Jul 122011
 

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HCF GUILTY PLEASURES:DUNE [1984]

AVAILABLE ON DVD and Blu Ray:Now

DIRECTED BY:David Lynch

WRITTEN BY:David Lynch

STARRING:Kyle MacLachlan, Jose Ferrer, Jurgen Prochnow, Kenneth Macmillan

RUNNING TIME:137 mins/ 180 mins [TV version]

REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic

It is the year 1019, and the universe is dominated by the presence of the spice Melange which extends life, expands consciousness, and can fold space.  It exists in only one place: the desert planet of Arrakis, also known as Dune, whose inhabitants, the Fremen, have a legend that tells of the coming of a messiah from another world.  The Emperor of the known universe, Shaddam IV, becomes concerned that the House of Atreides on the planet Caladan is becoming too powerful.  So he plots with their enemies, the House of Harkonnen, to allow the Duke Leto Atreides to guard Dune and its spice ore, where they will be vulnerable to a surprise attack from the Harkonnens.  His son, Paul, the result of a centuries long breeding program by the Bene Gesserit witches  [of whom his mother is one] to produce a super being called the Kwisatz Haderach, is plagued by dreams of a strange future.   On Arrakis, Leto is unaware that a traitor working for the Harkonnens is in their midst…………..

I’m going to say straightaway so that anyone reading this who thinks I am mad can stop reading now – I love Dune, and I’ve loved it even since I first hired it out on video in 1986.  Here was a science fiction epic that contained many of the things you would find in Star Wars and films of that ilk –  spaceships, vast battles, noble heroes, nasty villains, monsters – but which looked and felt totally different to any of those films.  I also understood the story, which shows how dumb all those critics who complained that the story was unintelligible were.  There are times when I despair at the norm of film criticism, and I sometimes feel angry when thinking about Dune’s critical reception.  Critics constantly complain about too many films being the same and not different enough, but when one comes along that is different they tend to pounce on it, like vultures on a carcass [a more recent example is The Fountain].  Even people like Roger Ebert, generally regarded as one of the top film critics, jumped on the bandwagon, writing things like “ this movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time “.  I sometimes wonder if he saw a different movie to the one I saw and loved, because I don’t think it’s confusing at all.  Okay, there are some things that are vague, but you can say that about 2001. The film is certainly flawed, but I think they did a reasonable job of adapting and tightening Frank Herbert’s novel.  You know why?  Because in my opinion the book is boring.  Yes, overall it’s a fine story, but mostly consists of pages and pages of turgid dialogue and nothing happening.

Despite this, one cannot deny that it was a phenomenon in the 1960s, partly because Herbert incorporated many concerns which people were becoming interested in such as drug use, religious fanaticism, genetic engineering and the environment.  The film world soon became interested, and before I defend this wonderful, crazy movie any more, I am going to spend a bit of time detailing its production history, because it really is quite fascinating.  First of all Arthur P.Jacobs, fresh from producing Planet Of The Apes and eager for another science fiction project which could become a big hit, optioned Dune in 1969 and offered David Lean the chance to direct, but soon after died of a heart attack.  Then in 1975 Chilean cult director Alexandro Jodorowsky [El Topo], backed by French millionaire Michael Seydoux, obtained the property.  He wrote a screenplay and hired an amazing collection of artists including Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, H.R, Giger, Dan O’ Bannon and Chris Foss to work on the film, while the cast included Salvador Dali, Orson Welles and Charlotte Rampling.  Pink Floyd was to write the music and the film was to be ten hours long.  As the sets were being built, the finances dried up and the production ground to a halt.  Now I personally think that this film would have been one of the most incredible pieces of cinematic art ever and it remains the greatest of all the ‘great unmade films’.  Anyway, Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights in 1978 and got Herbert to write the screenplay, but it was apparently “unfilmable”.  Then Rudolph Wurlitzer did another screenplay [which included Paul having sex with his mother!] and Ridley Scott was going to direct it, but the proposed budget was too high.  De Laurentiis, though, was determined to get Dune made, and chose David Lynch, who up to then had only made Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, to direct.  After some more rewrites by other hands, he ended up scribing most of the script too.

The film attracted a tremendous and varied cast, I personally don’t know how one can dislike a film which has Max Von Sydow, Sean Young, Patrick Stewart, Freddie Jones, Virginia Madsen, Dean Stockwell, Kyle MacLachlan and Sting all in the same movie!  Some of the best technicians including Carlo Rambaldi [most famous for creating E.T, but don’t hold that against him!] and cinematographer Freddie Francis were employed, and filming went ahead in New Mexico with few hiccups, amazingly.  The then ‘hot’ band Toto were hired to do the score.  Things went wrong though when a four hour rough cut was screened and De Laurantiis and his daughter Rafaella who co-produced chopped the movie down…..and down…..down, whilst ordering a few new scenes to be shot to mask the cuts.  Lynch would have been happy with a three hour cut, but it seems everyone else wanted two hours. The eventual running time was two hours and seventeen minutes.  The film was released to mostly awful reviews and mediocre box office, though I must say that Dune remains the only Lynch film to debut in the top ten [it reached number two during its opening weekend].   I distinctly remember seeing toys from the film in a shop, bizarre as it was a ‘15’ certificate!   In 1988 MCA put together a three hour TV version that restored some deleted footage, but largely botched it through shoddy editing and repetition of footage.  I usually love extended versions of films, but this version of Dune, despite a few fine scenes, is a mess, they even screwed up the score!  Sadly Lynch has refused offers to do a Director’s Cut because he considers his experience with Dune too painful.  I constantly hope that one day he reconsiders.

Dune opens with the gorgeous Virginia Madsen giving us some background, and though I have read reviews saying it’s impossible to understand, I disagree, you just need to listen and concentrate.   Now I will admit that the first third or so of the film is extremely slow and rather solemn, in the manner of a 50s Biblical epic, but for me the incredible sets and costumes never fail to impress and startle.  Instead of trying to be futuristic, this movie looks to the past, so you get echoes of Tsarist Russia, Nazi Gemany, Victorian England and many other things, and you cannot deny this makes for a visually opulent movie.  After a few scenes setting up the plot [which may be simplified from Herbert but is all the better for it] on planet Caladan, we have an incredible sequence where spaceships enter what looks like some kind of tunnel in space and are transported to Arrakis by the Guild Navigators, who look like a cross between grasshoppers and human foetuses.  The visuals and sheer concepts here are astounding.  Once on Arrakis, the pace does eventually pick up and the film turns into something resembling a war movie.  You could call this film Star Wars meets Lawrence Of Arabia, though I would add psychedelic drugs into the equation too!  The actual battle scenes are messy and unfocused and Lynch seems to have more fun with Paul’s spice-induced hallucinations, with re-occurring images such as an out-stretched hand and pools of water.  The whole film has a dreamlike, almost trippy, feel, but I think it’s obvious that the final third suffered the most cuts, as events move incredibly quickly [wouldn’t it have been nice to have seen some of Paul and Chani’s courtship?].   Throughout, scenes are mostly short and are sometimes strangely edited, but I love the almost hallucinatory feel this creates.  As for the ending, which is not in the book, it makes no sense [wouldn’t the worms die?], but so what, this film left normal storytelling in scene two or scene three.

I’ve just mentioned the worms, and these expertly created and executed creatures, with their mouths that open into vaginal orifices, are one of the highpoints in a film which, despite what many Lynch detractors may say, is full of the director’s usual symbolic and often sexual imagery.  Take the scenes with the hideous Baron Harkonnen [who has diseases injected into him] which, though not graphic, are rife with erotic but disturbing elements.  The Baron’s first scene has him immerse himself in some kind of oil-like substance, then float to a victim, pull out a heart plug out of his chest causing blood to pour out, then do something to him which is not seen, all in a montage whose sadistic sexual imagery rivals anything in Blue Velvet or Fire Walk With Me.  This is still a Lynch film through and through, rife with his usual obsessions, from voyeurism to dreams to light/dark female characters, and there are some simply bonkers props such as the gun-like things which you point at something and shout for the weapon to work.  The special effects though, it must be said, are a mixed bag, with some very poor matte work in particular letting the side down, and some superbly detailed model work mixed with models that look they were just thrown up in a couple of minutes.  Sometimes the design is so ambitious that the effects people can’t quite do it justice in the execution.  Now I’ve read many complaints about the script, but I really don’t think it’s bad at all, especially if you compare it to the Star Wars prequels!  I know many disagree, but to me the story is relatively easy to follow, as I’ve already said, and though things do seem rushed in the second half, I’ve seen countless films that are worse.  The method of having people saying their thoughts has been criticised, but I don’t read many complaints when Terence Malick does it.  I like the trance-like state it helps create.  As for the strong drug element, I doubt anyone could say the movie advocates drug taking!  Melange may expand Paul’s consciousness, give him certain powers and enable him to ride a worm, but he’ll be addicted to it for the rest of his life and the drug is basically the cause of the wars in the film anyway.  Along with other themes such as religious crusading [I wonder if they would call Paul’s mission a ‘Jihad’ now!], the film is very ambivalent about what it’s supposedly more sympathetic protagonists embark on.

Kyle MacLachlan is somewhat insipid as Paul, but this was his first film role.  Everyone else acts their socks off, with the performances of the more ‘culty’ and ‘offbeat’ cast members clashing in a quite wonderful way with the acting of the more ‘serious’ ,traditional folk.  Although some characters are given short shrift, everyone makes an impression.  I especially love Brad Dourif’s lunatic hand and arm gestures and Sting’s extremely perverse stare.  Eyebrows feature a great deal, with Freddie Jones winning on that score, but there are some worthy also-rans.  Toto’s score, despite being mucked about with a bit during editing, is often grand and extremely atmospheric and sounds totally different to your typical John Williams/Jerry Goldsmith type of science fiction score, with one of those absurdly simple main themes that you probably won’t get out of your head for ages.  The flourishes of 80s electric guitar and electronic amidst the orchestral stuff give the score a distinct flavour.  It’s a fine effort coming from a rock band with no prior experience of film scoring, and it’s a shame they didn’t do more.  A beautiful piece by Brian Eno is somewhat haphazardly cut in to some scenes.  There is a great deal wrong with Dune as it stands, but considering that the chances of Lynch doing his cut are minimal, we just have to accept the movie the way it is, and I’m satisfied with it that way.  Strange, mystical and audacious, filled with unforgettable imagery and resolutely refusing to do anything normally, Dune deserves to be re-appraised as one of the great science-fiction and fantasy movies of the 80s.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★½☆

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  2 Responses to “DUNE [1984] [GUILTY PLEASURES]”

  1. This is one of my favourite Sci/FI epics,and your write up more than sums up this cult classic by the awesome Lynch.I also agree that the storyline is pretty straight forward if you keep your eyes and ears open,just not enough laser action for some,and not far enough out for others.

  2. Dr Lenera

    Thankyou, and I was hoping someone else had a love for this movie, we so often seem to share the same tastes!

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