Dune (1984)

Dune posterThis introduction will probably make it clear just how much of a mess the 1984 film of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel Dune is, so here goes: for this review I am referring to the two and a quarter hour cut of the movie, which credits David Lynch as director, rather than the TV cut or extended cut credited to Alan Smithee.

That means, in theory, that this is the nearest to David Lynch’s original vision of the film that was ever released…

I have to admit that due to its part in my process of learning to love movies, I have something of a soft spot for Dune, but also, I am aware of its (many) flaws, so I will do my best to offer a fair review of the movie.

On its release the film was given something of a kicking by critics and audiences and I can entirely see why. From the opening monologue, which is clearly intended to set the scene, we are thrown into a universe at once as complex as that of Lord of the Rings in terms of cultures and A Song of Ice and Fire in terms of characters and noble families and, re-watching the film again, it really didn’t shed much light on the story we are dropped into.

Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides
Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides

From there it gets even more confusing as the plot seems to be at once rushed and very slow paced and often overlooks any element of emotion or sense to move it along so it can fit into its two and a bit hour frame.

As it moves on I don’t think it ever really overcomes this and, for anyone who doesn’t already know the story from the book, I can only imagine it becomes a baffling display of imagery – though I have to admit this is how I’ve felt watching other David Lynch films and could in many ways be a description of Eraserhead or Lost Highway with The Elephant Man arguably being his only mostly conventional work.

The barrage of imagery though is one place where the film does manage to claw back some worth. Produced by Dino Di Laurentiis it does retain something of the aesthetic of his previous endeavours into sci-fi, most notably Flash Gordon, but in a much darker and more luxuriant way.

Kenneth McMillan as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen
Kenneth McMillan as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen

With each House in the story represented very much in terms of their associated production design, Dune is very impressive to look at as the militaristic and structured Atreides are reflected by the animalistic and grotesque Harkonnen and the gilded and extremely wealthy Corrinos of the Emperor’s court are reflected by the dirty, dusty and (comparatively) primitive Fremen of Arrakis

It is this description of character through production design, along with the sound design that are the films two most successful elements.

Hall of FremenIt is clear why Dune was nominated for an Academy Award for its sound design from the very opening shot of a star field with a rumbling, penetrating single tone blasting from the speakers.

Across the film this remains, as there is a near constant soundscape, be it music, sound effects or just ambient noise, which leads us, much like the production design, to fill in some of the blanks left by the unfortunately constructed story.

dunefightIn the end Dune is a mess of a movie that doesn’t tell its story in a satisfactory way and leads to general confusion and even its director all but disowning it. Nonetheless it is an interesting thing to see as it lives in a world where Return Of The Jedi had just been released and demonstrates how an ambitious folly can be a remarkable thing, even if its not actually very good.

Apparently there’s a remake in the works and it will be interesting to see if it can wrangle Herbert’s complex epic onto the silver screen or if it will be yet another valiant, but ultimately futile attempt.

There was also an earlier attempt to make Dune into a movie by Alejandro Jodorowsky with productions design from H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, Moebius and Salavado Dali, there is some very interesting stuff about this, failed, version of the film on the duneinfo website as well as in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune.

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