Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Have you ever heard of Alan Smithee?  For a little over thirty years, it was the credit given to directors that wanted to disavow their work in a particular film due to the final version of the film not meeting their creative vision.  In other words, if the star or studio re-cut the movie, the director could protest by crediting the work to Smithee.  It's happened many times over the years, and Eric Idle made a terrible movie that joked about the process, so you may have heard of Smithee by now.  What I didn't know until I researched it for two or three minutes (I love the internet!) was that directors sometimes requested a Smithee credit for re-edited versions of their movies, like those shown in airplanes or on television.  Why do I bring this up?  I knew that one of the many versions of Dune that was aired on television had David Lynch's name removed from both the directing and writing credits.  While I haven't seen the Smithee version of the film (also known as the "Extended Version" on DVD), it can't be much worse than this approved version.

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?
Whatever the case, Sting gets to overact and has an anticlimactic fight scene with Kyle.  I would critique his work, but I can't look at those weird fiberglass undies and keep a serious thought in my head.

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
Everyone on Arrakis has to wear these things to survive; they recycle your body's moisture and fluids to prevent dehydration on the desert planet.  Unfortunately, that means that everybody spends substantial time wearing nose plugs.
Problem #2: the special effects looked bad, even by 1984 standards.
An actual frame from the movie.  No joke.
In the beginning of the movie, young Paul turns on his "bodyshield" for a sparring match; it is blocky, sometimes opaque, and it made Star Wars-inspired noises.  Awful.  Thankfully, this suit is never seen again after the half-hour mark.  The sets in general looked cheap, the costumes were lame, and the special effects were often not done to scale; when you see a human and a worm in the same frame, it's hard to tell how close they are supposed to be to each other.  For being a science fiction epic tale, there is surprisingly little imagination or innovation in the visual effects.
Problem #3: the story is damn near incomprehensible.
An actual page of script from Dune
I read several Dune books as a young whipper-snapper, and I was clueless when watching the movie.  I can only pity someone who approaches this movie out of pure curiosity or, worse, a devotion to David Lynch.  I choose my words carefully here, because I want there to be no misunderstanding: this movie is confusing, even by David Lynch standards.  That's right; it is easier to decode his movies where actors switch characters in the middle of the film than to follow this plot.

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.


  1. As a David Lynch fan, I have no explanation for this one. It is hard to imagine that a longer version could have been better as the shorter version is so hard to watch (except for those Sting scenes!). With that said, Lynch is still the finest director of our time.

  2. You guys are doing it all wrong!! First thing you have to do is smoke a big bowlful of high grade weed to obliterate your ability to differentiate reality from fiction. That way, when something really weird happens on screen (like the sacrifice of the young gay man to Baron Vladimir Harkonnen???) you just figure you are way too high to comprehend what is going on, and the genius of David Lynch is miles over your head. And being really high made the scene in which the Spacing Guild thing entered the room in a big blacked out street car REALLY COOL!!!! But even though I was high, I did notice an uncanny resemblance between this streetcar and the sky-cars in the Harkonnen city. I think there was some budgetary tom-fuckery going on there.

  3. @Hooligan: I'm more of a boozer than anything else, so I'll have to take your word for it. All I know is that this movie bored me to tears, and even a drunken Brian gets bored by this tripe.