July 11, 2014

Dune (1984)

It has been a long time since I last watched Dune, David Lynch's 1984 adaptation of the classic Frank Herbert novel. As a child I found it visually fascinating but difficult to follow. As an adult it's still visually fascinating, but while it remains difficult to follow it's very clear why and how those difficulties have occurred. Condensing an inch and a half thick science fiction epic into a 137 minute movie is a pretty big ask, and while I think Lynch made a valiant attempt it's clear that his end product fails to a certain degree. This is a case where a movie is worth watching because it's interesting, rather than because it is good.

In the far future, a manipulative Emperor pitches two rival houses against one another in the hope of eliminating one entirely. This has a knock-on effect of bringing about an ancient prophecy, giving rise to his greatest enemy and causing his own downfall. Plus there are giant sand worms and Sting is in it. I don't know. It's a complicated story to tell in a single feature film: you try and write a three sentence synopsis of the damn thing.

Where Dune succeeds is in its inventive production design and costuming. It looks great, and gives the viewer a constant stream of interesting looking things and people. Ever since I first saw the film I've loved the oily, industrial aesthetic of Geidi Prime and the loathsome Baron Harkonnen. Kenneth McMillan steals the show as the Baron as well, giving a wonderfully monstrous performance.

Sadly while the film is filled with famous names and faces, most of them are giving fairly perfunctory and disinterested performances. Several actors - Jurgen Prochnow, Jose Ferrer, Dean Stockwell - sleepwalk through their roles. Others - Patrick Stewart, Linda Hunt and Max Von Sydow among them - do their best with very small, under-written parts. At the centre of the film is Kyle MacLachlan, who is a sort of vacant presence at the best of times. When directed well he can be quite a likeable on-screen figure - Twin Peaks is a clear example - but here he seems left to his own devices and rather wooden as a result. And yes Sting's here too, but he's barely in it and spends much of his time either smiling sadistically or attacking Kyle MacLachlan with a knife.

Toto provide the film's musical score, with a little help from Brian Eno. It fits in quite neatly among other pop/rock scores of the time - the Eurythmics co-scored Michael Radford's Nineteen Eighty-Four, for example, which was released in the same week. For the most part the score works well, although the electric guitars in the climax certainly date the film to a large degree.

The film's biggest problem, however, is structure, and I'm not sure it's a hurdle Lynch successfully leaped. The story's first act takes about half of the film's running time, leaving the remaining hour to a second act told partially in montage with a huge jump forward in time, and an oddly truncated climax. By the end the film feels curiously unsatisfying despite a very promising opening. Attempts to shorten the film (Lynch's first cut included another hour of footage) result in poor choices like a lengthy opening narration by Virginia Madsen as Princess Irulan - a character who's then barely seen again. It also bombards the viewer with backstory in the first 10-15 minutes and an awful lot of names and characters.

In the final analysis Dune comes across not so much 'good' as maybe 'valiant'. There's real talent at work here, and many aspects of the film are pulled off with remarkable skill. It's entertaining, but it's also an unholy mess at the same time. I do think there's a great film to be made out of Dune, but I don't think Lynch managed to find it. And of course he's not the only one to try. The Sci-Fi Channel produced a fairly dreadful TV miniseries some years ago, and prior to Lynch's attempt Alexander Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott both spent years failing to get a film adaptation together.

I'd love to see someone have another crack at it though. It's been 30 years. Advances in filmmaking technology, and a willingness by studios to allow longer films into the multiplex would both work tremendously to Dune's advantage. Until then, Lynch's Dune is the one we've got, and to be completely fair it's a pretty enjoyable attempt.

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