Screenplay : David Lynch (based on the novel by Frank Herbert)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1984
Stars : Kyle MacLachlan (Paul Atreides), Kenneth McMillan (Baron Vladimir Harkonnen), Jürgen Prochnow (Duke Leto Atreides), Francesca Annis (Lady Jessica), Sean Young (Chani), Brad Dourif (Piter De Vries), José Ferrer (Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV), Dean Stockwell (Doctor Wellington Yueh), Sian Phillips (Reverend Mother Gaius Helen), Paul Smith (Rabban), Patrick Stewart (Gurney Halleck), Sting (Feyd-Rautha), Max von Sydow (Doctor Kynes)
After reading the novel, it should have been immediately apparent to writer/director David Lynch that Frank Herbert's epic "Dune" could not make a successful move from page to screen in anything less than four or five hours. At the least.
Instead, Lynch tried to condense the novel, keeping the main plot intact, but leaving out certain characters and squeezing events together. For those who have read the book, "Dune" the movie will be more or less comprehensible. For those who have not read it, "Dune" will be an exasperating experience because it rarely if ever feels cohesive and intelligible. I have seen the movie in its entirety three times, and I still do not understand all of it, and those parts that I do understand feel woefully under-developed.
The story is ancient in origin, revolving around two rival houses (each occupying its own planet): the Atreides(good) and the Harkonnens (bad). Each is vying for power over the universe, which can only be gained by controlling production of the Spice, a special substance found only on the desert plant Arrakis, also known as Dune (not a drop of rain has ever fallen there). Spice allows the folding of space -- traveling light years without ever moving.
Ruling over the two feuding houses is Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV(José Ferrer). Shaddam decides to end the feud by allowing the Atreides to take over Spice production on Arrakis, while also secretly helping the Harkonnens in a sneak attack to destroy them. The Atreides are led by Duke Leto (Jürgen Prochnow), his concubine Jessica (Francesca Annis), and their son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan). Against them is the utterly vile Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillian) and his two nephews, Raban (Paul Smith) and Feyd (Sting). Watching the Harkonnens in action is one of the more unpleasant aspects of the movie, especially the Baron, whose diseased face is covered with purplish cysts and oozing sores. We first meet him in a particularly repulsive scene where a perverted doctor is using a needle-like device to suck blood and pus from his face.
There are several other aspects of the movie, including the Fremen, a reclusive and mysterious tribe of people with "blue-in-blue" eyes who live in the deep desert of Arrakis, and their prophecy of a powerful messiah to come. The movie also makes much of the huge sandworms that live under the desert floor and are constantly threaten Spice mining because they are attracted to rythmic vibrations.
All of this seems like a lot, and it is. "Dune" yearns to be a stunning epic, yet it falls short in too many areas. It has heavy handed religious and political overtones, and Lynch twists the visuals with his trademark eccentricities, as if he's trying to combine "Star Wars" with his "Eraserhead." It is also a deeply serious film, so there is no escapism or popcorn mentality. Lynch is very serious about the subject matter, and he pushes this point home most dourly when using the characters' heavily-whispered thoughts as a kind of voice-over narration. A typical passage is like this: "The worms . . .the spice . . . is there a connection?" He also punctuates the action with a multitude of graphic dream sequences, only some of which make sense and seem to be relevant to the plot.
The movie's cast is an incredibly diverse group, including such distinguished actors as Max von Sydow (one of Ingmar Bergman's favorites), as well as eclectic and odd performers like Brad Dourif ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and Lynch-regular Jack Nance ("Eraserhead"). Despite the grand cast, most of the performance seem crimped by the movie's grim tone. No one is ever allowed to smile, even in victory. The only ones who have any fun are McMillian as the Baron, and rock star Sting, who has the most wicked eyes and sinister smirk in recent film history.
The special effects in "Dune" are perhaps its worst inconsistency, varying widely from stunning to pathetic. Some of the scenes depicting the Emperor's mansion, or the industrial steel framework structures of the Harkonnen house are reminiscent of the striking visuals in "Blade Runner." And Carlo Rambaldi's ("E.T.") creature effects are mostly solid, and his make-up effects are so well-done they're disgusting.
But any of the scenes involving ships in outer space are among the worst I have ever seen. Roger Corman did a better job with his schlock sci-fi junk of the 50's and 60's. The spaceships in "Dune" have no depth or dimension -- they literally look like drawings pasted onto a black sheet of paper. Although the sandworms look good at first, certain scenes betray their puppet origins. I think Lynch realized his special effects were going to be compromised, so he chose to film much of the desert scenes underlit with hazy filters, obscuring the action and making everything look muddy.
"Dune" is a movie that has the right components, but none of them ever come together. Lynch was reaching for something great, but somewhere along the way he got set off course. There are many rumors about what the real version of the movie would be if Lynch had his way. I've heard that he had to cut it drastically in order to bring it in under two-and-a-half hours, but when network TV showed a 190-minute re-edited version, Lynch disowned it and inserted "Alan Smithee" as the director. Some rumors have said that Lynch intends to release a five or six hour version, but I'll believe it when I see it.
And even then, I wonder if that will be enough to make sense of it all.
©1997 James Kendrick