Dune is a science-fiction staple, a fantastic work of unparalleled scope and ambition that was handled with both skill and an attention to detail that created an immersive and eerily plausible world. I am referring, of course, to the novel written by Frank Herbert that was published in 1964 that launched a successful series of novels, David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of said novel is…something else. Lynch’s large cast includes a pre-Picard Patrick Stewart, Sting, Francesca Annis, Max von Sydow, Virginia Madsen, Jose Ferrer, and many others, with Kyle MacLachlan before his career Twin-Peaked (I am too young to be making that lame joke.) as the hero Paul Atreides.
In the distant future space can be folded onto itself, allowing for instantaneous travel across light years and galaxies, the source of this ability is the spice melange. The universe is ruled by the emperor, while great houses underneath him possess massive amounts of wealth and armies of their own. The two greatest of these houses are the House Atreides and the House Harkonnen, who have been mortal enemies for generations. To curtail the threat of the increasingly popular Duke Leto Atreides, the emperor makes a deal with the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen to eliminate the Atreides while keeping his own hands clean. The plan begins by sending the Atreides to the desert planet of Arrakis, the only planet where the vital spice melange can be found and where no rain ever falls (there are also gigantic sandworms thousands of meters in length).
Leto’s son by his Bene Gesserit (a sisterhood who have been attempting to breed a super-being for centuries by controlling the couplings of the noble houses) concubine is Paul, the gifted, and skillful, heir to the house. Paul has been trained since birth by exceptional people in matters academic, political, and martial. Plagued by prophetic dreams, Paul may be the prophesied Kwisatz Haderach the Bene Gesserit have been hoping for, but he is a generation early, and not their’s to control. Paul eventually finds himself with the Fremen in the deep desert of Arrakis and, taking on the name Muad’Dib, he vows revenge on the Harkonnens and the emperor. His journey may transform him into not just the empire’s messiah, but also its reckoning.
Sorry for the long synopsis, but Dune is complicated, and it is really a work that is better suited to a television format like Game of Thrones, but this is what we have. The film is around two hours and fifteen minutes, but the setup of all of the characters, the setting, and the plot takes nearly an hour and a half to transpire, and that is bad. The slow, methodical pace early in the film changes on a dime into something much more fast-paced, with key moments (his romance with Chani, for example) being glossed over entirely with naught but brief flashes to show the developments. I recently found out that Alejandro Jodorowsky had intended to direct an adaptation over ten hours long (with a cast including Orson Welles and Salvador Dali) that was never made, which is very disappointing, even if the sentiment is a few decades too late.
The cast is uniformly competent, with not much to be said about them either negative or positive. Francesca Annis and Jurgen Prochnow are suitably regal as the Duke Leto and his Lady Jessica, but neither is given an abundance of material to work with and neither leaves much of a lasting impression. Patrick Stewart is fun to see in a role before got beamed up to greener pastures (way too many lame references today, I apologize), but once again, he doesn’t have much to do. Sting, in what was almost definitely stunt casting, does well as Feyd Rautha, the scion of House Harkonnen, but then again all he really had to do was to smirk menacingly. Sean Young portrays Chani, Paul’s Fremen lover, and is good in the hollow role (most of the roles in the film are), but lacks the screen presence she possessed in Blade Runner.
Kenneth McMillan chews the scenery as the corpulent, diseased, and vicious Baron Harkonnen. The Baron is the primary villain of the film, or at least the most overtly villainous character in that he essentially just floats around killing people or plotting to kill more people while leering sexually at his nephew Feyd Rautha. In one scene the Baron pulls out a slave’s heart plug (pull it out, the guy bleeds to death) in order to rape him as he dies. The Baron has been a character accused of being a negative homosexual stereotype, which is fair, but he is also so far past the line of believability that is hard to see him as anything other than a caricature.
And now we get to Paul. Kyle MacLachlan is good in the role, but the script’s corny writing at times does him no favors. Early on he embodies the casual arrogance of youth that Paul possesses, as he does the sternness he demonstrates later in the film. But certain elements, the magnetism and the brilliance for example, are just not there, though I suspect the script is at fault for those omissions. Paul is a truly fascinating character, if only for the implications. He is essentially a super-powered being that had gotten to that point through years of work and force of will, not some lab accident. Paul in the novel, prior to even leaving his home for the dunes of Arrakis, was on his way towards being a force to be reckoned with. Paul in the film is essentially a god, and not just someone seen as one (a fine, but very important line). In fact, a fitting subtitle for the film would be “The Apotheosis of Paul Atreides.”
The special effects are very…eighties. The sets and the makeup are excellent, the people are weary, the boils are pussy (get your mind out of the gutter), and the buildings looked lived in. The personal shields seen on occasion are not excellent, they are distracting and awkward, and obviously done well before the heyday of CGI. The sandworms are huge and not totally ridiculous looking, which should be considered a success given the time period. The world built by Lynch and his crew is detailed and vast, and it also never felt like I was watching a built set, though I am admittedly biased given by knowledge of the Dune-world well before I had ever seen the film. The music, done by Toto (seriously), flits between being pretty good, to distractingly similar to the Star Wars score, then finally, to the cliche dated so-obviously-from-the-eighties scoring. For the most part it is okay, but when it is bad, it is terrible.
Dune is a film that I will never be able to call good, but I cannot help but to enjoy myself when I watch it. The novel is a classic and is a definite must-read for anyone even a little bit into science-fiction, but this film adaptation falters in terms of the complexity and, more importantly, the moral ambiguity. I can’t in good conscience recommend the film unless one has previously read the novel, but for those who have, David Lynch’s Dune is something to be enjoyed, resented, and function as all the fuel needed in the endless the book is always better debates (the book is always better). I intellectually despise this film, but I have seen it at least four times. The spice must flow.