CAPSULE: DUNE (1984) [BLU-RAY]

DIRECTED BY: David Lynch

FEATURING: , Kenneth McMillan, , Sean Young,

PLOT: As simply as I can put it: set in the year 10,191, inhabitants of three planets attempt to gain control of the “spice” Melange.  The substance extends life and allows space travel.  Whoever controls the spice controls the universe.  The planet Caladan, home of the House Atreides, is the main threat to the current emperor of the universe.  Duke Atreides son, Paul, appears to be the “chosen one” due to his special gifts of prophetic visions and skillfulness as a soldier.  Paul foresees the emperor’s plan to destroy the Artreides clan and sets out to take control of the spice and defeat their enemies.

Still from Dune (1984)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Dune is too confusing, an altogether jumbled mess, to give it any consideration for the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made.  There are too many characters, words, names and ideas that occupy the screen.  Overt weirdness does flit about many times, but is marred by cheap-looking special effects and poor acting.  Disappointing, considering who was at the helm of the picture.

COMMENTS: First off, being a new contributor, I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to cover three masters in the realm of weird cinema; Roeg, Cronenberg, and now David Lynch. Truth be told, Lynch is probably the greatest director in the pantheon of weird movies.  That said, this is the worst film David Lynch ever committed to celluloid.  I don’t think he would mind my saying so, as he too has publicly announced his hatred towards this film.  He refuses to talk about it in writings or interviews.  A production debacle, Lynch feuded bitterly with Dino de Laurentis to retain his artistic vision against the producer ‘s extravagance.  The film looks slapdash at times.  This problem likely stems from the complex source material: Frank Herbert’s 1965 cult sci-fi novel of the same name.  Lynch claimed  never to have read the book pre-production and to personally dislike the sci-fi genre.  For unclear reasons, he actually turned down the opportunity to direct Return of the Jedi to do this film.  I imagine Ewoks would have become much more menacing under the Lynchian lens.

Lynch came to direct only after several other directors bowed out due to differences and strife on the set.  One of the directors previously associated with the film was none other than Alejandro Jodorowsky, who planned on taking the film to new heights… a 14-hour epic!  Yeah, that didn’t fly.  What we are left with is a 137 minute hodgepodge of sci-fi jargon and mediocre direction.  Apparently different cuts exist; a 190 minute version has been aired in two parts for television.  The added material only caused more uproar with the legions of “Dune” fans, who thought the additional scenes and extended narration further stifled the already confusing flow of the theatrical cut.  Lynch has refused to release a director-approved cut, and demanded the pseudonym Jonas Booth replace his name on the extended television version.

There is way too much happening in this movie…all the time!  The multitude of characters, all with hard to pronounce names, come and go and never really make an impression.  The viewer is left wondering, “who is that?”, “are they important?,” and “what do they want?”  Ultimately, the answer to the last question is that they all want that damn spice.  Spice is cultivated on the planet Arrakis, or Dune, a desolate sand-covered planet; the only place where one can attain spice and thus total domination over the universe.  What protects the spice from any regular Joe-Schmoe getting at it?  Enormous man-eating worms, that’s what.  At least Lynch got to expand on his worm fixation.

I’ll refrain from putting in text the many characters that inhabit the different planets.  I will say the cast is fairly impressive and many went on to bigger and better roles.  The recognizable faces are: Patrick Stewart, Max von Sydow, Dean Stockwell, Sean Young, Virginia Madsen, and Eraserhead‘s own Henry, Jack Nance (almost unrecognizable without that pompadour).  The most impressive over-the-top performance comes from Kenneth McMillan as Baron Vladimir Harkkonen (see, I told you about the names).  He gets the chance to unspool some great weirdness in his role.  The disgusting pus-and-blood filled boils that crater his face; his ability to inflate his suit and hover around like a lumpy balloon; his crazed, madman line deliveries: he get props in the weird department.  He plays up his vileness quite nicely to cement his baddie status.

I don’t think Dune is complete garbage.  I’ve seen much worse.  The elaborate sets and ornate costumes are most impressive.  The Blu-ray picture quality is probably the best you’re ever going to get (is this the first Blu-ray film reviewed on this site?!?  Blu-ray is beautiful, and hopefully an expansion of weird titles is to come).  The colors are crisp and flaws are minimal.  Many of the set designs were created by the legendary H.R. Geiger of Alien fame (although he eventually dropped out of the production, many of his creations were still used).  Speaking of Alien, I saw many subtle similarities to other classic sci-fi films, with Star Wars leading the pack.  “May the force be with you” is changed to “may the hand of God be with you.”  Young Paul (MacLachlan) undergoes a training sequence very similar to the exercise blindfolded Luke Skywalker practiced on the Millennium Falcon; instead of a lightsaber, Paul uses some sort of laser gun to blast tips off harpoon spears that randomly thrust out of a fight simulator.

The action sequences and special effects are what bog this movie down to the depths of an over-blown ridiculous flop.  For as much money as this thing cost, it should have looked a whole lot better, even by 1984 standards.  The first action occurs when Paul trains in a battle simulation.  There’s a knife fight, but a force field shields the  combatants: it’s a box/cube that engulfs the person into something that looks straight out of Intellivision video games from three years earlier.  The final battle depicts heroic Paul in knife-combat with evil Harkkonen lackey Feyd, played by an insignificant Sting (looking like Sex Pistols-era John Lydon).  The fight is sloppily choreographed and lame.  Overall, a perfect descriptive term for this film… lame.

To get a final understanding of just how corny this movie can get, I’ll offer up three more tidbits in list form:

  1. A dog (a pug) features in several scenes.  Paul lovingly strokes its fur aboard a spacecraft.  His father, the Duke, carries it around like an ornament.  Most hilarious, though, is the scene in which Patrick Stewart’s character charges and screams in full-blown battle mode while cradling the mongrel in his arms.  Where’s a wookie when you need one?
  2. The guns that are controlled by screams and a certain pitch of voice.  A trigger needn’t be pulled.  Just yell.
  3. The potential effectiveness of the giant worms is completely squelched when Paul and his comrades mount, harness, and ride them into battle like horses.

I’m sorry David, your film is lame.  You know it.  I know it.  Still, you managed to get some devout followers.  I just can’t figure out why.

The Blu-Ray additional features include very rough deleted scenes that add nothing of significance.  Special features document the making of Dune and its sometimes cringe-worthy special effects.  There are also segments on the various models, miniatures, and costume designs, which I find to be the only saving grace of the film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a brilliant mistake, misguided from the start but still aesthetically satisfying… Those who give it a chance…  will be rewarded with something surreal and strangely evocative…”–Bill Gibron, PopMatters (Blu-ray)

7 thoughts on “CAPSULE: DUNE (1984) [BLU-RAY]”

  1. Not to be a stickler, but H.R. Giger was only involved with the project when Jodowrowsky was director. He was not present when DeLaurentis and Lynch got involved.
    Also, it may be helpful to reference other science-fiction films other than STAR WARS and ALIEN, if you’re putting it in a historical perspective, and especially if you’re comparing State of The Art Special Effects.

    OK. I am a stickler. This is a pretty sloppy review, hard to really take seriously. It’s great as an opinion, but there are so many errors, it brings critical judgment into question.

  2. Quite honestly, even with the best director, Dune was just too – dense to be made into anything less than a series, and possibly one consisting of several seasons. There’s the politics, the eugenics, the ecology – impossible to cram into anything that can be consumed in a single sitting. I’m a rather fast reader, and this was a book that had to be chewed, rather than devoured.

  3. I agree with both previous posters. I’m aware of Lynch’s hatred of the film, probably a lot of that has to do with the poor reviews and constant questions about it and how he feels about it. Even something you love grows tired after constantly having to focus on it and talk about it or defend it/explain to others.

    I personally liked the film. Was it the best Sci-Fi ever? No. But the book, which I’ve only been able to get part way through, is a hard read even for a sci-fi lover like me. Don’t get me wrong, the book is good, but an extremely complex and a sprawling historical (sci-fi) novel, which becomes obvious in the movie’s attempt to unravel this in 2hrs! It is sort of a colonialist story, for example, of how the Europeans explored/exploited Africa and it’s riches. This element was nicely translated visually in the look of the film and the characterizations. I think any director would have been stymied. David did keep it weird, which is what I liked about it. It sure wasn’t Star Wars, thank god. The heart plugs etc, were mentioned in the book and were very weird and vile, which I thought translated well.

    That being said. I’m sorry that Jodorowsky didn’t get to make the 14 hour version with Geiger sets/art direction.

  4. I found an actual quote from Lynch on Dune, in his interview for the book “Moviemakers’ Master Class”:

    “My advice to every young filmmaker is this: remain in control of your film from beginning to end. It’s better not to make a film at all than to give up the power of final decision. Because if you do, you can suffer immensely. And I know that from experience. I shot Dune without final cut, and I was so damaged by the result that it took me three years before I could make another film. I still haven’t gotten over it, even today. It’s a wound that won’t heal.”

  5. “remain in control of your film from beginning to end”

    …Soooooooo.. we can thank *David Lynch* for George Lucas’ approach to the Star Wars prequels?

  6. I don’t understand the hate for this film.

    I saw Dune in the theaters when it was released. At the time I thought it was an excellent and interesting hard sci-fi/fantasy film. The special effects at the time were excellent, and even today aren’t all that bad when you consider it was all pre-CGI.

    The plot itself is not confusing (at least not to me), the acting is competent, and there are some excellent and classic Lynchian scenes. There are also some early appearances by actors who become legendary in later years (Patrick Stewart, Brad Dourif).

    I still, to this day, watch Dune on at last a yearly basis. I am totally perplexed why the Internet hates it. It seems to be one of those “I was told it was bad on the Internet so it must be bad so I will make fun of it also” movies.

  7. I only saw this film once on TV, so I can’t mount a full defense of it, but many of the complaints in this review are things from the books. The ‘silly names’? Much of sci-fi has had worse, and they’re fun in the books. Riding the sandworms? That’s never stopped being cool, and Beetlejuice and Tremors straight up ripped it off. All the stuff about The Voice and the Bene Gesserit was totally ripped off for Star Wars, and Lucas wasn’t subtle – the movie starts on a dead planet with a dead sandworm, and Han Solo is smuggling Spice!

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