Thursday, July 29, 2010

Retro Review: Dune (1984)

Quite why and how David Lynch ended up directing Dune is a whole book unto itself. The source material and the director's (up to that point) oeuvre could not be more at odds. Mind you, Lynch did not go on to direct politically-charged space operas after Dune either. It was a bad match and somebody should have seen it coming. The fact that Dune was a collosal flop the size of a brachiosaurus only pushed Lynch to go on to definitely bigger and better things. Having said that, he is still not universally adored or revered for a lot reasons.

James Herbert's famous science fiction classic was once to be directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky - the Chilean master of proper mindfuck cinema. To be produced by none other than Dino de Laurentiis (who gave us the ridiculous Barbarella a decade or so prior), it was going to be a real epic - both in form and content. Sadly, the production died a horrible death and Lynch ended up directing it. To the chagrin of the fans of the book.

Dune the book is an insanely complicated piece of work. It is unfilmable - an epithet that is thrown around a lot, but it certainly applies to Dune. So, any attempt at capturing the political intrigue, the spiritual philosophy, and the myth of Herbert's creation would have failed.

The bare bones of the story is very simple and, ironically, couldn't have been more contemporary: various factions are fighting over a desert planet that has the only energy resource left in the universe, a spice named melange. Sounds familiar? The Atreides clan is given the control of this planet, Arrakis, by the Padishah of the known universe, who double crosses them and aids the evil Harkkonen family to destroy them. When Duke Atreides's son, Paul, and his ... let's just say psychic mother, Jessica, find refuge in the desert, the local population believe that Paul is the messiah that will save Arrakis from foreign rule and establish itself as a nation.

Although it is a fairly straightforward story, Herbert injects a somewhat heavy-handed mythology that derails the story come the second book. What makes Dune the book stand out (other than great characters and a story well told) is Herbert's amazing use of the English language. Rule of thumb: if a book (regardless of the actual story) is well told, do not film it.

And yet they did ...

Dune the film suffers from over-production and the need to use every ... single .... scene in the book. It's presented with all the fat in it that won't sit well in a film. So every single scene ends up being no longer than 2-3 seconds ... max. In the hope of including even the minutest detail, Lynch's script never lets us to linger in any one scene and take it in. This works in the action sequences, but overall it sacrifices the story, characters, the set design ...

It is hard to qualify a film as being the worst film of all time, but Dune surely deserves to be involved in that discussion. By the way, did I mention the cast? Kyle McLaghlan, Jurgen Prochnow, Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell, Brad Dourif, Virginia Madsen, Max Von Sydow ... and Sting? How did they muck this up? Why didn't they just divide it into 3 parts and give it the attention it deserved?

Don't watch Dune. Definitely read the book, though.

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