Film Reviews

Film Review: Spectre

Spectre | UK and USA, 2015 | dir. Sam Mendes | 148 mins

By now you will quite probably already have seen Spectre (which is fortunate as spoilers are ahead). If not, you will at the very least have caught the many splendored adverts for the film – for what is the point of Bond if not to be the world’s most pornographically produced product placements? – and that means you likely already know the main plot points…

We open with Bond in Mexico for a stunning opening sequence. He finds a lead for someone he’s been tracking, has a disagreement with M (an ever more weirdly coiffed Ralph Fiennes channeling Voldermort) and irritates a brand new C (Andrew Scott, miles off his usual Sherlock form), and spends the rest of the film undertaking off-duty chasing of the dark criminal masterminds of Spectre (the “Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion”), led by Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz, all sinister in cashmere and Persian cat hair). Excitably staged chaos, naturally, ensues in a variety of improbably exotic locations… But you knew that would happen didn’t you?

Spectre is our first film in a post-Dench-as-M world and it suffers for it. When Bond was initially revived (after a brief but badly needed ‘90’s hiatus) Judi Dench was a brilliant choice for M. The franchise was resetting itself for a more feminist era, with women in senior roles in the workplace, men occasionally (and ever more so) presented as eye candy, and (gradually) a few post-Perestroika bad guys. Casting M as a woman nodded to Stella Rimington, the first female Director General of MI5 and – perhaps relatedly but certainly more interestingly – the first head of MI5 to embrace greater transparency and scrutiny for their work. Dench was also a wise choice as she also gave women a powerful stake in the franchise beyond the usual line ups of helpless half nude set dressing, lazy untrustable women archetypes, or the (very rare) ruthless lesbian bad guys.

A female M meant Bond had a boss with real bite – particularly after the Pierce Brosnan films (I always think of Brosnan as a transitional Bond, moving us from Retro Bond with his aged leisure jackets and hairpieces to the Modern (buff) tailored Bond era). M was not part of the boys club in any sense, and her air of disapproval was all the more potent and her threats all the more believable for that. Dench’s M had the balls to actually suspend Bond and (mostly) mean it… She was also unusually unseducable although flirted with, her presence lending tacit female approval for the character’s excessive hijinks: a morally ambivalent cross between a protective mother and Lady Macbeth (incidentally one of Dench’s most marvellous roles) forever threatening to cut her favourite son off and take away all his favourite (lethal) toys, even as she encourages his misrule and manipulates his destiny. And so a new order was signalled when Skyfall saw Dench bow out as M (however improbable that end was – the real Stella Rimington is now a non-executive director for M&S when not writing novels).

And it turns out that the new order, the Remixed Modern Bond, ushers in conservative male-dominated leadership, shaped by an incestuous political elite… Which does, I suppose, feel fairly contemporary in some important and disheartening ways. We therefore have Ralph Fiennes as M, styled as politely brutal old boys club – indeed, it feels like no coincidence that Fiennes has been cast given both his Harry Potter form and his best left forgotten role as John Steed in the abominable 1998 Avengers revival movie. In his loose-fitting double breasted tailored suits, Fiennes’ M recalls Retro Bond, with so little in the way of balls and complexity that Dench’s M is still calling the shots – sending Bond off on missions via recorded messages, “nothing would stop her doing her job, not even death” he quips.

I mention the suiting not as an afterthought: in Spectre the tailoring does at least half the work of the script. In the opening sequence we know Bond by his very tightly fitted (single breasted) tailoring and confident stride long before a mask is removed. Meanwhile C is clearly untrustworthy with his full some hair, his obsession with formality but not for ritual, and most damningly of all, his poorly cut off the peg suit. He is clearly a social climber with no sense of tradition, because as Bond would have you believe, rational decisions in power rely on the patriarchal authority that comes with the right suits, the sense of social propriety and, of course, the wisdom to be born into money and class at such a level that one may reject the advances of the most seductive of bad guys offering financial and power rewards. Fear not Britain, Spectre seems to be saying, the aristocracy have your back, no need to worry about those unscrupulous subverting forces…

I, like many, have a love/hate relationship to Bond and that means Spectre triggers a real mixture of disappointment (see above) but also moments of delight.

There are some wonderful things to enjoy here: the opening Day of the Dead sequence is genuinely exquisite, shot in a continuous and very cleverly fluid take. There is real grace and elegance to both the motion of the camera and the choreography of our key players. Bond may be more obviously objectified in Casino Royale’s beach scene, but here he prowls with a far more alluringly sexy Gene Kelly elegance.

The Day of the Dead sequence shows off Mendes’ strengths as a director, and his sense of theatre and visual spectacle. And then, just as you marvel at the cleverness, it all goes off-key as the set pieces and stunts drag the sense of pace, immersion and (oddly) the sense of danger down many notches. And that is disappointing but not surprising, for Bond must now out-stunt even the most ridiculous action movies with the result that these set pieces seem utterly implausible, particularly for any type of undercover operative. I all but gasped as Craig ever so casually stepped across a convincingly high roof (played so very differently from the Casino Royale Parkour scene), but I felt absolutely no sense of danger – or medical plausibility – when I saw him walk/dance his way out of exploded rubble. It was as if Cary Grant urbanely walked across that roof, alive with ambiguous tension, but suddenly as the explosion occurred, he was replaced with an unusually attractive Mario Brother, hopping through obstacles and sight gags. As he finds his feet at the end of the stunt it is suddenly hard to take that prowling as seriously again, because he may be about to elegantly dodge danger, or he may be about to temporarily halted by a spinning turtle. The tension and the reality of the moment broken.

However, there are other things that work well too. Ben Whishaw is not only settling in as Q (a character absent from the books and therefore always harder to write or perform), but Spectre sees him adventure beyond his tech cupboard and better prove his skills. That works well partly as Ben Whishaw is charm and nerd personified – and looks more ordinary and therefore a whole lot more like a spy than Craig. His locatoin scenes add crucial credibility to what was always a rather thinly written stunt and product explainer. The Q of Skyfall and Spectre is clearly skilled, working to a (slightly) more realistic budget, and has his own personality. Of course those currently watching Whishaw in London Spy will also be well aware that even with an enlarged role for Q, very little of Whishaw’s best acting skills are really being called upon here.

Whilst Whishaw has, unexpectedly, a more interesting role in Spectre sadly the same cannot be said for Andrew Scott. In Sherlock, Scott is so dazzling with his ambitious, absolutely callous, and very flirty performance as Moriarty that he seems like a wonderful casting choice for a low level bad guy. Yet in the Spectre script they have given him very little to work with, and seem to have done little to tailor the role to Scott’s strengths. But it isn’t just about the script… I suspect the direction for Scott may have run along the lines of “be corporate, be evil, but also be as straight and boring as possible”. It isn’t much to work with, especially in his cluster of short office scenes. There is an importance and fascinating dramatic tension that could be played out through focusing on the banality of evil but that requires far more skillful writing and a genuine sense of danger. And that is made all the harder as Scott is co/sub-bad guy with the effortlessly creepy Christophe Waltz (and his grim Jaws-like associate Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista))…

In Spectre we have a panoply of bad guys (and it is guys, although lone female crime baron merely has a cameo): Bond vs Mr Hinx in a series of Fast & Furious stunts with inappropriate moments of comedy (recalling the Pink Panther films or the Italian Job) seemingly written to sell super cars to a very particular macho niche of the audience. And if Spectre has a nod to the modern face of the chaos and brutality of terrorism Bautista’s Hinx and the opening sequence (with Alessandro Cremona as Marco Sciarra) are it… And of course these bad guys are relatively easily vanquished as fluffer action readying Bond for the real bad guy. From there we have parallel bad guys stories: it’s Bond vs Blofelt, each more viscerally violent and steeped in Retro Bond baggage than the other; and M vs C in a battle for bureaucratic supremacy that seems more true to the modern world of spying. It does work to have the attention spread a little more widely – and reflects the impact of shows like Spooks and Orphan Black on the aging Bond franchise – but it does turn the whole enterprise into an old(ish) boys club (with boss level hierarchy perfect for the game of the film, no accident I’m sure). Apart from Moneypenny, whose early bravery is quickly sidelined and undermined entirely (for what are women for, if not to accidentally compromise your mission?) as the men take on what the writers clearly deem the really important dangerous manly posturing power and action stuff.

Apparently Mendes was still editing right up until the week of release and that is entirely plausible. Based on that final edit, it seems he and his crew of writers (there are many credited, all men, all with at least one other sub-par Bond screen writing credit) seem to see writing, directing and editing women, and most especially sex scenes, a hideous chore. Which is odd, as they seem – true to all Bond – so keen to objectify those women in the first place, then instantly get bored and lose all interest. Perhaps this reflects their dual target markets of teen boys (wanting to look but with no idea what to do with a real woman) and overseas sales in even more gender unequal markets that prioritise public moral uprightness with rather stone age personal moral choices and sexual politics. Perhaps it gives away how much the film is shaped by middle aged men out of step with a world in which Tinder, Grindr and more fluid notions of sexuality make Bond looks thoroughly traditional in his bedroom habits. Or maybe this is all just where we are with a 12A rating at the moment: we can watch a man have his eyes gauged out in grotesque close up but a bared breast – let alone the full nudity of a mature woman or a scene of female pleasure – would corrupt the world.

In the last Bond outing, Skyfall, some of that disinterest in women played out more interestingly with the homoeroticism of bond’s perpetual trailing of men, particularly Javier Bardem, interested only in physically engaging with one another. Given the tightness of the suits, the particular preened variety of gym (rather than, say, military) buffness of Craig as Bond, and the casting of two wonderful openly gay actors (Scott, Whishaw) and the wonderfully camp Waltz in supporting roles it seems bizarre not to play with that. Every moment of Craig on screen is boy eye candy and what little chemistry there is comes from his scenes with other men… Even the tiniest scrap of script writing (and producer/studio) confidence a much more interesting and far more edgy homoerotic Bond movie could have emerged from this rather lacklustre reworking of familiar 007 tropes.

But that would require a sense of humour, and in Spectre all humour is utterly drained away with the more playful Craig moments of his earlier Bond appearances gone. All of that means we are left with some of the most bizarre sex scenes of any Bond film… Or rather a showy lack of sex scenes…

Bond’s first conquest seems to be the result only of a physical reaction to danger, for there surely isn’t any chemistry or interest between the pair, even though in Craig and Monica Bellucci we have two of the most attractive people to grace any screen. Bellucci, so publicised for being the oldest “Bond girl” to date is hardly featured, her role merely to hand Bond a ring. The sum total of their sex scene is a sub-50 Shades of Gray moment of stylish partial undressing, and a post coital shot that owes a debt to the lingerie stylings of the Benny Hill girls, because having cast an older woman they clearly cannot countenance actual nudity (how exactly might one enjoy such an encounter in such immaculately unruffled underwear? Or am I missing the point by assuming that Bond’s women might in any way enjoy their couplings?). As Bond leaves she is left with a promise that almost certainly means nothing… but we’ve already forgotten her, just like Bond, before we’ve even left the room…

Bond’s second, and central dalliance is a very young, very conventionally pretty, blonde, Dr Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux, improbably well attired at every moment, though also both objectified and always well covered) who is a full 21 years younger than Bellucci and might easily be playing Craig’s daughter. Craig is a full 17 years Seydoux’s senior – something not deemed notable in any publicity in notable contrast to his 4 year age difference to Bellucci, whose casting was publicly deemed brave and edgy. The relationship with Swann does at least attempt to develop a little depth with some sort of development of the relationship between them, albeit following the (as Pop Culture Happy Hour would say) “they fight, and then they fall in love” dynamic so beloved of movie producers, and so rarely the makings for anything but the most dysfunctional relationships in real life.

The problem with Bond is, and has long been, one of expectations and the impossibility of meeting all of the needs of the many Bond audiences. On the one hand they must be family films, and must be profitable exportable block busters. On the other hand they must be exciting action adventures, and also glamorous and sexy (problematic bed fellows at the best of times). And they must do all of that with a great theme tune (and oh, is Sam Smith’s effort for Spectre so very far from that) and the full buy-in from products and advertisers featured so prominently. There are so many components to a movie in the franchise that, whilst there is some evolution and change, they more or less make themselves…

And yet the fact that Mendes’ two films for the franchise have managed to reimagine Bond back into the dark ages (most horribly in Skyfall’s no consent exploitative sex worker seduction scene), speaks volumes about the power of Bond as a juggernaut that can stand even the most ill advised of missteps. It isn’t just the sexual politics or the product placement – though Omega has been astonishingly successful with the product demonstrations and conspicuous screen time (quite possibly longer than Bellucci’s and certainly move loving) in Spectre… There are the computer games levels that have clearly been designed into the scriptwriting, and the mission-setting sequences in Spectre that feel suspiciously like pre-packaged Cutscenes preceding effects that are far more grounded in the physics of console games, than reality. But should that be surprising? After all the Bond that brought the series back from the brink was Golden Eye – arguably a more popular game than film. But do I want to watch a console game for teen boys in the cinema? Not usually…

There are a few glimmers of hope though, and a few reminders that some adults were part of the film making process at some point… Spectre is about corporations at the heart of government and the weakness of modern cash strapped government in the face of wealthy global corporations and their leaders (a recurrent modern bond theme); terrorism funded by corporate, government and gangster backers; and most interestingly, about the problematic motivations and public justifications for state use of electronic surveillance. It came out in the weeks that the UK Government proposed to track literally every citizen and retain their data for a year as standard. And I’m writing this review in the aftermath of the Paris attacks with policy shifting swiftly and unwisely every day. Because by far the craziest thing about the Spectre plot is that, in many terrifying ways, it is too real.

If only the scriptwriters had done more than just cherry pick at these issues: the surveillance; the threat and then reality of a terrible helicopter crash in the middle of a city; the image of a plane wrecked on a picturesque mountain side… It’s as though they have watched the news and thought “what a great visual”, “what a great stunt challenge”, “ah, that would make a great idea as long as the guy didn’t die at the end” rather than feeling anything empathetic. But then, belatedly realising that films need some sort of human centre, they have loaded the script with artificial emotional moments about as convincing as Bond’s interest in women. Considering these stunts all depict devastating moments they are loaded with potential for real drama, peril, fear, and the kinds of jeopardy that makes an action film scary and engaging, rather than cartoonish. But Mendes and his writers seem to reject any notion of being absorbed beyond the Spectre-cal.

The writers are no better on technology, with stunt “smart blood” used to track bond when a GPS tracking device implant would actually be plausible and no less effective. Smart blood is clearly one Nature headline remixed in a writers brain with some sort of Wired infographic of how Lance Armstrong cheated through the Tour de France. M looks shocked that C has bugged Moneypenny’s phone even though Google has been recording everything you ever vocally searched for, Barbie may be listening to all your kids conversations, and the News of the World was way ahead of everyone on the hacking front. One can only daydream about the stories we could tell about the true terrors of the world through the populist lens of Bond if only they would hire (a) a scientist or computer scientist and (b) a woman as part of the writing team (since producer Barbara Broccoli seems to have little influence on the sexual politics of the franchise). Bond as written by Cory Doctorow and Margaret Atwood, as directed by Jamie Babbit? Now that would be a insightful, thrilling, sexy and fun Bond movie to enjoy!

But then, is Bond designed for women in their thirties? That commercial juggernaut isn’t about selling films to nice middle class British audiences… A film receiving a 12A certificate when it includes multiple reproducible lethal physical assaults, and yet shying away from any sexual scenes or nudity and toying with political corruption yet centering on white Italian and german protagonists of evil (and a morally ambiguous Swiss contingent), seems to clearly indicate that this is a film for foreign distribution to as many countries as possible (particularly those with high super car sales), and aimed squarely at teen boys, console game buyers and middle aged purchasers of luxury goods/high street products from luxury brands.

Did I enjoy Spectre? In parts. But I was also disappointed by the inverse relationship between the film’s cost and it’s quality. Maybe that’s the best that can be hoped for from a modern action genre film so massive and so shaped by industry and audience expectations… But if I were looking to extend the long term life and quality of the 007 brand I’d seriously consider how to make a great Bond film, that keeps just enough of the tradition but respects its female characters and audiences, and engages with more thoughtful writing, editing and direction. It would still do very well financially. And it would be so much more interesting and worth rewatching than the easy to export Bond that sees the lead as an avatar for teen boy game players and puts women back in their (powerless) place as doe eyed sex (and occasionally love) interests, untechnical secretaries and pitiable widows, all of them merely set dressing to progress an ever more incoherent plot.

 

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Film Review: Inside Out

Sadness - Official image copyright to Pixar/Disney

Inside Out | USA, 2015 | dir. Pete Docter | 102 mins

Pixar’s latest film has a simple concept: it claims to take us inside the head of an 11 year old girl called Riley. There is a little more to it than that – this 11 year old girl is having a stressful year moving house for her father’s work.

I think it is uncontroversial to say that Pixar has pretty solid form: even their least successful films are pretty darned good and that’s not too surprising given their animators’ undoubted skills and attention to detail. As is now expected of an animated film Inside Out also benefits from a well chosen cast – most prominently Amy Poehler (as Joy) and Mindy Kaling (Disgust), and a thoughtful and emotive score (too emotive for my taste but well crafted by Michael Giacchino). But, despite many lovely parts, for me Inside Out just didn’t quite work.

The film isn’t without ambition, dealing with interesting ideas about what makes a person’s personality, emotions, core. In order to understand this one person we follow Riley’s inner emotional team – composed of Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger – as they sail her through a tough preteen time whilst her parents move home from Minnesota to San Francisco.

There really is much to love here, from consistently funny jokes and background details, to the quite avant garde visual highlight of a journey through Abstract Thinking. It is kooky, silly, and yet the concept also raises so many questions. I agree entirely with Pop Culture Happy Hour’s comments that it seems bizarre that when we see into other characters’ heads – particularly adult characters – there are no other personality/emotional states present. Notably absent is lust (or something in that broad direction), which may be just about excusable in the 11 year old Riley but peculiar in her adult parents minds. And there are strange gender clichés too: Riley’s father is operated by male emotions led – and entirely embodied – by Anger, whilst her mother is operated by Female emotions led by Joy and Sadness. Riley’s own emotions are a mix of genders, which seems positive, and her interests helpfully are not cliched – ice hockey features but so does an imaginary boyfriend – but in naming, emotions, and interest there is almost a sense of Riley as pre-gender and pre-sexuality rather than genuinely diverse or more meaningfully defying convention.

Of course defying convention requires slightly more variety than most Pixar films are comfortable with: I may love Toy Story as a fun cute movie but I am growing tired at seeing the same narrative of lost innocence play out in (almost) all of their movies. For some of us childhood isn’t the best time of our lives, some of us adults actually really like being adults and have only minimal nostalgia for childhood. Although I have long suspected that Pixar makes films not for kids, or for child-free adults, but for the parents who wish their little monsters (inc) would stay tiny for ever. I understand the motivation for universal themes in films that take years to make, but I do wish they’d take an edgier, more realistic stance on what it means to be a kid.

But then that cheesy earnestness also has it’s charms. Inside out includes a wealth of jokes that gently mock West Coast hipsterism, such as Riley’s family responding to discovering that a pizza place named “Yeast of Eden” serves only broccoli pizza, to their shared disgust (a plausible moment of goofiness in a city that began the “Toast Craze” with Trouble, a restaurant that serves only toast, coffee, grapefruit juice and coconut water). The fact that Riley yearns for Minnesota whist in San Francisco – rather than the other way around – marks a genuine point of difference from most teen relocation movies that speaks to what kids might actually want, rather than what stage school kids want. It rings true, even if the picture of Minnesota life is a little too ridiculously cosy and retro to bear up to too much scrutiny.

Other aspects are less convincing: Riley’s father is supposed to be setting up a start up – or at least developing his start up – and is stressed with investor meetings despite a notable absence of working at home, or his working until 11pm. If you have friends in similar roles – or listen to Start Up – you may recognise this as, at best, an unusually functional work-life balance. The entirely family also seem to have moved into the kind of run down townhouse that you wouldn’t actually get for under a few million in downtown San Francisco anymore – a small niggle but it matters. And despite the current property prices in the Bay Area by far the most terrifying moment in the movie for most viewers who’ve ever spent time in San Francisco is likely to be the thought of an 11 year old walking to school, and worse still walking to the bus station, alone… Now we are meant to fear for Riley’s safety at the crucial run away moment but perhaps not to that extent. It’s not that that artistic license isn’t acceptable, but in such an already silly high concept movie, details really do make a big difference.

For me the trickiest element of the entire film is the audience it is intended for. Much of the funniest and most interesting material seems aimed at an older teen or adult audience, and it works well… But then we have Riley’s emotions visualised with muppet like fabric textures (presumably an intentional move since this is notably absent in the adult counterparts), and engaging in any amount of random slapstick. We have a few moments of genuine tension but also some distance from adult life/decisions which might be plausible in a 5 or 6 year old lead character, but seems unlikely for an 11 year old… And there seems like so much more that could be explored through this central Numbskulls/Herman’s Head like conceit, if only the Pixar team had the courage to be fine with excluding younger viewers. Because for me Riley seems like a very young 11 year old girl and whilst I’m pleased that they made their lead a girl I think that, in an attempt to make her work for any audience, what they have actually written is the emotional landscape of a sensitive 11 year old boy…

So an ambitious and beautifully animated film, and an interesting idea, but for me – and I’ll be honest I know I was a troublesome and precocious 11 year old so what do I know – it didn’t ring anywhere near true enough to suspend my disbelief. There were emotional moments, genuinely good jokes and some big ideas but by focusing on the rather simplistic emotions the team behind Inside Out have forgotten to make their human leads engaging or intelligent enough to really reflect the complexities of real emotions and personalities.

And, as an aside to Pixar, it would be nice to see not only more female characters with complexity in your films, but also a darker and much stronger script occasionally. Inside Out could have been brilliant given a much darker, more honest, critically engaged and more mature script – because there is a lot more going on in most 11 year old brains than Inside Out begins to get near. Animation does not mean that all audiences are or should be children (or have children), to assume that is the only audience is to give up on pushing boundaries. At the same time, if you are representing and reflecting kids lives or experiences where are you non white protagonists? Your single parent families and children with experience of divorce, bereavement or the care system? Your working class (in the UK sense) parents, struggling to survive, rather than stressing about what must (in the case of Inside Out) be multi million dollar enterprises or choices between affluent homes and choices. There are so many interesting stories to tell, why only focus on the nostalgic lament of childhood? My childhood had moments that were wonderful but was not the happiest time of my life – my thirties have that honour thus far but I have high expectations for the future too – so why assume that all children should fail to grow old or fail to develop in order to be happy? There are plenty of playful, intelligent, critical, and very happy adults out in the world, and many introspective, bullied, unhappy kids out there too. Don’t assume all in your audience share all of your desires to return to a more innocent time. Innocence is often seriously overrated.

So, that mini rant aside, would I see Inside Out again or recommend it to others? Yes, absolutely. It’s well crafted, sweet, but it is much less substantial and interesting than it should be. The Incredibles, oddly, feels much more grounded in reality compared to this ode to the delights of the Mid-West. Wall-E is more gut wrenching in it’s targeted exploration of dark themes. This is the Numbskulls mixed with Herman’s Head in a very light Judy Bloom (pre-Forever) honey coating. If you long for your childhood days, you’ll love it. If you were a tough little pre-teen I suspect you’ll be more than a little frustrated.

Footnote: And don’t even get me started on the advertising, endorsements and product tie ins that have emerged since the movie went into official release… 

Viewed as part of EIFF 2015.


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