Saturday, June 05, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Dune (1984)

"I probably shouldn't have done that picture, but I saw tons and tons of possibilities for things I loved and this was the structure to do them in, there was so much room to create a world..."

- Director David Lynch discusses the controversial Dune (1984). (Inner views: filmmakers in conversation By David Breskin; Da Capo Press, 1997)



The first (and still finest) cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 landmark novel, Dune, premiered in theaters in 1984 and immediately faced an onslaught of negative criticism. Since then, it has been remembered, often, as David Lynch's cinematic Waterloo, the Heaven's Gate of sci-fi epics.

Writing in The New York Times, critic Janet Maslin concluded, regarding the 1984 film that:
"Several of the characters in ''Dune'' are psychic, which puts them in the unique position of being able to understand what goes on in the movie. The plot of ''Dune'' is perilously overloaded..."

Roger Ebert liked the film less. He noted: "This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time. Even the color is no good; everything is seen through a sort of dusty yellow filter, as if the film was left out in the sun too long." Ebert and sparring partner Gene Siskel also rated Dune as one of the worst films of the year.

Even dedicated Lynch scholars, like Jeff Johnson, author of Pervert in the Pulpit: Morality in the Works of David Lynch (McFarland) didn't have much good to say about this vintage sci-fi epic: "The Messianic plot in Herbert's novel," contended the author "yields to Lynch's Manichean vision, and the film pretends to Biblical proportions; but for all its weirdness and sprawling sci-fi excess, Dune from its inception was too large a canvas for a director like Lynch..."


Lynch himself rarely if ever discusses Dune these days, though it is interesting to recall that it is the sci-fi film he chose to direct over Return of the Jedi (1983) because Lynch felt, at least, that he could put his individual stamp on Dune; whereas in Jedi, he would be playing entirely in the world of another artist, George Lucas.

In 2010, the big question about this particular film remains this: on what grounds can a critic assess David Lynch's Dune as a failure or a success? In terms of adaptation? In terms of how well it fits David Lynch's canon? Or in the more general entertainment terms set out above, by Maslin and Ebert: special effects, presentation and general coherence?

I screened Dune again recently, for the first time on Blu-Ray and in this new format it was nothing short of a revelation. Simply put, the movie has never looked better. Mr. Ebert accurately described the poor coloring and murky aspects of the film's visuals in his original view back in the 1980s, but I can state with confidence that this problem has been entirely remediated by Blu-Ray and apparent re-mastering. Dune's colors in this format are stunning and vivid. So the visuals as part of the movie's "problem" must, finally, a quarter century after theatrical release, be taken off the table.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's look back first at the source material, and get a refresher on Dune's plot.

A Beginning is a Very Delicate Time: Frank Herbert's Dune

The sprawling, epic storyline of the novel Dune, first serialized in Analog in 1963, occurs in the year 10,191...thousands of years in our future.

Man has conquered the stars and colonized a number of planets throughout the galaxy. These worlds are joined together in a kind of cosmic Parliament called the Landsraad, and the lynch-pin of the entire galactic economy is a spice called "melange."

This all-important spice extends life and expands consciousness, but more than that it is the one substance in all the universe vital to space travel. The Spacing Guild and its navigators utilize the spice to "fold space" and transport goods and citizenry from one world to another.

The spice also boasts psychic properties, and is used by the secretive sisterhood called The Bene Gesserit, which in undergoing "spice agony" is able to access the genetic memory of all previous, historic priestesses. The sisterhood hopes to genetically forge a "super" man called the "Kwisatz Haderach." He will be able to gaze into the psychic realm where the women can't; into the genetic memory of all men in history. He will be able to see and shape the future.

In terms of narrative, the novel and the film involve a Machiavellian initiative by Emperor Shaddam IV to undermine a popular force in the Landsraad, Duke Leto Atreides of Caladan. In secret, Shaddam plots with the Duke's rival, the Harkonnens of Giedi Prime, to this end. He assigns the Atreides the administration of the inhospitable planet Arrakis, or Dune: the one place in the universe where the spice, melange can be harvested. Once the Duke and his people are ensconced there on that arid world, the Emperor lends his Sardaukar shock-troopers to the Baron Harkonnen, and there is a terrible sneak attack.

Only a few survive the Harkonnen assault
, include Duke Leto's son, Paul Atreides, and the Duke's concubine, the Bene Gesserit, Jessica. They soon join with the strange desert people of Dune, the Fremen, and teach them a new way of fighting, "The Weirding Way." Paul then leads a Fremen rebellion -- under the name of "Muad'Dib" -- and alters the destiny of the galaxy itself. Taking control of the spice, Paul -- the "Kwisatz Haderach" sets Dune and humankind on a new path (one that will hopefully avoid extinction).

Obviously, there is more to the "plot" of this sweeping novel, but this is Dune's story in broad strokes. In terms of historical importance, Herbert's Dune is widely considered one of the first and most important "ecological" science fiction stories because it deals with the use, exploitation and preservation of natural resources (consider the spice something along the lines of oil). But also, in part, because Herbert's work goes into detail about many life-forms on Arrakis, and reveals how they are all inter-connected in one unique eco-system.

In terms of politics, Dune serves overtly as a metaphor for the treatment of third world nations (particularly those in the Middle East) by the world's resource-hungry Empires. Arrakis, a back-water planet, is exploited by the Landsraad for the spice that powers its economy. Yet the people of Dune, the Fremen, do not share the wealth of that resource. Young Paul Atreides, a representative of "Empire" in a way, goes nativ e in this story, and launches "jihad" against the power structure that he was born into. Atreides is much like the historical Lawrence of Arabia, T.E. Lawrence, actually

The movie version of Dune directed by David Lynch embodies all these concepts and story lines, but by necessity must abridge some subplots, minimize some character development, and truncate much of the action. That's just the nature of any book-to-film adaptation.


Among the biggest changes from book to film: Paul brings a "sound module" technology to the Fremen, which is different from "The Weirding Way" of the novel.

Perhaps more substantively, the movie's final sequence sees rain fall on the planet Dune for the first time in history (to herald, in essence, the arrival of the Kwisatz Haderach, Paul.) As I will discuss below, this is a change that, while unacceptable to fans of Herbert, works perfectly in Lynch's universe.

"I See Plans within Plans:" Waking Dreams and the Underneath David Lynch's Dune.

In my Lynch Dossier post last week, I mentioned how many of the auteur's films make an unconventional sense that I term "Dream Sense."

This means that narratives themselves -- and the logic inside those narratives -- are comprehensible to the audience, but not in the strict, conscious, Euclidean sense of "reality" familiar to us from mainstream film plots or their story arcs.

Contrarily, dreams both figure explicitly in Lynch's films as important turning points in the plays themselves and also, globally, as the mode of expression in his works of art. Dune is no exception.

Within the narrative of Dune, dreaming is an important vehicle for the storytelling. Paul's way of gaining knowledge, his way of learning...is dreaming.

Before the Atreides move to Caladan, before the "sleeper" awakens on Arrakis, the Duke's son experiences prophetic dreams; dreams that foretell of his destiny, and Paul's (Kyle MacLachlan) important role in shaping the very destiny of the universe. Specifically, he dreams of Dune's second moon, Maud'Dib and his future Fremen lover, Chani (Sean Young).

As viewers, we understand that this dream, this prophecy, represents truth and reality delivered to Paul, perhaps, by a Divine Being. Later, when Paul's destiny is in doubt because of the war with the Harkonnens on Arrakis, he explicitly ties belief in his dreams, in the prophecy of his future, to faith. "God created Arakis to train the faithful." One cannot go against the word of God," he says. It is the word of God, then, that gave Paul the dreams and inspired his actions.

At one point, when Paul is discouraged and in the thick of the battle, he feels cut off from his dreams. He experiences a moment of extreme self-doubt. "All the images from my future are gone," he reveals to Chani. To highlight this point, Lynch cuts to a dream montage in which Dune's second moon, Maud Di'b cracks like an egg, shattering into pieces in the night sky. This is what Paul fears, the shattering of his dreams and his failure to achieve his destiny.

"I'm dead to everyone unless I become what I may be," Paul then states. Thus he decides to drink the Water of Life and undergo the movie's equivalent of the spice agony. For Paul, the"sleeper must awaken," and to undergo this process of self-actualization and self-realization, he must tap into the language and universe of dreams that will allow him to, literally "control the world."

Specifically, the Water of Life will allow Paul to see below the surface of things: to the hidden underneath. This is a very common Lynchian concept, of the world in two parts: as it appears to the naked eye and as it truly is. In many of his films, it is the character who faces or broaches the underneath -- and survives its lessons -- that proves successful, like Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet (1986). The same is true of Paul here.

That underneath that Paul sees in his Water of Life vision involves an important, formerly unseen connection: the spice and the worm are one in the same. If Paul can control the worms (and therefore the spice), he will have the Empire at his mercy.

Lynch's unconventional visuals again express the nature of Paul's revelation. The film cuts to images of outer space (the universe itself), and Paul --- laying still and prone -- is at the center of everything...the very well-spring of the cosmic mind.

We then see images of the cathedral-like Navigator spaceship as a Third-Stage Navigator becomes aware of Paul, and swells with orange light, almost like rage. Atreides has invaded their "sacred space" and rejected their vision of reality for his own. The cathedral-like nature of the Guild spaceship reveals the wealth of the Guild but also its disconnection from "truth" and "faith." The Guild is all about dogma, control and hiding the underneath. That, in part, is what Paul shatters by taking the Water of Life. He experiences a personal connection to the Divine, to "God" if you will, and no longer needs the Church of the Guild to be his intermediary. He can be everywhere at once.

Next in the dream vision, an outstretched, disembodied human hand is seen floating in space (in the center of Lynch's frame), representing, perhaps, Paul's new grip on the universe. Symbolically, an outstretched hand might also represent faith and justice, and that too appears to fit this context, for Paul's faith in his dreams has led him here (led him to the dangerous task of drinking the Water of Life), and justice is what he will bring for the Fremen...and to his enemies.

Dreams occur throughout Dune. The Guild, which can fold space and time, becomes aware of Paul through another form of dreaming: psychic visions. Specifically, the Guild conspires with the Emperor to assure that Paul Atreides is killed. This is because, in those visions of the future, the Guild has seen what Paul can become; that he can become the man who stops all spice production, all spice trade, and thus all space travel. In opposition to Paul's way of knowing, through dreams the Spice Guild uses dreams to prevent destiny; to go against the very Word of God.

Thus David Lynch's Dune concerns, in a very real sense, one man's "vision of the future" (or dream) battling another man (or organization's) plan for the future. But that dream is literal, expressed through the auspices of prophetic and psychic visions. Sometimes for human beings, dreams are all that sustain us, and sometimes dreams do come true. In Paul's case we can say that both of these truisms are accurate. His dream on Caladan awakens him to the truth of the universe and gives him the power to change the fate of the galaxy itself. The film's final scene, of rain-fall on Dune may not be motivated rationally, scientifically or out of fidelity to Herbert's novel, but it makes perfect dream sense.

Throughout the film, Paul has dreamed of a droplet of water falling into a pool, and having a ripple effect there. This shot recurs in several dream montages, including the aforementioned Water of Life sequence. This is a metaphor the process of waking up, the "drip, drip, drip" if you will of knowledge added to knowledge, insight added to insight, of faith added to faith. And the ripple effect represents the way that Paul's circle grows, ultimately to include an Army of Fremen, Atreides retainers, and even the giant sand worms of Dune. In the film's last scene, Paul is rewarded for his faith and belief by a literal deluge from the Heavens, from an impossible rain fall. Why? For he is the Kwisatz Haderach.


"The likes of which even God has never seen:" Dune's Production Design Reveals the Universe of the Underneath

Seeing Dune on Blu Ray, I realized that the film's visual quality actually makes it an equal to such great science-fiction efforts as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Blade Runner (1982). That's no small statement, but I believe it's a valid one.

Consider that David Lynch had the task of creating not one "world" in Dune, but five separate and distinct worlds, all of which had to convey the meaning of the story with images, substance and color.

The production design of the forty million dollar film brilliantly creates a context for the action, and transmits important -- even vital -- clues about the nature of Paul's universe.

The first world visited in Dune is Kaitain, home of the Emperor Shaddam IV. As a Guild space craft arrives in this kingdom, Lynch provides an exterior view of the royal city by night, and it looks almost identical to the Kremlin, circa 1984, with a few futuristic touches. It's an Old World City of long history, but also, clearly, of some sinister aspect.

The interiors seen on Kaitain are opulent, decked out entirely in gold, with ornate spires and an abundance of room and space. This is, quite naturally, the environs of a King. Even the Emperor's pyramidal spaceship seen at the end of the film is golden, a symbol not only of wealth perhaps, but egregious, thoughtless waste. The artifical, gold universe of this futuristic Midas proves a real contrast to the authentic, sun-warmed gold of Arrakis, a very different kind of kingdom. One world is all about wealth; the other is about survival.

What the viewer gleans instantly (and almost subconsciously) from its views of Kaitain is that it is a world of extreme riches, but not warmth. In other worlds, this gilded, extravagant world of affluence has much to lose. if things change, if Paul's jihad is successful. That's what the production design informs us.

The planet of the film's other villains, the Harkonnens, is called Giedi Prime, and it is a world entirely out of balance with its environment.

Giedi Prime is an industrialized realm of lurid, sickly green hues, rains of black oil, and out-of-proportion, excessive machinery.

According to Lynch, this world was created primarily with steel, bolts and porcelain...and those materials transmit the idea of a hard, unforgiving place. It is perpetual night-time on this world too; there is no sunlight to warm the human soul.

The message conveyed is that Giedi Prime is an inhuman, ecological disaster. And this too informs the viewer something important about the film's storyline. As administrators of Arrakis and the spice, the Harkonnens are incapable of understanding the important connections between the Fremen, the spice and the worms. They are not interested in maintaining environmental "balance," they are strip-miners. Again, this is something Lynch establishes visually. The Harkonnens, as evidenced by their Baron's (Kenneth McMillan) egregious acne, are diseased parasites, sucking life from others. They are so inhuman, actually, that their appetites are literally monstrous. The Baron imagines sexual delight with his nephew (incest), and Rabban, "The Beast" is a brute who takes joy in killing. All the citizens of Giedi Prime are outfitted with heart plugs that can be ripped out (leading to a terminal blood flood), and the only thing surprising about this is that Harkonnens have hearts at all.

The third society depicted in Dune involves the Guild, the Navigators. We see their massive, cathedral-like ships on two occasions, their strangely dressed travel entourage (a priesthood, clearly) on Kaitain, and we understand from their first scene (in which they approach the Emperor and demand the death of Paul), that these people carry a power above and beyond sovereign statehood. They are, essentially, Dune's version of the Catholic Church in historical Europe. Because they control access to, essentially, God (the spice), they control the levers of power in the Empire too.

Caladan is a different case all together. This is appropriate, considering that the Atreides are the film's protagonists. Caladan is a beautiful, lush world of oceans, wood-paneling and exquisite carpentry. The people here seem to live in harmony with nature, and even their lamps are made to resemble the wild-life of the planet: roaming birds. The inference our eyes draw from Lynch's Caladan is that only in a world of natural beauty and balance can the Kwisatz Haderach arise. Nurtured in a world where everything (environment/education/physical fitness) seems in balance, Paul is able to thrive; to be receptive to the prophecy that changes his life.

And finally, there's Dune. Arrakis. Desert planet. It is a harsh, unforgiving world, but not unlike Caladan, the planet seems to evidence a unique sense of balance. The Fremen with their stillsuits express the idea of recycling and giving back to the body usedresources, and that's also a metaphor for the planet itself. Here, the structures of Arakeen are built unobtrusively from Earthen walls of clay, and the Fremen store vast quantities of "their" water in subterranean reservoirs. The idea is of stoic conservation; of eking out a life in a difficult environment. Though Paul was born and raised in a land of natural plenty (but not opulence like Kaitain), he comes to see the ascetic beauty of Arrakis; the way that the Fremen have forged a sustainable paradigm and way of life in a harsh terrain.

In Dune, each of these five "worlds" (Kaitain, Giedi Prime, the Cathedral of the Guild, Caladan and Arrakis) is crafted beautifully, down to the smallest detail.

Amazingly, the sets don't look like traditional movie sets; they appear to be part of a lived-in world, and many locations (the Duke's bedroom and balcony on Caladan, the Arakeen control room, the Fremen living quarters) are only visited for very short spans. Honestly, it looks like Lynch took his cameras to real locations and filmed there.


Down to the portraits hanging on the walls, the exquisite woodworking on Caladan, and the tiles in the grand hall on Arrakis.
Lynch showcases his trademark attention to detail and penchant for lush visuals here. Dune is utterly, inarguably, magnificent in this regard.

But commendably, every set, every planet in Dune isn't just eye-candy. The production design transmits to the audience a sense of history and authenticity, but more importantly, some sense of meaning in this story. Again, it's not exposition, it's not in the screenplay, it's the between-the-lines approach of David Lynch that asks the audience to examine and synthesize, from exposure to his visuals, a sense of meaning nearly "outside" or independent from the words uttered by the characters.

I first saw Dune in high school (at the Clairidge Theater in Montclair, New Jersey), before I read the book even, and you know what? Even as a fourteen-year old, I didn't find it confusing in the slightest. Then I did read the book and the movie made even more sense. But I have never understood why movie critics insist on stating that the film is confusing. It isn't confusing, especially if you trust your eyes and pay attention to the dream imagery and production design. In fact, an opposite argument could be forged here. Through the heavy use of character voice-overs, Dune is actually over-explained, over-simplified. How can someone think the movie is confusing when the voice-overs explain everything (from Hunter Seekers to the gom jabbar)?

Indeed, a clever critic could probably argue the point that by removing the voice-over narration all together, Dune would be a better, less-cluttered film. I don't know if I agree with that idea entirely, because the voice-overs, by my perspective, lend another "dream sense" aspect to the proceedings. With the dramatis personae conveying their deep inner thoughts, there's the feeling that, in fact, we (the audience) are psychic; privy to information gleaned outside of traditional routes available to humans. The insistent, personal, whispered voice-over works well to help the film's form reflect its very content. If we are to understand the story by dream sense, as Paul contextualizes his act of self-realization, it seems that the personal voice over helps.

Does Dune have weaknesses? Sure. It's biggest weakness is the depiction of the final battle, between Maud D'ib's sandworm army and the forces of the Emperor. The combat is not particularly convincing or impressive, marred mainly by poor matte and blue screen work. But frankly, there was no other way to create this scene in 1984. In the age before CGI, the important elements of the sequence (worms, ships and cityscapes) had to be entirely constructed from miniatures. Those miniatures then had to be composited with the live-action actors. Not easy, especially given the vast difference in scope between combatants (worms and Sardaukar). Dune is a great film marred by a final battle scene, but that's hardly a disqualifier in terms of quality.

Some people may also argue that the electronic score by Toto, what with all the power chords, is somehow dated in 2010. Personally, I dig the soundtrack in the way I dig the disco opening theme to Space: 1999 (1975-1977): it captures a moment in time, and has a techno-quality that still reads, even years later, as "futuristic."

Sometimes, in illuminating the qualities of a particular film, a comparison helps. A couple of years ago (uh, maybe a decade ago now?) the Sci-Fi Channel created its own version of Dune and it was an absolute travesty, an almost cardboard rendition of Herbert's story with no sense of scale or drama, and certainly no sense of production design that could rival Lynch's vision. I'm amazed that some fans of Frank Herbert's novel have taken to this version: it looks like Dune by way of the 1930s Flash Gordon: it's a two-dimensional comic-book cartoon. With dream sense and sets that express the nature of Dune's universe, Lynch's version, despite diversions from Herbert's mythos, remains infinitely more impressive and "real."

With the arrival of Dune on crisp, glorious Blu Ray, My hope is that the sleeping critical reception for this great film will finally...awaken.