Dune is a high-concept science fiction yarn based on the excellent book of the same name by Frank Herbert. Dune tackles a lot of serious themes and has an intricate plot that was thought, for many years, to be unworkable as a movie, and they may have been right. This is a movie that delves into politics on a grand scale, ecology, Zen Buddhism, and revolution, all in two-and-a-half hours. If that seems like a long movie, you're right. It's still not enough time to develop all of those concepts simultaneously. On the bright side, the movie soundtrack was done by Toto! They rawk!
Okay, now a quick quiz... What's the best part of this video?
A) The sweatbands on the keyboardist's wrists.
B) The singer finding Africa: The Book! and giving himself a satisfied nod.
C) The band singing a song allegedly about Africa and the video taking place on a large book.
D) That it manages to devalue an entire continent (54 countries!) in under five minutes.
The film begins with Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) explaining the state of the universe to the camera. In the distant future, the universe is ruled by Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (Jose Ferrer) and the most valuable resource in the universe is the spice melange. Melange is kind of like a cosmic LSD, only useful; it expands the mind, prolongs the user's life, and is essential to space travel. The Spacing Guild's Navigators use the drug to see the future and fold space, which makes space travel faster and safer. The problem with melange is that is only grows on one stinking planet, Arrakis AKA Dune. With this explanation, the Princess is not seen again until the last ten minutes of the film, where she might not have had any dialogue.
Are you with me so far? Well, in an effort to smash a political rival, Emperor Shaddam is giving control of Arrakis to, um, his rival, Duke Leto Atreides (Jurgen Prochnow). That doesn't make much sense, does it? Well, the Emperor is arranging to have the Atreides' longtime rival, the Harkonnens, ambush Atriedes on Arrakis. When the Spacing Guild's Navigators foresee these events, they demand that the Emperor kill not only Duke Leo, but also his son, Paul (Kyle MacLachlan). These future-seers think that Paul is a danger to their melange supply. So, the Emperor agrees to off the kid. And with that, we are about five minutes into the movie!
From here on out, things pretty much fall into place. The Atreides go to Arrakis and they get ambushed. Paul and his mother escape into the desert and encounter the native Fremen, who manage to live in the desert and have learned how to live with the incredibly destructive sand worms that are a danger to everybody else. But why should the Fremen help these strangers? And, even if Paul and his mother get help, what is next for them? Revenge? That seems a little petty. How about a step toward universal domination via guns that are powered by special words? That seems a little ridiculous. It's a little of both.
Legend has it that David Lynch's final script called for this film to be a little over three hours long, but the movie studio forced it to be whittled down to a trim two-and-a-quarter hours. I cannot find a way to suitably express my condolences to anyone who had to watch a three-hour version of this movie. Two hours was all I could take, and that is only because I stopped questioning the plot. This movie positively drags. Well over half of the movie is pure exposition, with the ambush of the Atreides serving as a mid-movie huge action scene. The odd thing about that battle is that very little of it is shown. Then there is more exposition, and a whole boatload of weird stuff shoved into the last half hour.
The biggest problem I have with this film is its use of voice-overs. Sometimes, they are used to explain plot. Sometimes, they seem to indicate telepathy. Whatever. They are all just awful. I don't need to hear Kyle MacLachlan's voice explaining more than his dialogue does --- I need the scenes to explain the plot, instead. Voice-overs that explain plot are a lazy, cut-corner trick to salvage a movie that has become too expensive to re-shoot scenes, and the fact that this movie is full of them should indicate the quality of the movie.
Speaking of Kyle, I have to admit that I am not a big fan of his work. He's actually not too bad here, but the things that the script forces his to say often sound really, really stupid. Do you remember the Fatboy Slim song, "Weapon of Choice?" It borrows one of Kyle's lines: "If we walk without rhythm, we won't attract the worm;" of course, Kyle then proceeds to walk normally. Actually, I don't particularly dislike any of the actors in this film, with the possible exception of Kenneth McMillan who, as the evil Harkonnen leader, couldn't have been more comically evil if he had a six-pound handlebar mustache to twirl. Brad Douriff, Sean Young, Linda Hunt, Freddie Jones, Richard Jordan, Dean Stockwell, Max von Sydow, and the already mentioned Jurgen Prochnow all played their small roles capably. They looked and sounded silly doing so, but they took their jobs seriously and did the best they could in difficult circumstances. Patrick Stewart has a small role in the film, too, but the aspect of his performance that struck me the most was the fact that he apparently grew a skullet as the movie progressed. I can't say that I was particularly pleased by the young Alicia Witt (in her film debut) and her bizarre voice, but her character was pretty weird and the voice may have been changed in post-production. Now, Sting gets a lot of attention on the various DVD covers for this film, and I'm not sure why. Maybe because of this:
|Umm...is that a bird...servicing him?|
So, at least the acting's not bad. There's no great work, but it all fits the film. For this movie to even come close to succeeding, though, it needs to look awesome. As George Lucas has shown, if your movie is visually spectacular, nobody cares about the plot. Sadly, Dune couldn't get that right, even with a large budget. Problem #1: the stillsuit.
|It's like they have Hitler 'staches, with a left sideburn connection|
Problem #2: the special effects looked bad, even by 1984 standards.
|An actual frame from the movie. No joke.|
Problem #3: the story is damn near incomprehensible.
|An actual page of script from Dune|
I'm not even going to go into Lynch's direction, except to say that this film looks awful, and that's usually his strong point. Did you know that Lynch was considered as a director for Return of the Jedi? He opted to make this mess instead. I suppose that's a good thing, because his fondness for strange dwarf characters would only have lead to some bizarre scenes with the Ewoks.
The one good thing I can say about this movie is that it approaches the source material with respect. The final product may resemble the diarrhea of someone who digested the book, but the intent to honor it was there. I don't even want to blame anyone in particular for this monstrosity. I just want to forget about it.