When I was a kid I made a discovery. Like some archeologist stumbling upon a clue to a lost treasure, I came across a “boys” comics annual (like Hotspur or Action or whatever) that had actual photographs of chrome-armored baddies gunning down some people. This was cool for two reasons. One, chrome robots shooting lasers at people will always be badass. Second, back in the 80’s these publications never featured photos, especially not of outside properties. In this case it was a push for kids to star watching the original Battlestar Galactica series. But across from these photos was an ad for something else. Some weird film called “Dune“.
I was young when I first watched Dune. At my mate Dave’s we’d usually do double-headers on a Saturday night; we’d get free reign to pick two movies from the local vid shop. I don’t remember what else we picked that weekend (probably Robot Jox for the fiftieth time) but we watched Dune late. It starts like Star Wars with some backstory. Instead of an opening text crawl we have the Princess (Virginia Madsen – Candyman) tell us that it’s super far into the future, and that the entire universe runs of this stuff called the spice. Beyond giving a worldly high and extending life, it most importantly allows for interstellar travel. The downside is that it only exists on one known planet – Arrakis – otherwise known as Dune. Cue dramatic and ominous sci-fi space music (courtesy of popular 80’s band Toto – their ’82 hit Africa sadly does not feature in this film).
Now I’ve seen Dune a few times since so it’s hard to try and remember what I remembered from when I first saw it that fateful night. Those memories, now tinged around the edges like a faded photograph, are disjointed but primal. My first recollection is during some battle. The good guys have this weird shield that they can wear. It’s like an isometric CGI box that surrounds them. It’s very 80’s. Very Tron. While these shields deflect swift blows, you can force something through slowly. But during this battle, one of the good guys called Duncan Idaho (Richard Jordan – Time Bomb) has this weird dart fired at him that bores through the shield and hits him in the head, splattering blood everywhere. The attackers are also all wearing these radiation suits with green lighting in their masks. Creepy shit.
My second and last memory of it was the worms. Now I remember these scared me. Giant fucking sand worms that at one point swallow an entire mining buggy (itself the size of a street of houses). Looking at it now and it’s still is an evocative moment. The music throughout this film really hits an ominous tone and it builds really well here. There’s lightning, some sonar shit, loads of tension and is still one of the key scenes of the movie. These worms are the alpha creature on Dune, and that idea, that nothing could stop them, probably scared the crap out of me. That or all their damn teeth.
My memory terminates there. I don’t know why. Maybe it was too late and Dave’s parents wanted to send me the hell home. Maybe the crazy story was beyond our childhood brains. Or perhaps the intermittent action wasn’t keeping us interested. Possibly the weird semi-rape scene where Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan – Runaway Train) fondles some young boy whilst flying about in an inflatable suit (this shit really happens) hastened Dave’s mum to turn it off. I don’t know. Those memories never sat right with me though, so I never rushed to see it again.
Ten years and some change later, and I’m at my mate Rick’s house in Bedford. I’d gone down there during the summer break from uni. Somehow I’d managed to talk my way into the pants of some girl living in London, and Rick’s house was my base for a fortnight. I’d spend the day in London chilling with her then my evenings back in Bedford getting shit-faced drunk or stoned, watching films or going out. At some point I had a day to myself in the house. Rick had an extensive VHS collection, most of it stolen from his time as an employee at Tesco’s, and Dune was a particular fave of his.
It’s here that I watched it in full for the first time.
So it’s called Dune primarily because it’s a desert world. Clever. But the film doesn’t start here. Shit, we don’t go to Dune for about an hour or so. Instead it starts on some other planet, Kaitain, where the Emperor’s pad is. Normally a chill dude, he gets all sweaty when he’s visited by a posse from the Spacing Guild. These pricks run all the space travel in the universe. Among them is one of the navigators – a giant slug-creature which lives in a tank filled with spice gas. They fly all the ships via folding space with their minds or some crap. The navigators were once human, but warped over thousands of years by exposure to the gas. They’re all-seeing and alien-like, sort of like an evil Quato from Total Recall.
He demands the Emperor tell him of a not-so-secret plot involving the demise of good old Duke Leto Atreides on planet Caladan. See, the Emperor is a bit of a shit. Not Star Wars Emperor shit – he doesn’t repress aliens or anything. He just likes living the decadent emperor lifestyle: hanging out, boning hot bitches and eating sweet food. But Duke Leto (Jürgen Prochnow – Judge Dredd) is one of those pesky idealists who everyone loves. He’s the kind of guy who got his concubine pregnant and still stayed with her. What a guy. He’s been quietly building a secret army, though we never know what for, and the Emperor is concerned he’s going to make a power grab.
So the Emperor has a plan – he’s given Leto the responsibility of looking after Arrakis (the Spice planet), so that while he’s vulnerable setting up on a new world, his hated nemesis Baron Harkonnen can swoop in and kill him. It all seems very Game of Thrones-y for me. I mean for a simple assassination it’s a bit convoluted. Why not just nuke the planet from orbit or send a Terminator or something? Regardless, the navigator doesn’t care about the Emperor’s plan. All he cares about is that the spice doesn’t stop flowing, and that during the attack Leto’s bastard son Paul is killed as well.
This little caveat (which turns into the whole movie really) gets the attention of this old crone, the Reverend Mother. She is a member of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. Hold on people, it starts getting weird from here. They’re like a bunch of half-psychic space-witches who train as ninja-nun concubines from birth. Through some crazy breeding program, they believe that a superbeing, the Kwisatz Haderach, will be born. It all seems very cultish. But guess what, that sex slave who Duke Leto got up the duff? She was a Bene Gesserit sister. The bastard child they had together, Paul, who do you think he’s going to grow up to be…?
Any way, the slug leaves and we head to planet Caladan to finally get to meet the Duke and his family. Paul (Kyle MacLachlan- The Flintstones) is young, dumb and full of cum. He’s been trained for battle by the likes of Idaho (who we saw die years earlier) and Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart – X-Men: Days of Future Past). He needs to be ready, because along with the Duke, they think the Emperor’s plan to send them to Dune is super fishy. But they have an army and a bunch of these weird-ass sonic weapons. They amplify your voice, so you literally shout things to death. If you’ve ever played Skyrim, you’ll realize that it pretty much ripped Dune off.
So they’re all confident. But little do they know that there’s a traitor in their midst. The house doctor Dean Stockwell (Beverley Hills Cop 2) is actually being blackmailed by Harkonnen’s chief spy, Piter Der Vries (Brad Dourif – Childs Play). At the crucial point the doc is going to drop all the defensive shield surrounding House Atreides, letting in all the Harkonnen bastards. The attack is lead by Harkonnen’s nephews, the fat pig-man Rabban (Paul Smith – Red Sonja) and the glistening proto-human Feyd-Rautha, played by Sting. Sting, at the height of his sexual powers, spends some of the film oiled up in some little sci-fi trunks. I suppose they had to do something to attract some female viewers.
Only Paul and his Mum, Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis – Krull), survive the assault. They crash in the deep desert, so it’s not like they’re totally out of the woods. Avoiding some worms, they come across the Fremen, a tribesmen-like group of people who have adapted to life in the desert. Their exposure to the spice has made their eyes glow blue, and they’re waiting for some super dude to appear to lead them to freedom. Again, I wonder who that is going to be…
So years years later and I’m watching Dune again. Foolishly I believe I was still too young and naive to appreciate it when I saw it in my 20’s. I mean, it’s loved by loads of film folk around the world. I’m not appreciating the deeper meaning, obviously. Surely I’m wrong?
WRONG. I still don’t like it.
Like Blade Runner, I still think it’s all mouth and no trousers. Pure form over function. A good-looking (for it’s time), crazy piece of cinema dreck whose slick appearance barely cover up for a shitty script. Maybe having seen the full film when I was young would have enamored Dune to me more. It certainly was an adult film, one maybe a little too dark and complicated for a seven year old to enjoy. Certainly that forbidden element adds an extra layer of enjoyment. Some of my absolute most-treasured films as a lad were stinkers. But because they were 18 rated, rammed full of violence and swearing, I’d love them any way.
It’s not Dune’s fault. It went through a lot of crazy shit way before it even got made. It’s based on a sci-fi novel by Frank Herbert, which is a heavy, dense piece of work. The fact it’s been condensed down into a 2 hour movie is impressive, but also telling. You’ve seen those Lord of the Rings films right? Now imagine one singular movie instead. A load of shit gets cut, a load of stuff doesn’t make sense, and it knocks the pacing of the film totally out of whack.
And it honestly feels like there is loads missing. But that’s not just the stories fault. It still takes 90 minutes to get to the point spoken of in the first ten (the betrayal) etc. So we have 40 minutes left for Paul to win the trust of the Fremen, train, become a badass, start a revolution, tame the worms, bang Sean Young (a Fremen girl he meets) and conqueror the galaxy. Earlier, it isn’t so economic. We’re spending five minutes drifting about over the desert, lingering on shots of sand and shit. But it creates a log jam at the tail end of the movie. Director David Lynch is forced to do mad stuff like condensing the violent meeting of Paul and Sean Young (she tries to kill him) to them later embracing, getting it on and him finally saying he loves her all in the space of five minutes. It’s a bit rushed, to say the least.
I was first introduced to David Lynch’s work at university with Blue Velvet. If you’ve never seen it, don’t bother. I hated how weird and fragmented it was. Lynch is one of those directors like Kevin Smith where he has his fanboys who’ll like his shit regardless of actually how good it is. Some people adore his mental first feature, Eraserhead. It’s total art house nonsense, that both looks and sounds disturbing. His followup work in 1980, The Elephan Man, is worthy of a watch, however. It netted Lynch a ton of academy award nominations and made a tidy profit. It put him in prime bargaining position to do anything he wanted. Passing on Return of the Jedi (then called Revenge of the Jedi), he settled on Dune after an abortive attempt to make the film by acclaimed director Alejandro Jodorowsky in 1973.
While the production values on the Lynch film are decadent and unusual, they are nothing like what Jodorwsky had in mind. He wanted Salvador Dali (at a cost of $100,000 per hour) to be the emperor, his own son to play Paul, and Pink Floyd to the do the music. He’d hired creatives like Moebius and Giger (who created the alien in Alien) to do the pre-vis. His vision of a ten hour film scared the shit out of the studio big wigs, and after millions of dollars were spunked on pre-production, they decided to pull the plug.
After the film passed through the hands of Dino De Laurentiis and Ridley Scott (who bailed to make Blade Runner instead), Lynch felt he could get a handle on the material. It would be his first major studio movie, with a budget of $40 million dollars. In those days that was a fuck-ton of money. For comparison’s sake, the Terminator was made two years earlier for about $7 mil. The production was lavish, with huge sets, crazy outfits, and an eclectic cast. He probably had a Subway for lunch every day. 12 inch. Not six inch. Those are for peasants.
But the final product came in over four hours. The studios, wanting more Star Wars and less Lawrence of Arabia demanded a two hour cut. Lynch and Dino’s daughter Raffaella were forced to Brazillian wax the movie; they trimmed the hell out of it, cutting out whole characters, subplots and scenes. To make sense of the butchered work, they added voice-over narration to reflect the thoughts of each character. Like in a comic book you get a thought bubble with what they’re thinking, in this you have each character silently standing there while the voice-over relays his thoughts in a whispered hush. Loads of stuff like “he’s so powerful” or “could he be the one”. Seriously, even without all the cuts, it’s painfully obvious Paul is the one. At least the Matrix had that little turn around in the first film where that Prophet woman says he isn’t the one. None of the thoughts are what we actually think about on a day-to-day basis either, like “I need to take a dump” or “I wonder what’s for dinner”.
The voice-overs are something that are still so weird and forced that I just can’t get on-board with it. They’re there purely to fill in the gaps, but it’s not acting. It’s just telling us what’s going on. And as an old director once said “the idea of a movie is to show, not tell”.
Obviously, with all this kind of trouble the film totally flopped. Reviews were scathing. No one went to see it. There was no doubt it wounded Lynch’s career. Two years later he followed up with the much smaller Blue Velvet, which while polarizing opinion, still failed to set the box office alight. It was only his foray into the TV world in the 90’s with Twin Peaks that he really became relevant again. Lynch distanced himself from Dune upon release, citing studio interference not allowing him final cut. It was a rude awakening for a potential new Hollywood golden boy. He’s subsequently refused to answer questions about Dune ever since. Bitter much?
So my feelings on Dune? Well one scene says it all really – seeing Jean-Luc Picard holding a laser gun in one hand and a pug in the other whilst screaming “LONG LIVE DUKE LETO” pretty much sums this film – an insane mix of sci-fi concepts and mad artistic decadence. I guess it’s closest movie relative would be Flash Gordon – it’s something of it’s time. Also produced by De Laurentiis, Flash Gordon had been a small success in 1980 but hadn’t tapped the same cash vein that Star Wars had, and I guess De Laurentiis wanted another crack at the old sci-fi whip.
Both films have an otherworldly kitsch appeal in the costumes and sets. Both feature Max Von Sydow (Conan the Barbarian). But Dune is much darker. Much much darker in both it’s appearance and it’s story. Flash Gordon has exuberant bright colours. It’s all gloss. Dune is gold, but dulled by sweat, oil and blood. Another comparable similarity is the sound track. Flash Gordon was immortalized by Queen, whereas Lynch brought in Toto…okay, clearly they’re not on the same level. I think Toto worked hard to produce a genuine, albeit dirge-like soundtrack (seriously, if the future sounds like that, I want no part of it). Freddie, on the other hand, clearly he just messed about. Penning a chorus of “Flash AHA” could hardly have taken long, right?
Dune hasn’t aged well. But then it was already a deformed and unloved creature 30 years ago. Unless it’s a film you fell in love with back then I can’t see you finding any further illumination from it now. I certainly didn’t. As an amalgamation of crazy story, unusual cast, auteur director, under-pinned by a grim almost depressing soundtrack, it is a work of art. But like a lot of modern art I just don’t like it. But if you like seeing unmade beds or sharks in formaldehyde or what have you, you may enjoy this. Get it watched.