May 7, 2020
Dune (1984) (part 1 of 11)
The Cast of Characters:
Paul Atreides/Usul/Muad’Dib (Kyle MacLachlan). A 25 year old teenager destined for great things, if only we knew what they were.
Jessica (Francesca Annis). Paul’s mother, who has super voice powers, and if you want to know more than that, you’ll have to read the book.
Duke Leto Atreides (Jurgen Prochnow). Paul’s father, who’s obsessed with sleepers and awakening for some reason.
Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart). One of Paul’s teachers, and there’s not much more to the character than that. But who cares? It’s Patrick Stewart!
Baron Vladomir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan). Our main villain, who… Well, just look at the picture.
Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (Sting). The baron’s nephew, who loves to shout randomly, and fills out a Speedo nicely.
Ah, Dune. Every science fiction fan knows the book, even if they haven’t actually taken the time to read it. Frank Herbert’s magnum opus was first published in 1965, and has since attained a legendary reputation as the biggest selling sci-fi novel in history, and the genre’s equivalent to The Lord of the Rings.
Which I actually think does it a disservice. Outside of hardcore fantasy fans, the majority opinion these days (which I happen to agree with) is that for all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s skill at world-building, and the massive influence his novels have had, the books themselves are a bit on the dull side, filled with paper-thin characters and highly intrusive pieces of exposition.
You’ll find none of that in Dune. It’s an incredible story that still manages to feel fresh all these decades later, populated with numerous compelling characters and a constantly evolving power struggle that’ll have you on the edge of your seat. Even scenes which simply feature two people talking have a level of gravitas and veiled threat, but if you pay attention you’ll never be confused, except when you’re supposed to be.
It’s not a perfect book. Herbert’s less than tolerant views of homosexuality are a little too apparent at times, and the story eventually gets a bit too big for its own good, so that the final chapter ends up feeling really rushed, with one subplot resolution after another after another thrown at us. But these are minor concerns, seeing as how the rest of the book is so good.
Herbert wrote four sequels, and was planning more before his death, but was never quite able to recreate the magic of the first book. And the less said about his son Brian’s shameless attempts to milk the cash cow, the better. Thankfully, we’ll always have that first book to treasure.
Which brings me to the subject of this recap. Naturally, Hollywood smelled huge potential in making movies out of these books, but producers had to wait a while, given that science fiction films at the time of publication were mostly in the realm of zero-budget schlockfests. Then along came a movie that proved a sci-fi film could be a massive success under the right circumstances.
Dino De Laurentiis wound up with the film rights, and he searched high and low for a writer-director who could be entrusted with such a huge potential moneymaker. What he found instead was David Lynch.
To me, like most people, Lynch is the very definition of a hit or miss director. When he’s good, he’s very good indeed, creating disturbing yet thoughtful films, often on his favorite subject: the seamy underbelly of ostensibly rosy societies. It’s here that you get films like The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and The Straight Story, as well as the TV series he co-created, Twin Peaks.
But then there are the times when he gets way too full of his own pretentions, and produces self-consciously artsy and confusing films like Eraserhead and Lost Highway. And when you manage to make a lesbian relationship between Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring among the most boring things ever committed to film, something has gone wrong.
And finally, there’s Lynch’s adaptation of Dune, the one true black sheep of his career. Not only is it his only adaptation of a novel, but it’s his only science fiction film as well (to me, Eraserhead doesn’t count, as it’s more weird than sci-fi). And boy does it show, as you get the impression that Lynch spent most of the shoot flailing around with no clue what he was doing. And it’s really a shame, because the movie sports an impressive cast who definitely could have given us great interpretations of the book’s characters, if only they’d been given a writer and director who knew what to do with them.
Interestingly, accounts vary wildly on how seriously Lynch took this film. Some say he was excited at the prospect of becoming a commercially successful director, hoping to create a franchise to rival Star Wars. Others insist he didn’t care at all, and only took the job to get financing for Blue Velvet, as was specified in his contract.
Whatever his intentions, the film is a mess. It’s a textbook example of how not to turn a novel into a movie, showing no concern at all for people who don’t already know the book. In fact, the film is so bad at exposition that several theaters resorted to handing out “cheat sheets” to anyone who bought a ticket, with a plot summary and character descriptions.
But at least it’s an endlessly fascinating mess. While watching it, you’ll find yourself constantly wondering just what the hell was going through the minds of everyone involved with the current scene. Maybe if you haven’t read the book, you’ll just find yourself bored by having no idea what’s going on or why you should care, but if you’re in the right mood, it makes for one hell of a viewing experience that you won’t soon forget.