Dune (1984): United States – directed by David Lynch
Rated PG by the MPAA – contains violence
Dune is the last of David Lynch’s feature films that I hadn’t seen. I had heard much, primarily through various interviews with Lynch, about its troubled production, about its poor reception, and about some of the mistakes he made in taking on a big budget and epic production after the intimacy of The Elephant Man. I was therefore quite surprised that I enjoyed the movie much at all, and was even surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) at some of the marvelous Lynchian images that are created onscreen.
To begin with, I have no knowledge of Frank Herbert’s novel other than an old computer game of the same name I played briefly many years ago. All I learned was that there was a desert and giant worms, and maybe something about spice.
I was therefore pleased with how much of the plot I was able to understand, as I had heard it was rather large and complex. As I recollect, the story revolves around four primary planets. There is an emperor on one who rules them all, and a couple others that are ruled separately as well. The final planet drives the story forward, as it is called Arrakis, aka Dune.
Arrakis has a valuable spice on it that everyone wants. The two separately-ruled planets are fighting for control of Arrakis until the Emperor steps in. There is also a mystical son that one of the rulers has. The son is Paul Atreides, also known as Paul Muad’Dib, played by Kyle MacLachlan. He may be the prophesied one that will free the people of Arrakis, the Fremen. He has some magical powers that he learns about from his mother, who is a witch. At the same time there is a lot of mythology and dense background story behind everyone and everything.
I realize my plot summary doesn’t make much sense. I suppose the story is probably a bit too complicated to be summed up in a couple of paragraphs. Needless to say, Paul is the hero as he fights the evil Harkonnen and the Emperor himself. I suppose it should be complicated, since it is a space epic.
The story is not particularly enlightening or engaging, probably because it is forced to move in leaps and bounds to include all of the numerous plot points and characters. I’m sure many more characters and plot lines had to be cut from the original source material to accommodate a running time of just over two hours.
There are a lot of things I appreciated, though. Many of Lynch’s trademark images show up time and again, including mesmerizing views of the stars and space. Fog and dream sequences go hand in hand, as they do in many of Lynch’s films. Strange creatures and strange language and sounds show up, adding to the effective atmosphere of the entire production. The desert scenes were generally quite enjoyable, and I even liked the special effects of the worms. Many of the effects hold up better today than other sci-fi movies from the eighties, and part of that might be due to the limited use of computer graphics. The soundtrack, too, is quite evocative and moving.
This is one of the many films where you might lament what might have been. Alejandro Jodorowsky (of El Topo fame) had been working with artists Jean Giraud and H.R. Giger to create his own radically different version of the epic. From some of the interviews with Jodorowsky that I’ve seen it seems like his production would have been quite something, very strange and bizarre, but in a different way than Lynch. If Jodorowsky had done Dune one can only imagine how Lynch would have directed Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.
But we have what was created and that’s the way it is. As much negativity as I had heard about Dune I was rather surprised to enjoy it so much. Even if the producers got in Lynch’s way at times, his artistic aesthetic still manages to show through. The film has its problems, including some inert action and war scenes and some inane and oftentimes incomprehensible dialogue and situations, but overall I thought it was not a bad movie. I watched the original theatrical version so I suspect that the three hour cut adds in a lot more plot, though I have no burning desire to rush and see it. Dune is not for everyone, but those who have no previous knowledge of Herbert’s novel might find enough in this space epic to enjoy.