Wow… when I first started doing these movie reviews, last week, I knew that at some point I’d have to cover the book-turned-movie that inspired me to write! And truth be told, I actually saw this movie before reading the book. Yes, Dune was just like Lord of the Rings for me, a film that I was drawn to because I knew it was based on a classic. And upon learning that the movie was significantly different from the book, I decided that at some point, I’d check the latter out. However, it was not until years later, with the production of Frank Herbert’s Dune (the six part miniseries that was much more faithful to the novel) that I finally put my money where my mouth was.
Well, you know the rest… sort of. Short version, it inspired me; long version, I read the first three books, had to return them, then read all six… twice over. Guess you could say I liked them, though I got to admit, not as much as some people! Since I first posted my thoughts about Dune and its Descendents, I’ve learned that their are Dune fansites out there where its all they talk about. And boy do they know their stuff! So let me take this opportunity to give a shout out to the good folks at Jacurutu and Hairy Ticks of Dune! Keep up the good work!
I think I also mentioned somewhere that movies based on books, especially where they differed, would get special attention. To make good on this drunken boast, here’s my review of Dune (1984, directed by David Lynch) and Frank Herbert’s Dune (the 2000 miniseries that premiered on the Sci-fi network). First up, Lynch’s adaptation of Herbert’s Magnum Opus!
Since 1971, six years after Herbert wrote Dune, attempts were made to adapt the novel to film. Several directors tried and failed, among them Arthur P. Jacobs, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Ridley Scott. However, all came up short. Then, in 1981, the Italian film producer Dino De Laurentis decided to tackle it and brought in relative newcomer David Lynch to direct it. This did not mean that the two did not go through hell to create it though! The movie did not hit the screen until 1984, Lynch distanced himself from the work, saying he was denied final cut privileges, and several versions have been released over the years. The original was a two-hour movie that glossed over much that happened in the book and simplified the plot. A three hour version was also released, but this too was guilty of the same faults (i.e. glossing and simplifying). But then again, how do you do justice to a book that is as dense as Dune while still making it fit into a two hour format? Hell, even a three hour format is pretty damn tight, and Lynch cited pressure and deadlines as a reason for the disappointing final product. So really, its lack of commercial success and mixed reviews are entirely understandable. But, as Nietzsche said, “God is in the details”. So let’s get down to the particulars and see just what made the original flop and the miniseries work.
The original movie opens with an intro that parallels the novels, but which seems, in a movie format, to be both confusing and misleading. Princess Irulan (played by Virginia Madsen) gives us an overview of the known universe, set to a background of stars. She lets us know what year it is, how her father’s the Emperor of the known universe, and how the spice runs everything. She also introduces the namesake of the movie, the planet where all spice in the universe “flows” from – Arrakis, aka. Dune. Now here is why this is confusing. Aside from this intro, she has voice over lines for the rest of the movie, and one line of dialogue in the opening scene. But otherwise, we don’t hear or see from her until the very end, and even then she’s just a stand-in. A glorified prop. This is faithful to the novel, in which every chapter opens with a quote from her Histories of Muad’Dib and what not, but like I say, doesn’t work here. In a movie, if someone’s doing the intro, you’d expect them to have some kind of role throughout the movie.
Moving on, the original movie then introduces us to the Spacing Guild by having them confront the Emperor about a possible conspiracy they got wind of. They demand that the Emperor explain the key elements to them, which is really just an excuse for some exposition. I should mention that none of this takes place in the original novel, and it feels like a total info dump, especially if you’ve read said novel. There, Herbert took his time to build up the conspiratorial relationship that existed between House Harkonnen and the Emperor and used dialogue to put it into the background, which is something they should have done with the movie. Dropping it on the audience all at once just seems forced. Oh, and once the Emperor is done explaining his conspiracy, the Guild adds their two cents: if Duke Leto Atreides is to die, could he throw in the son as well? Why? They try to explain that later. In the meantime, we are left to wonder for ourselves, and the Emperor even asks this obvious question in an internal monologue. I should note that this ALSO did not happen in the original book. In fact, the Guild never made any demands at all and had nothing to do with the conspiracy that gets Act I rolling. So again, no real need for this, except to set up the truncated, simplified plot they went with. The scene did involve some cool costumes though, not to mention a big, animatronic navigator in a pressure tank; all of which was pretty original since the appearance of navigators was never described in any great detail. But for the most part, this scene is kinda useless. It also sets up the rather annoying and persistent habit this movie has of relying on internal monologues. I’m reminded of Blade Runner, where Scott felt that need to include narration in the theatrical version, something which was left out of the Director’s Cut. And as time has proven, the latter was better, relying on the actors and direction to establish things and convey information instead of just telling the audience what’s going on.
The movie then moves to planet Geidi Prime, the home of the Harkonnen’s. This scene I actually liked, at least until the dialogue really started to flow. The reason was because the sets were actually very cool. They create the kind of dark, fearful atmosphere that you would expect from a director like Lynch. But then, a big expository speech is made in which the Baron (Kenneth McMillan) and Mentat Piter De Vries (Brad Dourif) explain to Feyd (played by Sting!) and his brother “The Beast” Rabban, what their plan is, in painfully simple terms! “We got us a conspiracy here, and nobody can know about it, k?” I mean, c’mon people, a little subtlety! They go over the top just a little to make the Baron look evil here too, like how he’s got disease ridden flesh that a doctor has to lance constantly, or how he molests some boy to death, or how Rabban and Feyd enjoy the spectacle immensely. I mean, we get it, they’re evil. Move on!
Speaking of moving on, we are brought to Caladan next, home of the Atreides. We meet Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) as he’s brushing up on his planet studies from what appears to be an iPad/audiobook. And of course, more internal monologue is used to tell us what we need to know about these places. And it’s annoying as all hell! “Geidi Prime, home of our enemy…”, “Kaitain, where the Emperor lives…” “Arrakis… Dune… Desert planet…” Then, we get to meet Paul’s tutors, who stand still and stare at Paul long enough for the narration to introduce them all. Really? Why not just freeze frame it, or better yet, NOT have Irulan introduce them? Seriously, it looks like they’re in a stage play and are waiting for the damn chorus to stop talking so they can say their lines. Okay, so there’s Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart, aka. Captain Picard), Thufir Hawat (Freddie Jones) and Doctor Yueh (Dean Stockwell, aka. Al from Quantum Leap). More expository dialogue follows as they dump info on Arrakis, the Fremen, the giant Sandworms, the spice, their enemies the Harkonnens, and how they suspect the Emperor’s in league with them. Then we get a quasi-action scene as Paul takes down a robot using a Weirding Module (a gun that relies on sound, already mentioned in the movie). Do I even need to mention that these things were never in the original book? In truth, they are kind of neat, and the settings used for this scene are also lavish, just like the ones used to reconstruct the emperor’s palace and Geidi Prime. But, you kind of get the feeling that they are setting the tone for the rest of the movie at this point, like all the money went into wardrobe and sets and none was left over for decent writers!
After beating up the robot with his Weirding gun, Paul meets up with Duke Leto (Jürgen Prochnow), who tells Paul he’s proud of him and explains how their move will do them good in spite of the danger. Why? Some stuff about how the “sleeper must awaken”. Now of course this is a case of foreshadowing, but even with all the info dumping and internal monologues, its never quite clear what this means, even by the end of the movie. The Lady Jessica is then introduced, Paul gets to meet the Revered Mother, and she tests him with that funky black box that induces pain. This is also in keeping with the novel, as it establishes that Paul might be the Kwisatz Haderach*, and that there is a conspiracy in the works against Paul’s father. Unlike the previous scenes, this one doesn’t feel so info-dumpish. Maybe that’s because its actually pretty close to what was in the novel, so the writers didn’t feel the need to be so expository. But alas, this good scene is followed by a pretty stupid one in which Duncan Idaho (Richard Jordan) is intro’d and Paul says good-bye to him, since he will be going to Arrakis with an advance party to check the place out. What makes this scene stupid? Two lines of dialogue: “May the hand of God be with you,” says Paul. “May the hand of God be with us all,” replies Duncan. Just substitute the word Force and you’ve got a lawsuit on your hands. What the hell! That wasn’t even a subtle attempt at ripping off Star Wars, which was by 1984, the most popular sci-fi franchise of all time! What were they trying to do, cash in on one-liner recognition?
We then cut to the Guild transport ship where we get a special effects montage that is meant to illustrate the mysterious process of how a navigator “folds space”. This, as the novel explains, is an instantaneous form of space travel, which is dependent on navigators who have heightened, spice-induced mental abilities to merge time and space. Whoa! Okay, while the special effects in this scene are not up to current standards, it was still pretty cool. And I did love the models used to create the scene, mainly because you get a real sense of grandeur from them which is what Lynch was clearly going for. In the novel, Herbert emphasized that the Guild ships were really, really big! So kudos for more good set work, David. That’s one thing this movie keeps doing well. Then, cut to Arrakis, where the ship has deposited them safely.
What follows is several scenes in which we see the Duke’s men deploying and settling in. Lady Jessica also meets the Fremen and we find out that they also have legends that involve a Messianic figure that parallel the Bene Gesserit’s. We also get a good long scene where Doctor Kynes (Max Von Sydow), the planetary ecologist, takes them to the desert in an ornithopter and we get to see a worm attack a harvester. Again, kind of cheesy by current standards, but the scene is quite well done and does a pretty good job of conveying Paul’s wonder and the obvious tension over being attacked by a gigantic beast. Then, an attempt is made on Paul’s life, they find booby traps, yadda yadda, yadda. And all the while, Paul becomes more and more entranced with Arrakis, the spice, and his own fate. Then, after ALL that build-up, the Harkonnens and the Emperor finally attack! The combat scene is short, people die, Doctor Yueh betrays the Duke, and Paul and his mother are ushered to safety. Duncan also dies way too soon, having lost the better part of his page time and any involvement he had in making sure Paul and his mother survived. But this was obviously done in order to speed along the movie, which was already going long and had lots to cover still.
Speaking of which, Paul and his mother then find themselves in the desert where they narrowly escape a worm and the Fremen find them. Now this part, mainly the scene where they see the desert Fremen for the first time, I got a problem with for three reasons. First of all, they totally change the reason why Paul takes the name Muad’Dib. Its the name of a desert mouse, not the damn “mouse shadow” that’s on the planet’s second moon! Why’d the movie writers change that anyway? Was the book’s version not messianic enough for ya? The nerve! Second, the acting is wooden, from Stilgar (Everett McGill) to Chani (Sean Young), and just about everyone else in this scene! Everything they say just sounds laughable and cheesy. Third, they speed through it like they’re in a huge rush, which is precisely what the movie does from this point onward! Like I said, its as if they acknowledged that they’ve already spent half the movie on Act I and need to rush through Acts II and III. So from this initial encounter where Paul and his mother are welcome into the tribe, we are rushed to the Fremen’s hideout where they show Paul and his mother one of their moisture traps, the Reverend Mother dies and Jessica take her place (in the process drinking the “Water of Life”** and altering her unborn daughter, Alia), Paul begins teaching the Fremen the “Weirding Way” (still sounds weird!) and they begin their campaign against the Harkonnens, and Paul and Jessica fall in love. Totally, totally rushed! Scene by scene, minimal time is given to establishing the significance of these events, Lynch relying on internal dialogue and narration to relate what the audience needs to know. Even the scene where Paul rides the worm feels rushed, and its got the epic music and a freaking Sandworm!
To make matters even worse, Irulan’s voiceover is cued again and we’re told that Paul then spent the next two years waging war against the Baron’s spice production, Alia grew up way faster than any normal child, and Paul and Chani fell in love. Really? All that just happened, huh? And we’re only an hour and fifteen minutes in? Wow, were making great time! Naturally, the book did this too, but it dedicated plenty of page time filling in those gaps. They didn’t just phone it in! I know, I know, time constraints, but even in the long version, it’s the same. Just a montage of shit blowing up, then we come to the scene where Paul meets Gurney again – whose taken up with some smugglers since the attack – and they join forces. I should also mention that the movie then skips a whole bunch of scenes that took place in the novel and moves right to the part where the Emperor comes to Arrakis to demand answers. He does this, in the movie, because the Guild demanded it of him. Again, not in the damn book! In the book, the Emperor intervenes because the Baron’s incompetence in suppressing the rebellion demanded it, not because the Guild is pissed. Then, we learn why the Guild wants him dead. They say so, and Paul sees it in his dream. They are afraid he’ll drink the “Water of Life”, apparently, because… Well, we’re not sure why at this point. And we’re not even sure why Paul will do it, aside from the fact that we’re told, point blank, that he HAS to. His visions are interrupted, you see, and he needs to take the water of life to regain it and “become what he is meant to be”, or some such prophetic shit!
Anyway, Paul achieves a higher state of awareness after surviving the ordeal, as is demonstrated by a series of watery images and more internal monologue. The truth, he realizes, is that the worms create the spice and the two are interrelated. Duh! But apparently, drinking the water has not just restored his visions but given him control over the worms too. Oh boy! Do I even need to say it? NOT IN THE BOOK! In the original story, Paul drank the water to gain full awareness, which is something every Bene Gesserit sister does and Paul knew he’d have to do sooner or later to see if he was the Kwisatz Hadderach. And he didn’t gain control over the damn worms in the process! What’s more, the Guild didn’t give a shit about any of this, nor did it ever even come up, mainly because they didn’t suspect he would take control over the spice-producing worms in the process. That was all invented by the movie’s writers, and it was pretty damn flaccid, you ask me! It was the simplification I mentioned, and for any fan of the novel (or anyone with half a brain, for that matter) it was a letdown. This, apparently, was what his father was talking about when he said those prophetic words: “The Sleeper must awaken.” Well, seems it has. Makes no sense, but whatever…
So, Paul and the Fremen get a hold of a whole lot of Sandworms and decide to attack the Emperor, who’s arrived on Arrakis in his Imperial fortress. And this climactic action scene is, once again, rushed and pretty sloppy. Lots of tracers and lots of things blowing up, but hardly a satisfying fight scene with the kind of urgency or desperation you’d expect. I mean, I know Paul’s prescient and has already foreseen victory, but that doesn’t mean it should be all one-sided. Then comes the final scene where Paul is dictating terms to the Emperor, a scene which is truncated and underdeveloped by any standard. Yes, he does order the Emperor to abdicate and give him power, which involves marriage to Irulan (who appears in this scene, but says nothing), and yes, he tells off the Mother Superior; all of which is in keeping with the original novel. But nothing is mentioned as to how Paul plans to back up these demands. In the novel, his victory is not complete since the Emperor still has the armies of every noble house sitting in orbit, just waiting for him to say “attack!”. He cannot bring the Emperor and the entire universe to heel until he threatens to destroy the spice, which he knows about because he’s stumbled onto the secret of how water is lethal to the worms. “He who can destroy a thing, controls a thing”, as the novel put it. But in the movie, the Emperor is about to protest until the Guild simply tells him to shut up, because apparently, they “know what he can do”. Uh, mind telling the rest of us? Paul controls the worms, so does that mean he can shut off spice production? Tell the worms to simply stop making it? What?
But all that gets pushed aside so Paul and Feyd (aka. Sting) can have their final knife fight scene. Of course, Paul kills him, and makes his proclamation, also from the novel. “We Fremen have a saying. ‘God created Arrakis to train the faithful’. One cannot go against the word of God’. Then comes the two stupidest parts of the movie, nice that they saved them for last! First, Irulan’s final voiceover of the movie explains that Paul ushered in some kind of golden age. “Where there was war, Paul would bring peace. Where there was hate, he would bring love.” Are you freaking kidding me? I could mention that this is a total perversion of what happened in the novels, where in fact Paul’s reign brought in successive Crusades against the world’s that resisted him, killing billions, but I think I’ll just point out how this makes no sense. For starters, this bringer of peace and love, is this the same guy who just waged a war against the Harkonnens for two years, a war that was based on tons of guerrilla/terrorist-style attacks? The same guy who brought down the Emperor’s army by using a tactical nuke, followed by a full-frontal assault that involved monster-like creatures? Second, just how is this messianic emperor (who happens to have an army of skilled religious zealots at his disposal that see him as a living god and obey his every comomand) going to spread peace and love? Boxes of candy and flowers? Get real! It’s “Do as I say, or freaking die like these other bastards!” Why the hell they even threw this line in in the first place is beyond me! It totally goes against everything the book stood for, which was a sense of historic and humanistic realism. Paul wasn’t no Gandhiesque Jesus figure who loved his enemies and fell on their swords. He was a bass-ass prophet with the toughest army on the block, who smote his enemies hard, fast, and where it hurt! Second, its just plain stupid!
Oh, but I’m forgetting the other stupid thing. Paul makes it rain. Yeah, that’s right. As a demonstration of his powers after he’s killed Feyd and brought everyone to heel, he uses his mind and makes the skies open with tears. Um… what??? What the hell is this, more totally over the top messianic crap? The man is NOT God, in spite of his freaky powers or what his followers think of him. Furthermore, as the extended movie already established (not to mention the novel, many times over), water is poisonous to the worms! This is why Arrakis is a desert planet, for chrissakes! The worms altered the ecology so they could survive. So making it rain would automatically kill all of them and shut down spice production forever! And, as the novel and movie both mentioned, spice is the life blood of EVERYTHING! Without it, people die, and I don’t just mean from the total breakdown of trade, commerce and transport. I mean they start Jonesin’ and freaking die! True, the book did dedicate vast amounts of page time explaining how the Fremen want to alter Arrakis’ ecology so it will be lusher and more hospitable, hence all the moisture traps, but this plan involved centuries of ecological engineering, with great care being given to ensure that some patches of desert would remain so the worse could survive. So not only was it a completely over the top, Ten Commandments-style trick, it also contradicted everything established in the movie – and more importantly, the novel – up until this point.
Ah, screw this! Roll credits!
Okay, no two ways about it, I didn’t like this movie. Obviously, my love of the original book has much to do with that, but so does my commitment to a well-drawn out, well-written story! And while I liked the sets, the costumes, and felt they did a good job of casting, that’s about as far as my love went. The dialogue moves between wooden and preachy, their are far too many expositions being made, the internal monologues are as annoying as they are persistent, the pace is rushed, and the plot feels like a cut and paste job. Once again, I must acknowledge that time constraints and production difficulties were responsible, but that doesn’t change the fact that it feels like they cut a whole lot of corners in this movie, then pasted on some half-assed plot lines in their place to make it fit and still make sense. Well… not exactly make sense, but you get the point. And I’d be one of the first people to admit that this was inevitable since Dune really can’t be made into a two or even three hour movie, but that doesn’t change the fact that the end result was still pretty bad. Not all bad, mind you. In fact, the first hour or so is actually pretty enjoyable if you don’t know what to expect. But then, it all kind of goes to hell and by the end, you get the feeling even David Lynch was saying it “screw it, roll credits.”
And as was to be expected, the movie was panned by critics and did poorly at the box office. A cult classic like Dune you’d expect to not garner a lot of attention at first, but at least you’d hope it would get the attention of critics and command a cult following. Alas, this movie did neither, and it was for this reason that the miniseries was made some sixteen years later. Essentially, many felt that the Dune franchise, with all its adherents and devoted fans, deserved a second shot at a worthy adaptation. And by opting for a miniseries format – three episodes, two hours each with commercials – they would be able to do it justice. And you know what, they did! But more on that in my next installment…
Entertainment Value: 6/10 (good for the first hour, then not so much)
Plot: 3/10 (weaaaaak!)
Direction: 8/10 (nothing wrong with how Lynch shot it!)
* A superbeing the Bene Gesserit were conspiring to develop through selective breeding. A male that would combine all their powers of genetic memory, prescience, and super-human kills.
** The liquid exhalation of a sandworm that is excreted in the course of their dying, which the Bene Gesserit rely on to achieve higher awareness. The “trial” involves drinking the poisonous water and converting it by using their mental acuity. Those who survive achieve higher awareness, those who fail die.