisted scenarios. In true Lynchian fashion, he seized the opportunity to people his "Dune" with bizarre denizens (he even managed to squeeze in two fetus scenes reminiscent of his work on "Eraserhead"—recall the foam-spewing alien baby), but his insistence on cranking the actors' intensity up to the maximum resulted in some unintentionally funny, corny moments, all of which drained away the majesty of the original story. To be fair, Herbert's novel is aggressively third-person omniscient: we, the readers, are privy to the private thoughts of most of the characters we meet, and Lynch opted to reflect that in his movie via overdramatically whispered voiceover. It was the wrong choice in a story that cried out for the rule of "Show, don't tell." Villeneuve's version cleaves more faithfully to that rule, keeping exposition to a minimum and making it integral to the plot when it has to be there.

David Lynch's "Dune" has some good points, but it's so embarrassingly cringe-y that it's hard to like wholeheartedly. Some call the Lynch version a cult classic, but that term sometimes merely means "so bad it's good," the way the term rustic is used jokingly by cooks when a dish comes out looking rough and sloppy. If you're new to the Duniverse, I'd suggest reading the novel before you try to watch Lynch's film, which is a disjointed flurry of unfamiliar names and terms and situations (when Paul insists to Chani that he must drink the Water of Life, the viewer is left to wonder why). But try to remain open to the good qualities of Lynch's effort—the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which he has attempted to be faithful to the novel (for example, the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam is described as having metal teeth, and this detail actually makes it into the movie). Overall, "Dune" is pretty awful, but for all that, it still possesses a few redeeming qualities.

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