Dune was (still is?) one of those movies that seemed to be a fixture in student houses of “a certain disposition”, frequently played and part of the furniture, but not really absorbed. Easier to stare at rather than fully engage with. Unless, I presume, you were already an aficionado of Frank Herbert’s gargantuan novels. I’ve seen it said of the Harry Potter movieverse that you really need to have read the books to get all you can from them, but the only one where I really felt that was the case was The Prisoner of Azkaban, which seemed to have some whacking great narrative holes in need of filling. David Lynch’s Dune, the source material of which I also haven’t read, most certainly suffers from such a malaise, the measures taken to impart the dense plot overwhelming the challenge of making an engaging motion picture. It’s just too stuffed, too conscious of the need to move onto the next sequence or barely-defined character, such that it ends up simultaneously shallow and inaccessibly detailed. And yet, it definitely has something. This is no forgettable blockbuster bomb. It’s rich with striking imagery and moments, and occasionally performances (just occasionally); what’s indelible about it is definitely the Lynch factor, but that might also be what prevents it from being a digestible science fiction epic, one that appeals to more than the Herbert faithful.
Of course, the stodginess might simply be that Dune’s unadaptable as a movie. Certainly, Andrei Jodorowsky seemed to have had the right general idea in foreseeing the need for a fourteen-hour(!) film. And Ridley Scott, who was attached before moving on to Blade Runner, intended to split the book into two; while I don’t doubt his version would have been sumptuous in its own way (he was at the height of his world-building powers at the time), it’s debatable whether he would have had the mental aptitude for Herbert’s material.
Lynch may not have read the book, or had any interest in science fiction, but his sensibility seems to fit its quasi-spiritual, portent-infused universe like a glove. He envisaged a three-hour movie but was forced to cut it down for commercial purposes, and was even working on Dune Messiah, it is said, when the picture bombed (he did, of course, take his name off the Alan Smithee 186-minute longer cut that has surfaced on DVD and TV). Although, then we’d have a very different Lynch career (“I started selling out on Dune”; the implication being that its failure was a wake-up call that course-corrected the auteur, and with the subsequent high of Blue Velvet, it’s hard to argue with that analysis).
The Scott near-miss is indicative that this isn’t a book you can hand to any old handyman, whether or not they profess love for the original text. It needs, to a greater or lesser extent, a visionary nursing it to realisation. It’s that, as much as the unwieldy aspect, that has stymied subsequent attempts to adapt it; the 2000 mini-series seems to have generally gone down like a bag of wet sick among the faithful, and we should be grateful that nothing came of the attempts by Peter Berg (“Dune, from the director of Battleship and other assorted, knuckle-brained, jingoistic crap”) and Pierre Morel. Paramount lost its option five years ago, and Richard P Rubinstein (who has a producer credit on the Sci-Fi Channel series) is still the rights holder. He could do worse than tout it around at HBO. They could do with a big, broad, bulky epic when Game of Thrones expires in a few years, custom-fitted as it is for seven or eight seasons (including his son’s posthumously penned seventh and eighth instalments).
Although, not being a devotee, the question would be how much it can be spiced up (so to speak) to attract a wider audience. Probably, it’s merely a matter of sympathetic eyes and understanding approaches. You can see the influence of Dune on more populist fare, from Star Wars (the Jedi mind control of the Spice-altered Paul, desert planet Tatooine, the political machinations of the prequels) to Doctor Who (The Robots of Death, The Caves of Androzani). Lynch, of course, was considered for Return of the Jedi, which featured a carnivorous worm creature in the middle of a desert, and as baffling a prospect as Lynch helming that trilogy-capper is, the notion of how he might have swayed Lucas in whatever way during those all-important script conferences is tantalising. Of course, the chosen one narrative is essentially what Lucas (by way of Joseph Campbell) seized to help make Star Wars so alluring, so it isn’t as if there’s anything essentially off-putting about Dune other than its unwieldiness. How do you attack such an edifice? Lynch’s big problem is that he is never able to make the characters, and particularly the protagonists, relatable or even knowable; it’s where Lucas’ original trilogy counts an unqualified success.
There’s nothing essentially wrong with Kyle MacLachalan’s casting. Indeed, he makes the transition from tremulous youth to fortitudinous leader with conviction, but there’s no real depth to Paul Atreides, nothing to define him in the way that Luke Skywalker, for all his simple tropes and broad strokes, or because of them, is. Even his tests, such as the Box (he’s an all-round better man than even the women folk), don’t fire up the story. The suffocating internal monologues Lynch hits upon are actually quite appealing once one gets used to them, adding a layer of texture and tone, suggesting consciousness beneath, or above, the surface in any given scene. But often they end up merely underlining, or serving as footnotes, rather than offering anything vital or intrinsically germane. Lynch, being clued up as he is to sound design, ensures they’re a casually attractive feature of his overall composition, but fails to make them essential to the story he is telling.
There’s also a swathe of familiar faces littering the Dune-scape who are merely perfunctory in terms of presence, if that. The likes of Everett McGill, Patrick Stewart (showing us his stolid Patrick Stewart performance, the one he always gives), Richard Jordan, Jürgen Prochnow and Sean Young make little impression (the latter being one of those cases where you’d wonder if she hadn’t been purposefully excised, if it wasn’t that everyone suffers a similar fate; Virginia Madsen, whose princess delivers the introduction and then all but vanishes until her arranged marriage to Paul, might have been a better love interest).
Even Max von Sydow has difficulty leaving an imprint, outside of a scene where he shows the royals how to use their survival suits, and Lynch’s stalwart Jack Nance would barely register if not for his dye job. Francesca Annis makes more of a mark as Paul’s mother, but mostly Lynch is relying on interesting faces (Leonardo Cimino, Brad Dourif, José Ferrer, Linda Hunt, Freddie Jones) to make up for a lack of keen awareness of who they are, what they are doing and why.
There are exceptions. Sian Philips is entirely striking and also entirely imposing as the Reverend Mother, and her oracular insights into Paul’s potential are the closest the picture gets to that kind of stirring hero legend by which Lucas initiated the sci-fi boom that propelled Dune into production. Dean Stockwell is reliably eccentric in a role that is crucial to events but lacks impact, because we have no prior knowledge to bounce off his betrayal. Wee Alicia Witt, who would later show up in Twin Peaks (and appears in it again next year) makes an eerie impression as Paul’s prophetic sister.
Best of all are the unholy triumvirate of Harkonnens, from Kenneth McMillan’s floating, pustulating, predatory Baron, an unsavoury sort with a penchant for messily draining young men of their life force (charges of homophobia have been levelled in relation to the character’s depiction), to his nephews, Sting sporting an idiot grin, fright wig hair, all oiled up in vainglorious underpants (for all the flack Mr Sting gets as an actor, he’s a genius piece of unlikely casting here), and Paul L Smith as the huge moronic beast Rabban (Smith was at his best given roles suited to his cartoonish features, as Bluto in Robert Altman’s Popeye and exterminator Faron Crush in Sam Raimi’s little seen Crimewave).
The problem is, even in these cases, there just isn’t enough of anyone, and there isn’t enough shape or form to events (I’m not asking for a three-act structure, but there needs to be sufficient dramatic weight and trajectory that we want to see how this will unfold and so resolve itself). The objectives of the various parties, houses and factions, and accompanying political intrigues, lack urgency, and likewise the stakes of Paul’s rebellion. There’s precious little delineation, so while we are told about and see the Harkonnens strikes against House Atreides, we don’t really care, and there’s no sense of loss.
Jessica’s succession to the status of Reverend Mother and birth of Paul’s sister appears as almost “by the way” plot points, and there is little sense of time lapse or gradation in his jihad. And, while Kwisatz Haderach sounds cool, what it means and entails is lost in a prophetic murk.
When Lynch does spend time on something, such as Paul mastering worm-riding, it’s a bit of a damp squib masquerading as a crucial set piece. Likewise, with the climactic battle (in contrast, the early block armour fight between Paul and Stewart’s Halleck is just the kind of attention-grabbing sequence the picture is running short of). Lynch clearly isn’t engaged by the mere mechanics of action spectacle, and he’s unable to cohere the elements in a suitably visually evocative way (shots of model worms and close-ups of jubilant Paul et al holding worm reins isn’t really cutting it; the worms in Beetlejuice are more effective, and they’re played for laughs). It’s a relief when we get back to the immaculate throne rooms and oppressive chambers.
The Spice Melange comes across rather nebulously (it extends life, expands consciousness), which probably suits Lynch’s purposes, as he makes the supernatural and transcendental one of the picture’s most resonant qualities, but it falls short as an object of fascination (except perhaps in its most obviously deleterious effects). He’s also singular in the general sensibility he brings to the epic form, which is closer to that of grandiose ’40s and ’50s movies than post-Lucas slickness. Lynch gets the mystical element, and he gets the societal element, but he has no hold on how to make it dynamic, individual or personally compelling. Paul Atreides of Arabia never takes off.
The score, by rock band Toto and Brian Eno (the latter contributed the Prophecy Theme) is first rate, arresting and distinctive like many scores of the period, and willing to take risks few are these days. But, while Freddie Francis’ cinematography is every bit as encompassing as in The Elephant Man, Antony Gibbs editing fails to click. The overripe failure of Dune might have been expected, given the picture came courtesy of Dino De Laurentis (shepherded to screen by daughter Rafiella). His forays into blockbuster territory (King Kong, Flash Gordon, Conan the Barbarian) had met with reliably mixed results, so why should this have been any different? It was a $42m monster cost-wise (about $100m now) and made only about $30m.
Pauline Kael commented “Lynch treats the book so respectfully that he comes out with a big-budget version of Up in Smoke”, but I’m not sure even the consciousness-expansion aspect really comes through with any real force (I wouldn’t have known the Space Guild Navigators were once human from the film itself). Certainly not the cautionary intent regarding heroic stature, with the film ending at the moment of Paul’s triumph.
I might compare Dune to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, another film that mixed huge scale with a ponderous, self-important bearing (2001 rather than Star Wars), where the plot rather got lost beneath all the spectacle. But the key difference there is that, even given its deficiencies, there were still the (familiar) central characters to identify with. Dune nurses a similar fatal flaw to a far less interesting movie of the same era that I revisited recently: Krull. Namely, that it’s unable to come up with an answer to the question, why should I be interested in any of this? What is there, and who is there to hook me amid the surrounding Impenetrability? Dune isn’t allowed to breathe. I disagree with comments by staunch advocates that it was too intelligent and challenging for the majority (and the superiority that implies); the problem is that it’s hamstrung by its own ambition; attempting to paint too much on too small a canvas, and making the wrong sacrifices in trying to get it all out there.