It has been quite some time since I have read Frank Herbert’s novel. I did enjoy it, and was impressed by how layered it is. It managed to satirize not only the Cold War, but predict the current conflicts in the Middle East. As far as science fiction goes, I suppose Dune managed to blend the old fashioned space opera with the current ideas of symbolism.
Well, Lynch surprisingly managed to remove most of those layers. The film has become nothing more than another bizarre exercise in style, a style Lynch had not quite managed to master.
I cannot even try to summarize Dune here. Read the book for the full story. In a nutshell, it’s about eight thousand years in the future there is a war between the Atreides (i?) and the Harkonnens. The former family moves to Arrakis, a planet composed entirely of deserts, where they mine a spice called melange. Melange acts as both fuel and drug. Anyway, the Harkonens attack the Atreides, the son Paul (who may or may not be a messiah) manages to survive and tries to regroup to take down not just the Baron Harkonnen but the Emperor and….yea, that’s about all I can do. After that, my typing will sound like the work of a man on hard drugs.
I’ll tell you what the film reminds me of, and that’s Heaven’s Gate. Both are actually quite similar – made after an critically successful film and ended up doing more damage than good to the director’s careers. Lynch, luckily, managed to outdo himself (with the same producer and same actor) so this has become nothing more than a curiosity in his filmography.
Also like Heaven’s Gate, the film looks endlessly rehearsed and does not feel as organic as the novel does. I can easily imagine Lynch going over the scenes endlessly. They certainly LOOK good, but they do not play like they should. Lynch’s ambition shines through, but it was misdirected toward material I am not sure that he was really able to handle in the first place. He was still in the experimental mindset of Eraserhead. This material would not work for that sort of internal exploration of the psyche. No, it needed to be grand.
The film makes so many mistakes that I cannot believe Lynch made. None of the actors are any good; this is why I avoided naming them in the plot summary. The cast assembled (including Max Von Sydow, Kyle MacLachlan, Virginia Madsen, Jurgen Prochnow, Brad Dourif, Patrick Stewart, and Sting) certainly should have been better than this. Each remains stiff and wooden, buried under pounds of make up and doing their best to look like they are not having any fun with the material.
In addition, it commits one of the most basic mistakes I have seen. Basically, most of the narration depends on internal monologue. All of the character’s have their thoughts whispered when they are on screen. This worked in the novel, true, but the most talented directors (and Lynch is one on his better days) convey all of this information visually. Using voiceovers in this way is just a cheap trick that usually dies out in film school.
Yet despite how bad this is, it is still utterly fascinating. There are times when the film actually devolves from Lynch’s high minded symbolism (which had worked in his previous two films) and into a more traditional space opera. Those moments are downright exhilarating. Also, the effects are bad, but they do give the film a certain fantastical element that I have always appreciated. Some will say that the alien at the beginning looks like a Dalek and is highly inappropriate. I say that this was not only probably a deliberate joke, but it shows that Lynch may have been onto something. I can never fault a film for being ambitious, and this film (also like Heaven’s Gate) has ambition oozing through its pores. The problem here is the direction that the ambition lay.
If only Lynch could have had fun with the material. For a classic like Dune to endure, I think that there has to be a sense of fun involved. Alejandro Jodorowsky (the director of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, two of the greatest – yet most perverse – films ever made) tried to film Dune. Each of his films have that sense of fun and mild playfulness that is lack in this adaptation. I bring it up because now more than ever I am interested to see what he would have done with it. Jodorowsky would have been the perfect direct to bring the story visually to life.
Instead, we have Lynch’s limp noodle. Lynch is an enormously talented filmmaker and has made some of the greatest films of all time. Heck, even his other “bad” films (like Lost Highway) are still interesting enough on their own to last. This one is his worst film – it is David Lynch trying his best to make a mainstream blockbuster. Luckily, he never tried it again and was a better filmmaker for it.