Dune (1984)

When it’s on: Friday, 29 May (9.00 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

I’m a big fan of Game of Thrones, both the TV series and George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Towards the end of the first series, I bought the novel, devoured it before HBO’s run had finished, and by that summer had covered the rest. I’m now one of those poor Joes waiting for Martin to publish his sixth instalment, offering a silent prayer that he’ll stay alive long enough to complete the thing, or at least stop doing so many conventions so that he can instead sit alone and write. Nice, aren’t I? One thing seems obvious about the show. That is it had to be a TV show, the ten hours of each season doing at least some justice to the source material, its swathe of many characters and plot points, the vast sweep of the narrative, forgiving some omissions and lamenting others – no Lady Stoneheart?

Exploring Game of Thrones, it struck me how much it was reminiscent of Frank Herbert’s Dune, which I’d read years before, around the time that David Lynch’s film adaptation was doing the rounds. The same sprawling plot, many characters, political intrigues that dazzled with their complexity and interweaving. I remember seeing the film at the cinema, bowled over by many of its images but utterly lost when it came to the story, seeing when I read the novel that it could do little but grab-bag from Herbert’s text. By necessity, Lynch had to focus on the main character, Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan), but so much of the other stuff was condensed or simply dropped, so that the story’s richness, told on the widest of canvasses, was lost.

Dune’s marketing didn’t help. Some forty million dollars was sank in the project, an enormous sum for the time, and it was therefore perhaps logical that it was promoted as a Star Wars style adventure, playing up the science fiction action when the work was intended to be more complicated and multi-layered. This must have confused audiences who went, expecting one thing and getting another, indeed I was there and suitably nonplussed by it all. Reviews were uniformly sniffy, accusing it of being boring and borderline incomprehensible. Viewers felt much the same way and Dune went on to tank at the box office, not even clawing back its production costs.

Years later, and what’s left? Dune makes the unfortunate mistake of many films adapted from complex source material by slapping exposition-heavy scenes on the screen in its early acts. The opening has Virginia Madsen’s face on the screen, explaining the backdrop to the story in a way that makes little apparent sense, throwing terms and names out with careless abandon and then disappearing; she barely appears in the rest of the film. We next meet the Emperor (Jose Ferrer), who discusses more bits of business with the guild navigator, a sluglike alien being that floats in a massive fish tank and is treated with due reverence, which never really translates into anything. But then the action moves to the home planet of the Atreides family, quickly established as Dune’s heroes, and things become more interesting. Duke Leto (Jurgen Prochnow) is being put in charge of the all important spice trade, which is mined solely on the desert planet Arrakis, commonly known as Dune, and travels there with his concubine Jessica (Francesca Annis) and son Paul (MacLachlan) to start work. Leto is unaware that it’s all a trap. The Emperor is working with another planet, led by the villainous House Harkonnen, to ambush Atreides and remove a clan that could threaten his position over time. The trap is sprung; the Duke is killed, Paul and Jessica finding themselves stranded in a remote part of Dune, prey to the massive sand worms that can detect movement on the world’s surface and strike with little warning. What none of them figure on is that Paul – as we learn via a series of foreshadowing moments – has some special, latent messianic power, which will be activated when he comes across Dune’s native population, and it’s their teaming up that will trigger the film’s climactic fight back.

Dune was the debut performance of MacLachlan, the entire film resting on his young shoulders to convince as the precocious, seemingly ordinary lad who will grow in ability and charisma as the plot develops. As such he’s the Luke Skywalker of the story, and he’s actually pretty good at holding together many of its scenes where Paul has to command the screen. It should also be said that many of Dune’s special effects sequences work remarkably well. In a pre-CGI era, the worms look suitably big and menacing, and do a reasonable job of interacting with the antlike humans, especially Paul’s company that come to control and ‘ride’ them into battle. There’s also a rather beautifully mounted sequence when Duke Leto is leaving his world to make the journey to Arrakis, his ship becoming one of many that make their steady way into the cylindrical object that will use the spice in order to ‘fold’ space and make their journey almost instantaneous. The procession of identical vessels suggests a much wider story, of which Paul’s adventure is only one. What’s in all those ships? Is this what space travel of the future might look like?

But these are moments, within a plot that remains jumbled and at times downright incoherent. I was particularly put off by the Harkkonen narrative, which removes any sense of their purpose in favour of presenting them as uniformly repulsive, from the obese, floating Baron (Kenneth McMillan) to his henchman, played by Sting as a beautiful, yet dangerous assassin, who has virtually nothing to do until the final scene, a duel with Paul that exists apparently to give them something to do.

Still, other moments hint at what Dune might have turned into had it been given wider scope with a television series. A lovely bit that teases at Paul’s dormant power comes when he and the Duke are about to inspect Arrakis. Max von Sydow, who plays a local guide, is checking both men’s uniforms to see if they’re desert-ready, and finds that Paul’s is already in perfect order. The Duke’s son explains that it just seemed the right way to wear it, yet it suggests something much more significant. But the film misses a trick with its introduction of the ‘Weirding Way’, a kind of mental acumen that can move and even destroy objects. This was an important facet of the plot, but in a mid-eighties production it can, in its vaguely explained way, only be derivative of another, well known ‘force’ firmly established within science fiction cinema.

Cast members – Dune features some really big names, including Dean Stockwell, Patrick Stewart, Sean Young, Brad Dourif, Richard Jordan, Everett McGill and Freddie Jones – come and go, their own stories only hinted at because there isn’t time to do anything more with them, whilst a preponderance of dream sequences and inner monologues fire information at us in a way that gives the impression of a film trying to rush through all its main elements in as economical a way as possible. It sort of works. The build-up to Dune’s final battle has a loose degree of logic that makes it feel appropriately hefty and significant, but it can’t help but be a bit of a mess all told. Lynch, whose stock as a director had risen to this point with The Elephant Man garnering both critical and commercial success, was never as high profile again. Plans for a Dune sequel were understandably abandoned, and Lynch removed his name from an extended version of the film for television that spliced in an hour’s worth of cut footage and extra narration in an effort for greater narrative cohesion. But he would go on to produce his best work, Blue Velvet, a more personal movie that reunited him with MacLachlan in a story about a small-town mystery that becomes increasingly a nightmare. Twin Peaks, which developed the theme further and again starred MacLachlan, would follow.

Dune: **

13 Replies to “Dune (1984)”

  1. You know, I’ve never seen this. The whole fantasy genre is one which rarely works for me – with a handful of notable exceptions – and I find it pales in comparison to the, unrelated yet still somehow related, Sci-Fi genre.
    I think the fact it had a reputation for being a bit muddled helped put me off too.

    1. Thanks Colin – not missing much. It’s one big missed opportunity really, with glimpses of greatness but little more than that, and I’m sure you could find a better way to spend those 2+ hours. I’ve very much been enjoying those classic old Arnold sci-fis by the way – THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN last night, years since I watched it and I loved it.

      1. Good to hear. I recently bought Matheson’s book, so I’ll be reading it over the summer and then watching the film again myself.

      2. The book’s fantastic and very close to the film, obviously both being Matheson, of whom I’m a big fan. The one audiobook I’ve ever listened through to the end was I AM LEGEND, left stunned that the various adaptations haven’t followed it more faithfully.

  2. I saw this when it came out and got into an argument with my brother, who loved the book and enjoyed the film, while I just found the film boring and impenetrable (and unpleasant too). Still not read the book …

    1. Thanks Sergio. I read somewhere that no less a figure than Frank Herbert appreciated the adaptation, whether doing so to tow the line or not… I don’t know if I could call it boring exactly, though the dream sequences do require a certain investment on the viewer’s part when it hasn’t necessarily generated the goodwill beforehand. Impenetrable however, covers it pretty well.

      1. Never seen it, but that makes sense to me. It should have been a series because there was far too much to cover in a film, as I saw it.

      2. The movie has a lot of impressive stuff in it but I wish it were a bit less grotesque and heave-handed. Getting Lynch was certainly a brave move

  3. I think I first saw this shortly after reading the novel — I loved the novel, but don’t remember having particularly strong feelings about the film either way. Well, other than that the miniseries was even better. They did a second series too, adapting the next two novels if I remember rightly, and for some reason I remember the first episode of that as being the best part of the whole thing…

    Hm, I really need to invest some time in re-watching all that, my memory is obviously far too hazy!

    1. Thanks Bob. I will have to check out that series as I liked the book and enjoyed all the world(s) building, but the film couldn’t hold all that information and didn’t succeed. Some good moments, but your comment that it left you feeling nothing is probably the worst possible reaction you could have to a $40 million movie.

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