PSA: Dune (1984), or I Don’t Know Art, But I Know What I Like

20 08 2009

Welcome back to Failed Franchises Week! It seems like man never really changes. We’re still in a constant battle with each other, even in 2009. We can’t figure out a way to solve our problems peacefully, and it seems therefore like we were perhaps predestined to be at odds with our baser instincts. While it seems cowardly to call it our nature, something has to be said for the sheer ambition of our mutual violence, which threatens to destroy us and the rest of the planet at times. Perhaps Jane’s Addiction was right when Perry Farrell sang in “Three Days”:

True hunting’s over, no herd to follow.

Without game men prey on each other.

Sci-fi author Frank Herbert saw the significance in man’s destiny to attack one another and used our baser instincts to create a space opera called Dune that takes place in the faaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrr-off year of 10, 191. When we open the gates to space and freely travel across the universe, one would imagine we’d have no need for war, but somehow we’re STILL out for blood. Today’s feature is an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel of the same name by the great David Lynch. It has freakishly mutated humans, psychic powers, sexy young people, sexy old people, levitating fat guys,pretty good special effects, bald women, bald babies, and somehow it’s one of Lynch’s most normal and comprehensible directorial efforts!

So, it’s WAYYYYY in the future. 10,191 to be precise! As a race, we’ve traveled to the farthest reaches of the universe, but politically and socially we’ve gone back to the Dark Ages. The major planets in the known universe are run by Barons and Dukes, and at the center of it all we have an Emperor. In this future man lives without computers or complicated thinking machines, so we have trained ourselves to use the latent abilities within to the fullest extent. Our own powers are used to do all the things computers once did, like traveling through space, complicated numeric endeavors, and even more mysterious things like telepathy and telekinesis. But that potential cannot be brought out without the spice known as melange. The spice is the most important resource found in the universe, and everyone needs it to keep this futuristic society going. And the spice can only be found in one place in the entireĀ  universe: a desert planet called Arrakis, or Dune. The Emperor has felt for some time now that one of the more powerful ruling families in the universe, the Atreides’, are planning to overthrow him. To coax them out and destroy them, the Emperor aligns with the Atreides’ rivals, the vile and despicable Harkonnens. They hatch a plan to trick Duke Atreides, his concubine Jessica, and their son Paul into going to Arrakis to assume control over the planet and spice production for the entire universe. Duke Atreides is a wise and strongĀ  man, but he cannot withstand the combined might of both the evil Harkonnens and the paranoid Emperor, so he is eliminated on the sands of Dune. But his son Paul and concubine Jessica survive, and the Emperor did not count on Paul’s resourcefulness and extraordinary powers. He is a very special young man, and he has a very large destiny to fulfill on the burning sands of Arrakis that will change the face of the universe forever. What is his potential on the face of the desert world? Where will he find allies to support him? And what will he do with his enormous new-found power?

Dune is a movie that has gone down in history as a flop. It was poorly received by critics and fans alike for its eccentric storytelling, odd special effects, and its inferior soundtrack by lame synth band Toto. I can see the basis for their complaints, but I don’t think it’s as bad as all get out. I actually like it for all its faults because it has a TON of character. It’s a movie that combines the majesty of Frank Herbert’s vision with Lynch’s surreal imagery. There’s nothing that can completely mar such a striking idea, even all the problems mentioned above.

It’s a very dense mythology, but it is covered fairly well by Lynch, who obviously has a deep interest in the source material. I actually read all the Dune books in my youth, and enjoyed them immensely, so, as a fan, I was impressed by the attention to some of the details here. There are just so many details to sink into our heads in one sitting, so it’s undeniably dense, but I feel like they never give you too much info, like some of the other movies this week have. Here is a reference point to anyone wanting to learn about the deep, deep mythos surrounding this sci-fi legend.

The problems are definitely there. Toto should NOT be scoring movies. I feel at all times like there is a rock band playing this music. It’s not an organic thing that springs from the movie, but rather an “artsy” project by one of the members of Toto. And the synth really, really dates the movie. You know you’re in 1984 when the timeless vision of a far-off and distant future is scored by a guy holding 2 fingers on a keyboard. The Brian Eno theme is very impressive, and I honestly wished he had scored the whole film. But while Brian Eno probably asked for 5 figures, I’m sure all Toto wanted was lunch at Carl’s Jr. and $50 to get to their next gig in Palm Springs, so I understand.

The effects are great, in my opinion, and I’ll defend them to the last. But I’ll say that while I think they aged well, I think they also overshadowed the story, which is a dangerous thing with a franchise story like this. The effects could have been a little more organic, instead of just constantly blasting us in the face like it was Gabriel’s Horn. Whenever you see a sandworm, you see all of the sandworm, and when you see a force field, you see it for a long time. Flashes of effects are more impressive than long, lingering shots, so I didn’t enjoy that aspect, but you have to admit that, for the time, it was quite innovative.

I’m torn on the acting, I’ll just say that. The performances range from excellent to downright awful. Kyle Maclachlan manages, as Paul Atreides, to stay in the excellent category. He is truly impressive as the desert Messiah, and his presence is commanding to say the least. Sean Young is pretty good as Chani, Paul’s love interest. I think she could have been developed more, but her role as a strong, warrior-woman was greatly appreciated by me. Patrick Stewart is all right as Gunnar Halleck, Paul’s wise bodyguard/futuristic fighting trainer. He’s not bad, but he seems a little off for some reason. And Sting was just fucking terrible as Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen. I don’t know who he had to blow to get this role, but whoever received his randy sexual favor must have quickly realized how unfulfilling it was after seeing this performance. To this day, when I see Sting on TV, I’ll shout in the weirdest cadence I can, “I WILL kill HIM!” to mock the poor bastard. A wasted role that could have gone t somone with less smarm and more moxy.

History will smile on Dune yet, I feel. I’m starting to see more and more positive reviews, and even Lynch has looked back on this outing favorably (he at first disowned the film due to producers trying to wrest creative control from him). Its status as a flop effectively killed all the chances of the other books making it to the big screen, but in no way do I think it tarnished the legacy of the franchise in any way. It’s one that should have been more appreciated in its time, but now all we can do is look back and wonder what might have been. But while I do recognize its faults, I still think its a good movie overall with an interesting message about mankind’s distant future. I give Dune 7 1/2 101st century feudal systems out of 10.

Tomorrow we face another failed franchise film with The Phantom!




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