Retro-View: Dune (1984)
Since our own “Frank Booth” made me feel less than cinephillically adequate that I have never actually seen David Lynch’s film of DUNE (1984) for a variety of not particular reasons — the main being that I would prefer to see it in 70mm on the big screen with big Dolby sound — I thought it high time to watch the damn thing and complete a neglected section of my Lynch oeuvre. As a major devotee of his surreal world of light and dark, I could never see him as the most apropos choice for director of a such a science fiction talisman, though I have ruminations on what his version of RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) would have looked like. Of course, I could never get past page one of Frank Herbert’s hefty tome and by the time I did, it felt like ten pages; I was not a heady sci-fi fan, and prefered Ray Bradbury’s poetic fantasy and Harlan Ellison’s hardcore speculations. I perused the Masters but eschewed epic sf trilogies and have a resistance to any novel that opens with a map. So I was immediately sorry for this 40 million dollar Dino De Laurentis production on its opening night, when my friend showed me the infamous glossary that was handed to him when he entered the theatre. I could picture an auditorium of teens looking down in the dark trying to assimilate names such as “Kwisatz Haderach” replete with helpful pronunciation guide. Roger Ebert called DUNE “the worst film of the year” (the kind of hyperbole that made me often disagree with him) and its box-office failure along with Lynch’s “heartbreak” at his lack of final cut would make the project a strange footnote in his career and the annals of science fiction cinema.
Seeing DUNE for the first time, it’s clear what works and what does not, almost in binary form. The film opens with Virginia Madsen’s opaque visage explaining the history of…hold on, I have it right here…the history of “Arrakis,” the titular sand planet. Lynch tries to fill in Herbert’s dense backstory with lengthy narration but it doesn’t have the luxury of a novel where you can marinate in the language. To that end, the characters narrate as we hear their spoken thoughts, a very distancing device. That’s my shorthand for saying the film makes little sense to me, though I follow its primary narrative. And that’s okay, because there are pleasures to be had here for the active-minded. The costume and production design by Bob Rigngwod and Anthony Masters is spectacular, with otherworldly outfits and massive interiors; Freddie Francis shot the film in his eye-popping widescreen style, capturing the outre scope of the desert world with Alan Splet’s amazing sound design.
The cast is fascinating, and Kyle MacLachlan makes his debut, but not a real impression until BLUE VELVET (1985), and stalwarts like Max Von Sydow, Dean Stockwell, Jurgen Prochnow, Linda Hunt, Patrick Stewart, not to mention Sean Young, Alicia Witt and scene-stealers like Brad Dourif and Kenneth McMillan as the bloated, revolting Baron Harkonnen, backed by Paul Smith (Bluto from POPEYE) with Sting, who’s actually good as an egomaniacal villain. Even ERASERHEAD himself, Jack Nance, shows up along with another future TWIN PEAKS star, Everett McGill. Oddly, the special effects are subpar for such an expensive film, with obvious blue-screen work and unconvincing miniatures; Carlo Rambaldi fares better with the famous sand worms and the Cronenbergesque creatures. The soundtrack by Toto (!) and Brian Eno is surprisingly effectual, except for the final theme which sounds like Toto kareoke. Taken as a purely visual experience, DUNE is something to behold and Frank Herbert was pleased with the film; it’s a minor miracle one of the most pure science fiction epics even made it to the screen. Although I would have prefered to see Alejandro Jodorowsky’s famed attempt, with spfx by Dan O’Bannon, design by H.R.Giger (who Lynch unwisely rejected) and Salvador Dali as Harkonnen…