Film Review: Dune

Dune | USA, 1984 | dir. David Lynch | 137 mins

Some days bring you unique opportunities… today it was the chance to see David Lynch’s 1984 film of the Frank Herbert novel Dune on a 70mm print in Filmhouse Screen 1 as part of their Lynch season. Having never seen the film before it was not a chance to pass up…

Dune may be a classic but it’s legend is of hamminess and giant worms. Science Fiction often spends years in the wilderness but to be a poor sci fi film from a short time period that saw the release of Blade Runner, Alien, Brazil, and, if we must, the original Star Wars trilogy is a slightly tragic legacy. But is it fair?

Opening with a dense prologue , delivered by Virginia Madsen (now best known for her role in Sideways) we enter a strange futuristic and baroque world. This is space as envisaged by the first generation of Star Trek mythology: power struggles, strange visceral alien races, complex politics and diplomacy and, to add a proper sense of sinister order, a slightly third reich inspired emporer (Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV as played by José Ferrer with much beard and brocade). The emperor is assisted by Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Sian Phillips giving us full thespian value), a sort of bald tudor psychic lady in waiting. But trouble is afoot…

The most valuable thing in this universe is the spice “melange”which allows you to “fold space” (science geeks will know that “folding space” is something you may hear discussed in physics but Dune is not being nearly so well informed here), enabling any space ship to traverse the universe safely and instantly with the help of strange translucent space whale navigators. These navigators come to the “Emperor of the Known Universer” with an offer he can’t really refuse: they want Paul (Kyle MacLachlan), son of Duke Leto Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow) and Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis), heir to the House Adriedes, to be killed. The Emperor sees the House Adriedes as a threat, partly because of their “weirding” technology and so a complex plan is hatched. Since “The spice” is mined on one planet only, Arakis, a barren place inhabited by giant worms who, it’s fair to say, are not huge fans of the mining it is a very big deal indeed to lead that mining. So, the decision is taken that the House Harkonnen, led by the disgustingly diseased Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan), will lose their right to mine Arakis and this will instead be handed to the House Adriedes. Once they are in place the opportunities for assassination, in-fighting and political maneuvering should, so the theory goes, be straightforward…. but of course it’s nothing of the sort…

Now if you’re not a science fiction fan even that miniature summary may have put you into a slight coma. The full description on Wikipedia might send you over the edge. So the first thing to say is that this is a dense film trying to pack generations of storylines into a serious two and a half hour film. That the rough cuts ran to four hours is no surprise as whole sections will move at a snails pace only to be followed by a three minute montage summarizing a two year period. Think of this as a less elegantly thought through Lord of the Rings situation. And indeed as we become increasingly sure that Kyle’s poutingly youthful Paul Adriedes is “The One” things do take some similarly odd turns that leave us relying on the hand of god for solutions…

But there is much to recommend in Dune. The production design is astonishing and has clearly been of enormous influence in the nearly thirty years since it’s completion. Medical and leather and rubber fetishism as well as entomological touches clearly have their origins in the work H.R. Giger, legendary creator of the Alien, prepared for an earlier doomed production of Dune which was to have been created by Alejandro Jodorowsky (director of some notably demented films such as El Topo). To this very Skin Too [NSFW] aesthetic vibe there is also a significant dose of Tudor chic – cod pieces as far as the eye can see, enormous dresses corsetted in the long form ultra flat Elizabethan style. As a combination that’s not as odd as it might first sound – 1984 being, after all, the time of Tom of Finland-esque gay bars and Derek Jarmen and his peers gender bending reimaginings of the classics. And then we have competing combat gear: ultra special forces-ey rubber water-recycling suits for the rebels vs. third reichian uniforms and safety gear for the emperors people and allies.

The sets are no less breathtaking despite half the film taking place in the desert (the sands of Mexico standing in for Arakis aka Dune). Spaceships are inventively shaped – apparently inspired by moths or wasps – and the mixture of model work and sound stages makes their scale large, convincing. But the palaces and state rooms of the various Houses are where you can see the real money on screen. House Harkonnen is all steam punk abbatoir chic: metal, rust, steam, blood, lab wear (if Heston Blumental were in a sci fi film he’d be serving the little self-juicing bug vials on Giedi Prime, the Harkonnen home world. Over on the Adriedes home world there is a medieval meets hold the front page chic – wooden desks, wax seals, charming flying lamps, and the kind of wood panelling and carving that speaks of the all the cash producer Dino De Laurentii clearly threw at this film.

Between the sets, costumes and creature work if you cannot spot Dune’s influence on at least a dozen latter day Doctor Who creatures, planets, episodes, you’re not even trying! The look of the Harkonnen’s also seems to split – there is clearly influence in Lynch’s own odder work whilst their home planet is surely an inspiration for the likes of Jean Pierre Jeunet’s City of Lost Children. Meanwhile Kyle MachLachlan’s confused beautiful and destiny riddled Paul Adriedes, whilst being a right old second coming sort of cliche, clearly had some influence on the stylings of The Matrix’s Neo. And the giant worms? Well it’s near impossible to think that Tremors would ever have been had it not been for Dune.

It is tempting to analyze further – is Baron Harkonnen with his myriad disfiguring diseases and entire lack of self control, particularly when pretty boys appear, the unacceptable face of gay promiscuity? It is hard not to wonder at his ailments and literal bloodlust and see something of the AIDS paranoia that was in full flight at the time. Perhaps the comparison is unintended but McMillan certainly plays the baron with lascivious glee and his industrial planet is portrayed as entirely free from women and populated only with big haired maniacal technicians and beautiful young red haired boys.

You will have noticed I have yet to mention the acting. It’s a really mixed bag… Sian Phillips and Patrick Stewart lend gravitas to supporting roles in a way that neither best lives up to nor harms their Shakespearean chops. Francesca Annis is gorgeous – a rare reminder of the very best that gigantic imaginative 80s hair and make up offered – and also takes things seriously, and she is certainly enigmatic if not given room to do much more. Kyle Maclachlan has to lead the movie and he does so with huge charm that brims over with homoeroticism as his attempts to bond manfully with his fathers friends and the people of Arakis come across as just a little too enthusiastic. The voice over – added as an afterthought to explain the plot – does his performance no favours but it is, in any case, an impossible role to carry off. However, even as he chews the scenery, MacLachlan somehow manages to maintain his dignity and he was a canny casting choice  since he looks exactly on the cusp of manhood making the journey from Duke-in-training to rebel leader plausible. Other notable cameos include Linda Hunt (The Year of Living Dangerously) and Alicia Witt (probably best known for her role in TV series Cybil) as Alia, the weird creepy powerful child reminiscent of the Poltegeist films even if, in this case, the child is on our side.

And Sting? Well he wears a turqoise winged codpiece with a puckish grin that is all his own…

Dune is hugely flawed of course but it is a great bad film. It doesn’t lack vision, imagination or ambition but it lacks coherance, is unevenly paced and too packed full of story to engage. It is nonetheless great fun in places and a treat for the eyes and, with a huge dense Toto soundtrack (and a “prophecy theme” by Brian Eno), the ears. Well worth seeing for it’s influence on others’ work and it’s astonishing production design but be ready to enjoy it for what it is: half an hour too long, 50% too pretentious and indeed 100% too portentous, and twice as complex as it needs to be.

And remember… if you walk without rhythm then you won’t attract the worm

2 responses

  1. It struck me that the last hour of the film is basically several montages sewn together with a few scenes to move the story forward. The dreams within dreams sequences which escalate in frequency in the second half are pure Lynch. Even though the idea of a traditional narrative is abandoned after Paul and Jessica are exiled to the desert, the film still kind of works, it shouldn’t, but to Lynch’s credit he manages somehow to make a cohesive ending.

    February 20, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    • suchprettyeyes

      Agreed, it gets more Lynchian as it progresses and does tie up surprisingly well!

      February 22, 2012 at 7:34 pm

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