David Lynch's 1984 version of Dune is a magnificent folly. You can see the vast resources lavished on the screen in the costumes and the sets and in an absolutely stellar cast, but like most of Dino De Laurentis's attempts at grand-scale science fiction, this all turns to ashes in the end. Dune is one of the most interesting bad movies ever made. It's compulsively watchable. You can't take your eyes off of it, even when it makes you wince. I like to think that Dune is the movie equivalent of Afghanistan, in which great empires break themselves in spite of vast treasures pissed down the hole. That's appropriate, I think, given the ethnic model on which Frank Herbert based the Fremen of Arrakis. And somehow, some way, the film made it into the collective meme pool of pop culture. I saw a tee shirt a few years ago that modifies the mentat chant: "It is by caffeine alone that I set my mind in motion." Fatboy Slim samples the line "If we walk without rhythm, we won't attract the worm" for "Weapon of Choice." Dune is a weird, weird vortex in the meme pool.
The story in Dune follows the fortunes of the Atreides family, who in the movie's mythology have developed a new weapon technology and have a charismatic leader in Duke Leto. The Emperor of the Galaxy is afraid of the Atreides clan, and conspires with their arch rivals, the Harkonnens, to set them up as the governors of Arrakis, the desert world that produces the Spice, Melange, the substance that makes interstellar travel possible, with the intent to betray them and wipe them out. Unfortunately for the Emperor, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood has different plans for the Atreides. They've been selectively breeding humans for millennia in a quest to produce a superman, who they would of course control. Lady Jessica, Duke Leto's consort, gave birth to Paul in defiance of her sisterhood, who demanded that she only bear female children. Is Paul the end product of their plan? After the Emperor's plot plays out, Paul gets to test the idea. He and his mother escape and find refuge with the Fremen who shortly begin to think that Paul is the messiah promised by their mythology. Paul vows to lead the Fremen in revolt against the Harkonnens first, and then the rest of the galaxy...
It starts with the novel, I guess, though I owe it to the movie to dissociate my impressions of the book with my impressions of the movie. I don't know that the book is unfilmable. I think it might be possible to make a film out of it that captures the essence of Frank Herbert's delirious world building. I don't think it can be done at a two hour running time; the background is too dense and requires too much exposition. It's an intractable source, for sure. The first failure of Lynch's movie is the way it handles its exposition. It begins with Virginia Madsen as Princess Irulan, who, in the books, is Paul Atreides's future biographer and future wife. The movie never really explains why Irulan is the voice of exposition; it's just there. The movie further elaborates on the plot before getting underway by laying out the primary conflict between the Atreides family and the Harkonnens in a series of history lessons read by Paul. It also puts some of the context into dreams, including one in which Paul repeatedly whispers "Arrakis, Dune, desert planet." This is one of the more absurd scenes in the movie, and it totally doesn't sell it. I'll get to Kyle MacLachlan in a bit, but this is one of the first hints that maybe, just maybe, he's the wrong actor for the part. Finally, Lynch decides to make the inner monologues of most of his important characters audible to the audience. These snippets of thought are usually redundant. When Lady Jessica enters the room after Paul's encounter with the Gom Jabbar, does the audience really need to know that she's thinking "My son is alive?" I mean Francesca Annis is an amazing actress and you can already see it in her face. I wonder how the movie would play with all of these snippets of thought removed. Better, I think.
Anyway, I say it starts with the book, and here's where the movie begins to go awry. Herbert explained nothing. He threw the reader to the wolves and let them figure out his world on their own. One of the senses of accomplishment one gets if one soldiers through the first hundred and fifty pages or so comes from the fact that it all eventually begins to make sense. The movie version doesn't trust the audience, especially for the extremely compressed time frame that watching a movie represents versus reading a book. The Sci-Fi channel's later adaptation gets this at least partly right. It gives the story enough space so the audience can puzzle things out.
The sense of cramming in these scenes doesn't really abate much during the main plot, which runs from highlight to highlight and plot point to plot point without pausing for a breath. It LOOKS great, but the characters get short shrift from this. We don't really care much about any of them. What sympathy we do develop comes from the actors rather than the filmmakers. Unlike the audience, who the filmmakers mollycoddle, they throw the actors to the wolves. It's a testament to the strength of the cast that they actually survive this. The exceptions are Kyle MacLachlan and Sean Young, who were largely unknown at the time. Part of the movie depends on their characters developing a great romantic relationship, and they just don't have any chemistry. Even at a longer length, I doubt either of them would have been capable of forming a bond. For the most part, I think that alone of all the actors in the film, they're miscast. They're too old, for one. If Kyle MacLachlan's Paul is as old as MacLachlan obviously was when this was filmed, then he's one hell of a mama's boy. In any event, as a genre adventure, this is pretty much a failure. It's too confusing to generate much of a rooting interest for an audience, so it ends up with a lot of sound and fury in which no one is particularly invested in the outcome.
All of this is true, but the story is only half the movie.
This is still a David Lynch movie, and even if he didn't have the kind of control over it that he would have preferred, you can still see his fingerprints all over it. As a visual object, Dune is wonder. It creates several worlds for the screen that have never been seen before, from the Emperor's palace to the industrial wastes of the Harkonnen's Geidi Prime, to the watery home of the Atreides, and Dune itself. This is a triumph of production design. In between these worlds, Lynch provides a connective tissue of psychic visions and hallucinations, from the folding of space by the spacer guild to Paul's dreams at various points in the movie. As in most of Lynch's signature work, this is an oneiric experience, and in some ways, it can be forgiven if it doesn't make much sense. Dreams don't have to make sense to stick with you, and clearly, Dune has lodged itself in the collective unconscious. Dune also manages to retain a semblance of the concerns of Frank Herbert's book. In particular, you still have echoes of the politics of oil and the underlying notion that messiahs are dangerous. So even if it's a failure as a genre exercise, that may not be the intent of the filmmakers to start with.
Make no mistake: Dune is a visionary film. Seriously, there's nothing else like it. But it's worth keeping in mind that visionaries are often crackpots and their visions are often castles made of sand.
Nota bene: I swiped these screen caps from here because they were loads better than anything I could get with my own equipment. I'll own up to the larceny, though I'm not swiping bandwidth. That would be wrong. Plus, it's a good site.
Also, I'm posting this on David Lynch's birthday. So happy birthday, Mr. Lynch.