10 Aug

In Defense of Dune

Posted by Bryan White | Friday August 10, 2007 | Reviews

DuneMy nightmares never star monsters nor is anyone is ever trying to kill me. In my nightmares people behave strangely and tell me, with the utmost urgency, things that don’t make any sense. This is why I love David Lynch. His movies are exactly like my nightmares. Everything is lit strangely from below, everyone is shot in uncomfortable close ups, the dialog is often delivered deliberately wooden and awkward. People change, I change, locations change at the drop of a hat and there is a pervasive air of confusion about the entire affair. My nightmares and David Lynch’s movies are suspiciously similar in tone.

I took in Lynch’s latest, Inland Empire, last night and I’m pleased to report that nothing has changed. Short of the Alan Smithee cut of Dune, this is probably his longest movie with a runtime of over three hours. Three hours of sweet, sweet madness. When I was in school, I had discussions about Lynch’s movies with a film major and he laid the usual film school bullshit on me about hidden meaning, deep metaphor and everything you would expect from a guy in horn rimmed glasses reading a book about the French new-wave. He could never accept my belief that Lynch’s most confusing, stream of consciousness movies weren’t hiding anything, they are what they are and it’s up to you to connect the dots in your own way. This way, his movies have a different story every time you watch them.

Truth be told, my favorite Lynch movies are his most lucid. The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Fire Walk With Me. While Blue Velvet is his single greatest achievement in my opinion, Dune also ranks high on my list. I’m a huge fan of the novel and despite a few creative departures, I think the movie is the shit.

Alright. Deep breath. Get comfortable. If it wasn’t rough enough encapsulating the plot of a Frank Herbert novel, matters are complicated further by adding David Lynch to the director’s chair.

The planet Arakis is the only source of the most precious commodity in the known universe, the spice melange. Thousands of years into the future, after man is driven to near extinction by thinking machines of its own creation, man outlaws most technology and through use of the spice, they elevate their consciousness. Some spice users have trained their expanded minds to think like computers. Some, a clergy of women, can read thoughts and feelings and some have developed the ability to bend space with their minds making faster than light travel possible. The Emperor of the Universe, in fear of the rising popularity of House Atreides in the Lansraad, a collective of Fiefdoms, unseats the present Lord of Arakis, Baron Harkonen, sworn enemy of the Atreides family, and puts Leito Atreides in control of the planet with a secret conspiracy to hand Leito to Harkonen and destroy House Atreides.

Got it?

Leito’s son and heir apparent to the Atreides throne is Paul. Paul is an anomaly. The Benegeserit Order, who devote their lives to developing their mental skills and maintaining a hard-line lineage of marriages and births in order to birth the Kwisatz Haderach, a messiah-like figure, fear Paul because his mother, the Duke’s wife, disobeyed their orders to bear a girl who would be married to the Harkonen son, Feyd Rautha. Paul’s birth, however, applies to a prophecy that the Kwisatz Haderach would be born earlier than first thought and would destroy the current order of rule in the universe.

The Atreides are uprooted from their home on Planet Caladan and set up shop in the former Harknone palace and get a look at Arakis. The spice is mined in the desert by the dilligent workers of the Choam Corporation but their efforts are constantly threatened by giant worms who live in the desert. The native people of Arakis, The Fremen are a constant and intimidating presence as well. Their exposure to spice, over generations, has turned their eyes a brilliant blue and legends abound of fearsome guerilla fighters who live in the deep desert, thought to be uninhabitable. Shortly after the Duke and family get settled, advisors to the Atreides turn on them and Harkonen, aided by the Emperors disguised elite storm troopers invade the Atreides palace, nearly killing the Duke and kidnapping Paul and his mother Jessica where they are to be abandoned in the deep desert. Paul, using his inherited Benegeserit talents, manages to get the upper hand against the Harkonen captors and crashes in the desert where they stumble upon a Fremen settlement.

Paul, through a fight with the Fremen leader, gains their acceptance and becomes one of them, teaching them to fight with a sound-based attack called The Weirding Way (in the book, a martial art) and eventually takes his Fremen name, Muad’ib. Meanwhile, his mother, Jessica, drinks the water of life, a high concentration of spice taken from the bile of a dying sandworm, to awaken her ancestral knowledge, gaining the knowledge of every benegeserit that came before her in her bloodline. Jessica is pregnant and causes an early birth of Paul’s sister, the youngest, fully aware Benegeserit in the history of the order. Over years of training and hit and run strikes against the Harkonen, Muad’ib and the Fremen prepare to take on the Harkonens, destroy them and take control of Arakis back from the Harkonen, the Lansraad and the Emperor.

Make no mistake, this is heavy sci-fi. It’s epic and like many of the best-known sci-fi and fantasy, it creates an entire world with a sprawling back story and a multi-faceted narrative. Herbert’s novel bounces around to all the major players so you know what’s going on at all times. Lynch was tasked with adapting this huge novel to screen, an unenviable task if I’ve ever heard of one.

The Dune movie also marks one of the greatest what could have been moments in the history of film that few people have ever heard about. During the 70′s, with money from a French investor and The Rolling Stones, ultra-weirdo Alejandro Jodorowsky was set to begin production on a ten hour adaptation with contributions from Salvador Dali, Dan O’Bannon, H.R. Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud, among others. The soundtrack was to be provided by Pink Floyd. What followed during preproduction were money problems, fights between Jodorowsky and Dali, Dan O’Bannon’s nervous breakdown and a massive, 14 hour script. Giger was set to design the Harkonen set pieces and Moebius, the Atreides. According to Herbert, the preproduction phase was insane but he was happy with the outcome. Unfortunately, the bottom fell out and the project went from director to director, settling on Ridley Scott at one point and finally finding a home in the hands of David Lynch. Lynch had just won tons of acclaim for his movie, The Elephant Man, and offers to direct other features were pouring in (including a shot at Return of the Jedi!). Dino De Laurentis handed it off and the rest is history.

This being Lynch’s third feature, you can see a lot of his trademark techniques developing. With conspiracy and secrecy playing such a large role in the story, Lynch knew that he was going to have to provide a way to convey the inner monologues of the characters so rather than adjust the script to have people discussing their thoughts as other directors might, Lynch adds the soliloquy moments as the characters stare off on screen while a narration plays over the scene, quietly, to let you know what they’re thinking. A weird technique to add to a movie, no doubt. The movie also takes some liberties with the source material. In the novel, the weirding way is a sort of martial art, like kung fu, that allows Paul to move extremely fast. In the movie, the weirding way is a vocal technique, amplified through gun-like modules that project the sound into a destructive force. The benegeserits also aren’t psychic, they’re merely super-keen. There’s a lot that is changed but it suits the script well and trims a lot of time. As much as I’d like a 14 hour Jodorowsky Dune adaptation, this is probably the closest thing to the novel we’ll ever get.

The cast is suitably huge for such an undertaking. Kyle McLachlan, Patrick Stewart, Jack Nance, Sting, Brad Douriff, Dean Stockwell, Jurgen Prochnow, Sean Young, the list goes on and on. Despite the near pychedelic script, everyone turns in a solid performance. Also, laugh all you want at Sting and his space undies, there was no one else on earth born to play that part. Feyd is a slight, androgynous dude and so is Sting. It was a match made in heaven. The undies are a little much, though.

Despite the massive scope, great acting and special effects, just about every critic on earth took time out of their busy schedules to lay a huge steamer on this movie. After some research on this baby, I found out that the only critic who was ever kind to it was, oddly, the infamously grouchy Harlan Ellison. Like wine, though, the movie has matured in a lot of viewers eyes and like few sci-fi flicks of the time, it doesn’t show its age quickly. A cult has rallied around it and because of this, Dune earns a spot on my review list.

Last year, they released a stellar collector’s edition of the DVD containing shitloads of extras, Lynch’s theatrical cut of the movie as well as the three hour extended cut that begins with a narration of the back story accompanied by paintings of what is going in the known universe leading up to these events. Because I’m a huge nerd, I prefer the longer cut.

For the record. I’ve never seen the Sci-Fi channel movies.

Order Dune (Extended Edition) at Amazon now!

16 Comments 

  1. August 10, 2007 1:15 pm

    retroman dc

    this movie made absolutely no sense yet it was still fascinating to watch. Pretty typical od lynch. I’ll have to watch it again sometime and give it another whirl. Did you ever the disney movie he made called the straight story? My favorit movie of his just because it’s not the stereotypical lynch film.

  2. August 10, 2007 1:54 pm

    Bryan White

    I think the biggest problem for most people and Dune is the same thing that is beginning to curse the Harry Potter movies. The books are huge, the movies aren’t nearly long enough to cover everything so they more or less become a montage of the best parts of the books. If you didn’t read them, like me, you’re completely in the dark.

    Dune is huge. HUGE! The book is very long and weaves an extremely complicated political story with so many characters to keep track of. It’s no wonder that people unfamiliar with the novel are left out in the cold. I am biased because I’ve read the book a few times but I saw the movie before I read it and even then, I still liked it. It took me a few viewings to really sort everything out and gain an understanding of the plot.

    Never saw Straight Story. Was that the one James Coburn won an Oscar for? A friend of mine told me it was very sad and that you wouldn’t know it was Lynch if someone didn’t tell you.

  3. August 12, 2007 9:23 pm

    Retroman DC

    I didn’t really think Straight story was sad at all. in fact I thought it had a very heart-felt ending to it. and yeah there’s no way you’d think it’s Lynch except for a few subtle clues. like how characters talk to each other in some scenes and some camera shots. there’s also this weird play over of the same video montage of wheat fields. Like Lynch is trying to make another subtle commentary about something. Definitely check it out. Yeah I think James Coburn won for that role. Sissy Spacek was in it as well. I’m becoming more of a Lynch fan to more I see his movies. There’s a new one out on DVD this month…shoot I forgot the name.

  4. August 16, 2007 2:05 pm

    Dave Munger

    Attempts to summarize Dune never seem to agree very well on details. Like, I always thought the spice just caused pre-cognition, and that made it possible to navigate tessaracts without AI assist.

    The soliliquy technique itself dosen’t seem that odd, seen it in coffee commercials and stuff, but in the movie, the info thus supplied dosen’t seem terribly helpful. The chin guy seems to spend about four hours going “Worm… spice… worm is the spice… worms are related to the spice in some way… third moon… wormy wormy spice spice…” without ever apparently wondering if maybe the worm PRODUCES the spice or something.

    Harlan Ellison was just looking for an excuse to punch all the other critics for disagreeing with him. Fun movie, but IMHO, the ending is the biggest mess in the history of messy movie endings. For one thing, in general, electric guitars do not work for establishing any kind of mood in a movie, especially science fiction, especially if you’re trying to sell action figures riding on sock puppet worms as an awe-inspiring sight (you need pipe organs or tympani or something for that). And I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure the script dosen’t bother explaining the meaning of the Kwitzat-Hadderach (beyond translating it as “shortening of the way”) before that muppety kid announces portentiously that Paul IIIIISSSS the Kwitzat-Hadderach, the bald chick LOSES IT, and the movie’s over.

  5. August 16, 2007 7:41 pm

    Bryan White

    LALALALA I’M NOT LISTENING! I CAN’T HEAR YOU! LALALALA!!!

    It’s a deeply flawed movie and even the elongated version takes some leaps of faith to really dig, but I’m so into it. It does the best it can to explain itself but that book is something like 800 pages of complicated plotting and back story.

  6. August 17, 2007 4:19 am

    Bryan White

    Also, I completely forgot to take a few sentences and rag on the soundtrack.

    Toto! Toto? Are you fucking serious? The Rosana guys? Who’s idea was that? I thought Tangerine Dream was a weird choice for Blade Runner but that one works out in the end.

  7. August 18, 2007 7:50 pm

    Dave Munger

    I think the Blade Runner soundtrack was by Vangelis.

  8. August 19, 2007 6:43 am

    Bryan White

    Yeah. You’re right. I’m going to go figure out what the hell I’m talking about.

  9. August 28, 2007 10:32 pm

    matt racicot

    Hey Bryan White,

    Last time I saw Dune I had eaten a handful of Liberty Caps (mushrooms), and literally did not come out of my ‘daze’ until the credits rolled, having believed I had been controlling a space ship of my own… that was in ’98.
    I have a daughter now myself (18 mnths), and wish you and your wife all the best.
    I just stumbled onto your site this evening through the Wiki links on Exploitation cinema– hope to read more.

    p.s. the website address i’ve posted is my wife’s, and I think she only suspects I’ve tried hallucinogens.

  10. August 29, 2007 6:20 am

    Bryan White

    Alright, dude. I’ll keep it on the down low. I was going to ask how you came to the site since I’m curious as to how people find it. I have Google analytics installed and as robust as that pack is for tracking visitors, it doesn’t give me specifics. Those Wikipedia links at the start of the site were responsible for a lot of the site’s early traffic.

  11. August 29, 2007 5:46 pm

    Dave Munger

    I came in from the badmovies.org MB.

  12. August 30, 2007 5:13 am

    Bryan White

    What’s your nick over there, Dave?

  13. August 31, 2007 7:37 am

    Matt Racicot

    Another coincidence- after dropping my daughter off at daycare I came upon a box of Film Magazines (yesterday was recycling day) and am now deep into a Cinefantastique issue all about Dune and it’s development.
    A few insights so far:
    First rights were bought by Producer Arthur P. Jacobs (Planet of the Apes) but his sudden death stopped production before it began.
    Next a French millionaire backed Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo) to direct, involving Dali who would play the Emperor, and artwork by H.R. Giger…
    And then DeLaurentis picked up the rights when the first Production was swamped with over $2 million in pre-production cost.
    Rudolph Wurlitzer (writer of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid- Peckinpah’s masterpiece in my opinion, and the best Western EVER), was hired to adapt with Ridley Scott to direct. This attempt didn’t work because Scott’s estimated $50 million cost seemed excessive- Scott went on to Blade Runner.
    Lynch’s Dune ended up taking a year to make and cost more than $75 million.
    - it took him four years to finish Eraserhead.

  14. September 5, 2007 3:49 pm

    Dave Munger

    I kind of have trouble getting my ‘puter to remember stuff, so I’m usually just a guest, name of Dave or Dave M.

  15. July 25, 2010 2:47 pm

    Coz

    I came in in a totally weird way. On a web hunt looking for a scene in a screencap on a sci-fi possibly horror movie that had me in http://fascinationwithfear.blogspot.com that then took me to http://welcome-to-monster-land.blogspot.com via it’s ‘friends’ links. I’ve been in here for the past 7 hours now, I think. Not that I read slow. It’s just I never realized this sort of venue existed. And…and I think I’m in love! Heck with find the answer to that movie scene…you’ve got me but good. I’ve never had so much fun. Finding out that I’m not the ONLY one who adores Dune (until now it’s been a secret) with it’s flaws and all has been just another spoon full of sugar for me. Thank you. Thank you so very much. Now I hafta get back to reading. So much to catch up on in here and miles yet to go. ;)

  16. September 10, 2011 4:04 pm

    Chris

    One of my favorite 80s flicks for the reason you touch on up front: its dreamlike qualities, that make it the most ‘realistic’ vision of an alternative humanoid universe I’ve ever seen on film. Its barely coherent narrative is smeared over the top of the rich visual details like chocolate frosting on a chocolate mousse cake. At the end I didn’t feel like the movie was over so much as I felt like I’d woken up.


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