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…

32 Responses to “Retro-View: Dune (1984)”

  1. I am right there with ya! Amazing, stunning visuals as Lynch gets his geek on for his love of all things industrial – smoke, soot and dust right alongside clanking machinery… incredible stuff. The visuals do a good job of distracting one from the narrative mess that is this film. It’s a film you could almost watch without the sound off. Atho, I do love the whole idea of someone’s name being a killing word!

  2. as a huge drooling fan of the book, when i first saw lynch’s ‘dune’ in high-school – my hopes so very very high, made doubly so as a freakish fan of ‘the police’ and sting – it broke my poor heart. but i’ve long since forgiven DL for his stunning travesty and learned to appreciate the film for the interesting debacle that it is, surely one of my first lessons in learning to moderate my expectations when it comes to adaptations of my beloved novels.

    (the novel is notoriously slow to start; when my friend first handed it to me she said, “promise you won’t give up until after the first 100 pages”, to which i grudgingly agreed and i’m so glad i did because it was a revelation of imagination and complexity to my young mind, i simply adore it with every fibre of my being)

    • “promise you won’t give up until after the first 100 pages”,

      And a map? I’ve still gotta get through “The Lord Of The Rings”…

      Did you feel the film captured anything of the book?

      • well, i think the problem for me was partly of my own imagination’s making: the design of lynch’s ‘dune’ is quite bold and stylish but it did not match the picture of dune formed in my mind while reading the book AT ALL, so it made it really difficult for my young self (i would have been 17 or 18 i think?) to connect to the vision of film dune. had the film version’s story been told in a way that i found engaging and compelling i might have been able to forgive the stark departure from the powerful, elegant images in my head, but i found the adaptation to be lacking in depth and cohesion and DUNENESS, an empty shell, a meandering, meaningless mess, so it was a complete fuckarow for me — i remember being absolutely devastated and yet at the same time feeling numb and empty coming out of the cinema with my friends, it was awful (drama queen teens).

        but like i said, i can now appreciate the film for the unique, stylish mess that it is on it’s own terms and i think i see what lynch was trying for even if he didn’t succeed, so all the animosity is gone (so i guess the short answer to your question is no, the film didn’t capture anything of the magic of the book for me, none of the intensity of paul’s deeply personal journey, his stark loneliness and desperation, the utter endless dry desolation of arrakis and the thumpers, the amazing life-givng/saving stillsuits, the absolute terror of the mammoth sandworms and utter wonder and delight at the ‘revelation’, the deep spirituality and camaraderie, the love and betrayal and loss, the sense of realised destiny, etc, none of the things that pulled at my heart in herbert’s dune world were present for me in the screen form)

  3. I have a great affection for Dune. It was an impossible (and probably pointless) task for anything outside of a TV series (was the mini any good either?) but there are visual delights to be had here and I still think about the production design.

  4. i forgot to mention earlier about frank herbert supposedly being pleased with the film: i’m not sure i’d read a great deal into that or take that at face value; what else is herbert going to say, really, the marketing for the ‘dune’ film was huge and inextricably tied in with the novel and (renewed) sales thereof – some newer additions have stills from the film on the cover – plus there’s the still on-going franchise beyond the first novel (i only ever read the first- couldn’t bear to have the sequels tarnish the beauty of the original for me) to consider. so for herbert to diss or divorce himself from the movie when asked what he thought of it would have been a pretty big deal with consequences; authors saying they’re happy with film adaptations of their books, in which they have a vested interest, is pretty par for the course. or herbert may have actually been happy with the film version, but really, the film is a bit of a fine mess and by any standard rather turned his finely-tuned story into something of a big weird calliope acid trip, and i’m just having a hard time really believing that his public acceptance of the film was an honest appraisal rather than merely polite. but that’s just me. i remember reading a piece on herbert’s son a while back in which he’s asked about the film – i think in relation to the possibility of more dune films – and my impression was that his view of the lynch movie was as a bit of a disgrace to the legacy; i wondered if his distaste might more accurately reflect the herbert’s private feelings about the film when vested interests are no longer so keen (or maybe it’s just him).

    • Harlan Ellison wrote a lengthy essay about the DUNE film that’s reprinted in the book, “Watching” — Ellison was one of the few who praised the movie upon release and he knew Herbert well and talked to him at length about it, so unless Herbert was masking his disappointment, he really was an admirer, if not a fan. I’m inclined to believe Ellison, who would not let Herbert lie to him!

      And you only read the first book! I am shocked!

      • Didn’t Ellison call “Dune”, “the ‘Gone With the Wind’ of Science fiction epics”? Wait, what? I saw “Dune” in its initial release & didn’t think much of it beyond that it was an epic misfire by David Lynch. I would love to have another look, though this time in 70mm and on a huge screen. Hello, Cinerama Dome!
        Leah & I must have the same friend as I was told the exact same thing — “stick with it for a 100pp.” One of these days…

      • True. In fact, this is what Ellison quotes Herbert as saying of the film:

        “It begins as Dune begins, it ends as Dune ends and I hear my dialogue throughout. How much more could a writer want? Even though I have quibbles – I would’ve loved to have had David Lynch realize the banquet scene – do I like it? I do. I like it. Very much.”

        Ellison’s essay is a fascinating read as he goes into detail, from an insider’s POV of how the studio sabotaged the film before it was even released! He wrote:

        “It was widely rumored in the gossip underground that Frank Price, Chairman of MCA/Universal’s Motion Picture Group, and one of the most powerful men in the industry, had screened the film in one or another of its final workups, and had declared – vehemently enough and publicly enough for the words quickly to have seeped under the door of the viewing room and formed a miasma over the entire Universal lot – ‘This film is a dog. It’s gonna drop dead. We’re going to take a bath on it. Nobody’ll understand it!’ (Now those aren’t the exact words, because I wasn’t there. But the sense is dead accurate. Half a dozen separate verifications from within the MCA organization.).”

        Ellison goes on to document how he tried to get to screening to a review for USA Today (?!) and kept getting stonewalled by the studio. A great read.

  5. thanks for that link C, i’ll listen to it all later when i get the chance (i’m pretty sure i’ve heard at least some of it before but those youtubes look to be much longer than anything i’ve previously heard, so i’m there. well, i’m there later)

    when everyone around me was reading the sequels i refused to do so. they thought i was mental, but many of them ended up lamenting the deteriorating nature of the story as it goes on and on while i remained basking in my comparatively pure, short, sweet and wonderful dune experience — and i was probably a bit smug and insufferable about it, too, not adverse to rubbing it in when they’d complain about how the subsequent book couldn’t match the original.

  6. subsequent books, that is

  7. Wow, I actually still have some influence on somebody, somewhere! I’d better use this power for the good of humanity. Everyone, send me half of your savings or YOU ARE LOSERS.

    Good piece, and I more or less agree with you (and Leah, and Craig) completely. It’s not the book, but it can be appreciated as a unique cinematic experience on its own terms. Lynch will likely never get anywhere near that kind of budget again, so that’s also something.

    I first saw it after staying up all night and catching the first show on the Friday it opened (that’s how excited I was) and my semi-deranged state undoubtedly added to the experience.

    Yes, some of the effects are VERY chintzy. (I still like the worms, though, especially the scene in which the harvester is swallowed.) They looked bad even in 1984, a year after ROTJ’s souped-up Death Star attack and cycle chase. Burton’s BATMAN has some of the same quality — cool, huge sets, wild costumes, obvious tacky miniatures, mess of a story, plays MUCH better on a big screen. Not sure what that means, but there it is.

    I can believe that Herbert liked the film. It does follow the story pretty closely (aside from the invented “weirding module” business and the rain at the end) even if the tone and feel are completely different, and that’s what most authors seem to care about. They can be oddly literal-minded that way. Look at Stephen King and his preference for Mick Garris’s doggedly dull adaptations.

    Ooh, I’ve never heard that dual interview! I’m about to watch either PUNISHMENT PARK or CHOCOLAT (the real one), but I’ll listen to it soon. Thanks!

    And I’ve still never seen SKIDOO.

  8. And yes, the book is worth reading if you can get past the clunky sci-fi prose and dialogue, bad songs and poetry and general long-windedness.

    Leah, you’re not missing much by quitting after the first. I made it through the first three. The second is somewhat interesting, but after that it’s the same story over and over, basically, THE GODFATHER 2: power corrupts, the hero becomes the villain.

  9. What did you think of Prochnow’s zonked-out performance, by the way? He has that self-amused smile on his face the entire time, like he’s undergoing his own private spice trip. Maybe he’s on the same wavelength as REPO MAN’s Miller.

    And Stockwell is flat-out awful. Original choice John Hurt would have been perfect.

    • Prochnow was far more animated in THE KEEP; he’s almost unrecognizable here, yet somehow exudes…something private but amused, as you say.

      Stockwell, a brilliant actor, looks lost here. Lynch made it up to him in BLUE VELVET, which owes a lot to the failure of DUNE. Lynch probably just said, fuck this big budget epic shit, I’m going for broke, Dino. Ears and beers!

  10. (novel) dune is certainly long-winded. maybe that’s one of the reasons i relate to it in a way, because i’m often ridiculously long-winded myself, taking 5 paragraphs to say something i could say in a few sentences if i didn’t prattle on like a bobble-head, breaking into poetry, quotes and songs inappropriately (no i don’t really do that. maybe just a little)

    confession: when the going gets REALLY tough and i’m scared shitless or feel like i’m going to fold under the pressure like a house of cards but i SIMPLY CAN’T becuase it would mean life going to shit in a long drop and i have more than just myself to think about, i still chant the litany against fear (in my head of course, otherwise they’d probably cart me off to ‘rest’ at the delightful sunnybrook hill mental facility):

    fear is the mind-killer
    fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration
    i will face my fear
    i will permit it to pass over me & though me
    and when it has gone past
    i will turn the inner eye to see its path
    where the fear has gone there will be nothing
    only i will remain

    i’m always embarrassed to admit i do that, repeat my little dune mantra in my head when the going gets tough, but i swear it works. it works, of course, because i want it to.

    “It does follow the story pretty closely………. even if the tone and feel are completely different, and that’s what most authors seem to care about. They can be oddly literal-minded that way.”

    that’s true frankB, i agree.

    but thinking about it/trying to put my finger on why lynch’s ‘dune’ doesn’t work for me, it’s the manner in which the story is condensed/consolidated – the choices made on what to include/emphasise and what not to – that makes the adaptation so soulless compared to the book. in a weird way i think the film is TOO literally adapted in that it hits all the major obligatory notes of the book but fails at nuance; the ‘main bullet points’ are covered but unfortunately that isn’t what makes ‘dune’ special; the adaptation covers the surface, the overview, but doesn’t achieve the intimacy and intricacy and simplicity that makes the story special; it covers the ‘big and the bold’ but fails to understand that in order for the big and the bold to have meaning and heft, it must be counterbalanced by the micro, the quiet, the detail, the inner power.

    i know perfectly well losing detail is inevitable in book-to-film adaptations, but one of earmarks of a successful leap is recognising the importance of the quiet, profound, small moments that make the big moments worthwhile, make the story feel natural and powerful and scary and touching and harrowing and moving and compelling, knowing when to slow down the pace/build tension and character, etc and knowing when to charge ahead. lynch’s dune tends to just barges on through like a bull in a loud dramatic calliope china ship as a collection of scenes dominated by stunning production design but without cohesion and pacing to build momentum and intensity and emotion and character required to engage and enchant. lynch’s dune is all so staged and stilted and mannered, little feels natural or organic or genuine. it’s like it forgot that within the context of the fantastical sci fi dune universe the story is supposed to be about real people in a real place with genuine emotions, not just the staging of some grand costume opera. melodrama and histrionics and bellowing and making speeches doesn’t quite cut it (not for me anyway)

    ” Leah & I must have the same friend as I was told the exact same thing — “stick with it for a 100pp.” ”

    too freaky, bob. it must be some sort of…i can’t think of the right word, but it’s definitely bizarre.

  11. good grief, i had the vague recollection of rambling on in a haze of exhaustion last night and as it turns out now that i check ‘the dream’, it wasn’t my imagination. so apologies for all the typos/grammos above, i probably shouldn’t blog when i’m tired. but i may keep the phrase ‘bull in a china ship’ in my vernacular for the sheer absurdity of it.

  12. Sean Young’s DUNE home movies!

  13. So THAT’S the actor who was replaced. They wouldn’t say in the making-of book.

    Leah, I like to say the Juice of Sapho business in elevators, on busses, to random people I pass on the street…nobody says much because there are plenty of guys around here drinking juice and spouting monologues.

    • Love that Sean Young. And wow – ALDO RAY. Poor soul. Woulda been the biggest thing he’d done since THE GREEN BERETS.

      • It definitely adds dimension to Lynch’s casting of Aldo’s son Eric Da Re on “TWIN PEAKS.” I’m sure while he was sorry to lose a job, he was a mighty proud papa.

        There was that tantalizing period when Universal and Lynch were very close to a deal for Lynch’s director’s cut – I think it was during the Vivendi ownership of the studio, since Canal+ was a primary backer of Vivendi and they had financed many Uni films as well as Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE and INLAND EMPIRE. I still kinda wish Lynch had gone for it.

  14. re: sean’s way cool little behind the scenes commentary/short there, i’ve always thought it hilarious how much kyle (terribly miscast) in character as paul is a dead ringer for david lynch at that time in his life appearance-wise, same hair and all. if you’re not looking too closely it’s like, is that david or kyle with ‘paul hair’ in that shot? i wonder what was up with the doppelganger-ness.

    (the only member of the principle cast that really captured the character from the book for me was francesca as jessica, she was pretty great. sean young looked a fairly good chani but wasn’t terribly convincing in the role, sort of capturing the impish quality but lacking the natural intestinal fortitude, grit and badassery that made chani so formidable, lovable and special)

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