PLOT: As a medieval European city prepares for invasion from a mysterious Sultan, a local theater troupe stages a play about the legendary fabulist Baron Munchausen. Midway into the show, an elderly audience member (Neville) proclaims that the play is all lies and he, the real Munchausen, will explain why. The story that follows jumps back and forth between fantasy and reality, and flirts with time travel.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Despite being directed by the weird and wonderful Terry Gilliam, responsible for one baroque fantasy film after another–Twelve Monkeys, The Brothers Grimm, The Fisher King, etc.–The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is wonderful, but not all that weird, at least not for a fantasy film. Like The Wizard of Oz, not every cinematic flight of fancy is necessarily bizarre.
COMMENTS: The hugely expensive Baron Munchausen, which despite being given a very limited theatrical release by its studio (Columbia) and subsequently becoming one of the biggest box-office flops of all time, received critical raves upon its initial release, went on to find the audience it deserved on VHS and DVD. This visually stunning fantasia, like all Gilliam films, is about the line separating fantasy and reality, and—SPOILER ALERT—unlike Gilliam’s much-loved Brazil and Time Bandits, Munchausen manages to pull a surprise happy ending out of its hat at the last moment, which really makes one think this could have been a hit if Columbia had given it a chance. Munchausen is an admittedly episodic adventure that is at times unwieldy and over-the-top, but only in the sense that every penny of its then gigantic $46 million budget is up on the screen. The director’s usual visual invention is complemented by his legendary sense of humor, and by stellar performances all around. Of particular note is Williams’ out-of-control King of the Moon, Reed’s hot-tempered Vulcan, and an 18-year-old Thurman ideally cast as Venus on the half shell (previously the subject of a memorable “Monty Python” animation by Gilliam). The PG-rated Munchausen is a much more family-friendly, accessible and upbeat fantasy than Brazil and makes a fine companion piece to Time Bandits. The movie is such fun that there are little to no on-screen signs that the film was a notoriously troubled production. Any epic picture is undoubtedly difficult to make, but the legendary problems affecting Munchausen are thoroughly and entertainingly explained on the DVD’s 70-minute “behind the scenes” documentary. Also on the DVD is an enlightening commentary with Gilliam and actor/co-writer Charles McKeown, storyboards, a handful of deleted scenes, and, on the Blu-ray, an on-screen “Trivia Track.” The film itself looks and sounds just fine.
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.
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:
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?
The guns that are controlled by screams and a certain pitch of voice. A trigger needn’t be pulled. Just yell.
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.