Guest review by Tim Baker
Now there is a juggernaut of science fiction. A glorious triumph of literature and an embarrassing mistake of cinema. Dune, written by Frank Herbert, was first published in 1965. The novel is a dense, complicated, brilliant story set around the year 10,190 on the eponymous planet which is the sole source of the spice, Melange; a miracle substance which lengthens life, grants a form of prescience, makes interstellar travel possible, and many other things at the cost of mild addiction. Humanity has spread throughout the Milky Way and powerful families rule entire planets, under the rule of the Emperor (fun fact: this is where George Lucas got the idea for the Emperor). Duke Leto Atreides is given rule over the planet Arrakis, taking over from an enemy family, the Harkonnens. What follows is a Game of Thrones level drama set in a galaxy as rich as Star Wars and as detailed as Lord of the Rings. The main character is the Dukes son, Paul Atreides, who finds himself at the focal point of a prophesy. There is so much I could say about how brilliant the book is but we’re here to review a film so let’s do that. Dune came out before I was even born, so everything I say will have already been said, but let’s say it anyway.
I’m of the opinion that if something entertains you, it’s done it has done its job. Dune is only entertaining in the way that it’s entertaining to watch someone embarrass themselves. I watched this film for the first time with a sort of morbid fascination. It plays off like an extended, high-budget episode of Doctor Who with all the corniness that goes with it. The producers wanted Lynch to ‘make Star Wars for adults’ but it just comes across as a chaotic mess with very little dignity. It was almost universally hated when released. Lynch, upon taking on the job as director, had never read the book, didn’t know the story, and previously had never intended to direct a science fiction film (he had been offered the job as director for Return of the Jedi but turned it down and the role eventually went to Richard Marquand). In some cuts of the film, Lynch is even credited with the infamous pseudonym ‘Alan Smithee’, a name directors use when they want to disown a project.
If Star Wars was a quantum leap forward in visual effects, Dune was a quantum leap backwards. The effects were, for the most part, terrible, even for the year 1984. The energy shields used in the knife fight scene in the beginning were a joke. And there seems to be a lot about the film that you could only pass off as a joke, from the clunky opening shot of a woman’s head explaining the universe of the film while inexplicably fading in and out of shot, to the many surreal scenes that would have been at home in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the 1978 film, ‘The Black Hole.’ In fairness, this was a David Lynch film and surreal comes as standard.
The costumes are often ridiculous and camp (with some of the most intense eyebrows I’ve ever seen).
There is a strange presence of pug dogs which I can’t explain. In fact, in one battle scene, you see Patrick Stewart (who plays Gurney Halleck) carrying one close to his chest. I couldn’t tell you why it was there. Maybe Lynch liked pugs? But that’s nit-picking and not really a fault with the film.
The acting is… well put it this way: there are a lot of great actors in Dune and they’re trying their hardest. Anyone who has seen the Star Wars prequels will recognise what it looks like when a skilled actor is trying their best to make a confusing script work. Kenneth McMillan, who plays the sadistic (and comically evil) Baron Harkonnen, did a brilliant job of making the Baron as vile and repulsive as he is in the book, but the portrayal received a lot of hatred. Baron Harkonnen, the only homosexual character, is sexually violent, and covered in boils and deformities, which was something the 1980’s LGBT community didn’t need, especially with societies terrible understanding of AIDS.
Sting also stars in the film as the assassin Feyd Rautha but, until the end of the film, doesn’t really do much except stand (or sit) looking amazing.
So much of the story hasn’t translated well at all onto the screen. The Shai-halud, the sandworms, were actually pretty cool, if a little basic as far as effects go. Maybe it’s the classic sci-fi fanboy in me, or maybe the worms were something they actually managed to pull off, but I did genuinely like them. I’ve been harsh on much of the film but there are some things that seem basic simply because of the technological restraints of the time. Even so, there were many people, even back then, who thought the effects looked cheap.
There is so much more of Dune that I could bring up as an example of how terrible this film is but then this article will be several times longer. David Lynch’s Dune is a mess from the strange beginning to the abrupt ending, up there with other infamously messes such as Plan 9 from Outer Space, Trolls 2, and the Room. It is objectively a bad film but is also fascinating as a piece of cinematic history. I’d definitely recommend watching it and, if you’re interested, read up about it. Because behind every bad film, there is a complicated story to explain exactly why it was bad.
There had previously been several attempts at an adaptation by multiple directors including Ridley Scott, and Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose adaptation is often said to be the best science fiction film never made and is detailed in the 2013 documentary, ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’.
Dune is a hard novel to adapt and there are many good reasons why the other attempts failed. David Lynch was just unfortunate enough to actually get his one made. That said, I genuinely can’t wait for Denis Villeneuve’s version which is being released in two parts. Part 1 is due out October next year and if the trailer is anything to go by, Dune may finally get the dignified cinematic release it deserves.