Film review by Jason Day of Dune (1984), the sci-fi epic based on the writing of Frank Herbert about warring, intergalatic aristocratic houses. Starring Kyle MacLachlan and Francesca Annis and directed by David Lynch.
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Set in a distant galaxy, rival aristocratic houses – manipulated by the Emperor (Jose Ferrer) – fight to administrate the drilling and production of the all powerful spice Melange, which is used in space travel. Melange is found only on the desert planet of Arrakis, meaning young, idealistic Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) and his Ducal family selected by the Emperor must move from their lush, oceanic home of Caladan.
But Paul is plagued by dreams and visions about this weird new home and its secretive dune-dwelling people.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
Sci-fi gets sexy…and kinky.
A little bit of background before I dissect what is one of my cinematic guilty pleasures…
You might think the makers of this movie had missed a trick, releasing it just after the ‘final’ (but oh, it so wasn’t!) installment of the George Lucas mega-bucks Star Wars franchise, the series that really put sci-fi on the movie map.
Well, no. There were plans to make at least the first of Frank Herbert’s intergalactic, druggy, Ducal double dealings years before Lucas’ space opera was released, but original producer Arthur Laurents died whilst plans gathered steam.
Alejandro Jodorowsky took over after that, spending two years working on the script and pre-production for what would have resulted in, according to Herbert, a 14 hour long movie to star Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson and Salvador Dali. After $5m had been gobbled up, Jodorowsky admitted defeat and walked (the experience is chronicled in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune).
Enter then David Lynch, still riding high after his fabulous and multiple award strewn The Elephant Man (1980).
Legendarily indefatigable producer Dino De Laurentiis now owned the movie rights, having tried and failed to make a version in the 70’s with Ridley Scott, who dropped out, later making the sublime and splendid Alien (1979), the look of which was supposed to be heavily influenced by earlier stabs at Dune.
De Laurentiis had the right and better director in Lynch. His style was so obviously and visually steeped in the cooky, ridiculous and offbeat, entirely in keeping with the barmy, druggy, perverse nature of Herbert’s books.
The rest, as they say, is history. Lynch eventually turned out a four hour movie that he and others cut down to the two hours and a bit version you are most likely to see. He subsequently and famously had his name removed from the credits of a three hours plus version that is occasionally screened on TV and issued on DVD as the Extended Cut.
Well, there you have it. Dune, to some a big old, flashy, overblown load of bollocks or ambitious, lavish, sensuous, sexy (and slightly kinky) ‘sci-fi for grown ups’. For me it is a bit of both, punching above its weight and sometimes often missing the hit, but still a noble of film ‘failure’.
As if following The Elephant Man, which closed with a beautiful woman’s face superimposed against the cosmos, Dune opens in the same way. Virginia Madsen introduces the film and serves as narrator to help bridge the gaps in the movie where scenes had been chucked out in the final edit.
It’s an appropriately spaced out way to begin for a movie/book centred around drugs and a species of deified junkies that conduct the most powerful occurrence in the universe – a form of warp travel, bending time and space to jettison themselves anywhere they want in an instance.
The books were written during the 60’s flower child era and the universally coveted spice Melange is clearly a narcotic with supranatural effects. The Guild Navigators who live off it were formerly human but their who addiction has mutated them into horrific, but God-like monsters who are front, centre and beyond everything mere mortals know and experience.
On their respective planets, aristocratic human families battle to govern the only place where Melange exists – a desert planet called Arrakis – and thus become the chief dealers for the Navigators.
Melange is a bit like heroin or crystal meth in that it is extremely potent, seemingly delicious and highly addictive – once you pop, you just can’t stop. When Paul Atreides first encounters Melange, he sniffs his fingers with a saucy pleasure and says “Spice! Pure, unrefined spice!” as if already off on his first, giddying high. That’s it – he’s hooked!
MacLachlan (as Paul) grew up reading the Herbert books and was an avid fan, but in his first major film appearance is a bit of a black hole in terms of screen personality. At times, it looks as if his magnificent hair has more about it than the head it sits on.
NB: that very blankness would serve him well in Lynch’s next movie, Blue Velvet (1986), in which his played a middle class innocent uncovering criminality and sexual perversion in his quiet, white picket fenced town.
The extraordinary supporting cast either hit or miss their marks, but square on target are gorgeous Francesca Annis as Paul’s sultry, whispering witch mother, Freddie Jones as Paul’s loyal manservant and Kenneth McMillan as the gross, obese Baron Harkonnen who spits in Annis’ lovely face.
The same can’t be said for the special effects that are campy and of a very poor quality, such as the block/lego/Tron style shields Paul uses with Patrick Stewart when they fight and the Arrakis worms that less terrifying and more like recalcitrant hoover pipes.
Same too for the electronic score – by rocker Brian Eno and, unaccountably, 80’s band Toto – that just ratchets up the movie’s naff technical value by a factor of a thousand.
The film is swamped in symbolism that either baffled or annoyed audiences at the time who just wanted the story to get going. We have water dropped into rippling lakes, a moon with a mouse shaped crater, fetuses dangling in blood and amniotic fluid and frequent shots of Sean Young as Paul’s Arrakian love interest (her character is all but removed from the final cut, leaving her a superfluous presence in the credits).
By turns ravishing and lucid, then mystifyingly, frustratingly opaque and muddled, Lynch’s Dune fascinates, enthralls and influences to this day. Denis Villeneuve’s remake, slated for a December 2020 release, nods frequently toward it.
A friend of mine noted that her mother was one of those audience members and left the cinema saying the movie was “overblown bollocks”, which is fair enough.
In part, I agree but for tackling Herbert and largely succeeding, I rather admire Lynch’s bollocks.
FYI: the movie is dedicated to Federico Di Laurentiis, Dino’s son with Dune star Sylvana Mangano.
Cast & credits
Director: David Lynch. Various edit durations. Dino de Laurentiis Company/Estudios Churubusco Azteca S.A./United International Pictures. (12).
Producer: Raffaella De Laurentiis.
Writer: David Lynch.
Camera: Freddie Francis.
Sets: Anthony Masters.
Francesca Annis, Leonardo Cimino, Brad Dourif, Jose Ferrer, Linda Hunt, Freddie Jones, Richard Jordan, Kyle MacLachlan, Virginia Madsen, Silvana Mangano, Everett McGill, Kenneth McMillan, Jack Nance, Sian Phillips, Jurgen Prochnow, Paul L. Smith, Patrick Stewart, Sting, Dean Stockwell, Max von Sydow, Alicia Whitt, Sean Young.