A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Dune (1984)

June 6, 2010

Dune (1984)

A word before I start this review. I am going to assume a knowledge of the book. There’s too much plot and intricacy in Dune to attempt plot summary and do it any justice. And clearly I’m going to spend a LOT of time in my review talking about the adaptation to film. So if you haven’t read the book yet then perhaps this review will make little sense to you.

I recall seeing this movie in the theaters when it was first released and thinking that is was a confusing and bombastic film full of complex imagery but lacking the impact of the book. I have enormous respect for the source material here. Dune is one of those oft-read books that has deeply affected me over time. In part it has to do with the complex world that Frank Herbert created. It’s one of the greatest epic tales ever written because of all the detail he put into it. Enough story telling to fill volumes, as evidenced by the many posthumous books that his son has published using his notes. There’s the entire back story of the Butlerian Jihad – the reason that in the universe of Dune there are no thinking machines (instead they have the mentats.) There’s the Bene Gesserit and their millennium long breeding program. There’s the spacer’s guild and the navigators. All these factions and all this history – and a sense that in the book of Dune we see the culmination – the intersection of epic galactic forces all reaching their apex.

Beyond all that, however, is the messianic story at the heart of the book. I am fascinated by the dilemma that confronts those who are destined for greatness. The core of Dune for me is the tale of Paul Atraides and his rise to become the Kwisatz Haderach – the final result of the Bene Gesserit program to breed a male who could survive the water of life and see into that place they cannot reach with their minds. His ability to see the future but the difficulty he has manipulating it is really what the whole story is about. How Paul is destined to be the most powerful being in the universe, and all the forces that must come into alignment for this to happen.

One of the flaws in this interpretation of the book, for me at least, lies in the portrayal of the Harkonnen. Vladimir is more gruesome and petty than menacing. He doesn’t appear to be a conniving evil genius or Machiavellian schemer. He’s just disgusting, which doesn’t make him a very worthy adversary. It seems to me that with the scenes of House Harkonnen more than anywhere else David Lynch gives in to his more avant garde tendencies. There’s a lot of strangeness for strangeness sake. (Vladimir floating around cackling madly as an underling caresses some machine and steam shoots up from the floor, for example.) It’s unnerving and odd, yes, like all of Eraserhead distilled into a couple scenes and with a larger budget, but it is NOT menacing. At least I don’t find it so.

Amongst the other things that don’t work for me in this movie are some of the additions that have been made to the source materiel. In particular there’s the “weirding modules” that House Atreides have developed in the movie. The idea of weapons that kill with sound is pretty cool, but makes very little sense in the context of Dune. The whole point of the Fremen is that they are already the ultimate fighting force. They need but the promised leader. Paul’s challenge in the book is less to forge an army than to find a way to stop the rising tide of destruction that they would bring to the universe if left unchecked.

We’re reviewing the theatrical version of this movie, so I cannot really talk about the things from the book that the movie omits. It’s entirely possible that they are explored in the longer extended versions of the movie. But here are some things the movie doesn’t address in the form we own: The source of the water of life. The source of the Sardaukar. The crysknife. The makers (i.e. the tie between the worms and the spice.) Paul’s gambit to force the spacing guild to his will by threatening to destroy the spice. The prophesies spread by the Bene Gesserit to be used by reverend mothers who find themselves lost among the primitives. The reason that lasers are useless against shields.

Sure, it’s all more than could be contained by a movie adaptation. I am fully aware that concessions need to be made. But it’s the spirituality, the sense of a confluence of forces to bring about the creation of something miraculous and deadly, that I feel is missing from the movie. In the end it feels like an action-adventure, although one on a grand scale. Paul’s triumphant return is a big climactic battle, but it doesn’t feel anywhere near to the revelation that it should be or the universe-altering phenomenon that it is in the book.

What this movie is, however, and what I would be remiss to ignore, is a brilliant visual spectacle. Some of the special effects have not aged well, especially the extensive bluescreening in the climactic final battle, which end up taking a lot away from the final confrontation. But the production design and art direction are truly stunning. Especially in the first half of the movie or so you are constantly being exposed to astonishing new ideas. I do like the way they do the shielded fight between Gurney and Paul – it looks to bizarre and otherworldly. I love all the huge and elaborate sets. I will admit that I was often thrown by the sort of extremely alien interpretation of everything from the mentats with their huge eyebrows to the freakishly bald Bene Gesserit. But I don’t mind being challenged by new ideas, and that is one thing that David Lynch and his team have an awful lot of. Bold, strange, alien new ideas. I just wish they could have better served the story of Dune as I see it.

Now I’m off to start reading the book again. Man, I love Dune.

June 6, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , ,

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