Let’s get this out of the way right up front, we are Dune Geeks at this house. I read all of the Frank Herbert Novels but stopped after the material passed on to his son. My oldest daughter has a tattoo based on the poster image for this movie on her back (don’t ask for a picture, I try not to acknowledge it but this one time I will make an exception) and she has the fear mantra for sale on an etsy product that she created. As you will see in a few paragraphs, I also collected a bit of movie memorabilia for the film. It pains me to say that the movie is not all that I could have hoped for. There are some drawbacks for us to discuss, BUT, it is still a movie that I love and will defend on a number of counts. Director David Lynch is maybe the perfect choice for visualizing the film, and the worst choice for animating the action.
I hope you like posters because I’m planning on sharing all four versions that I own in this post. The first one above was the teaser poster that came out a year before the movie did. I had it framed and on the wall of my bedroom for ten years. As excited as everyone is now for “Jurassic World”, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, “The Avengers” and “SPECTRE”, that is how I felt about this movie. I could hardly stand the wait and I consumed any data I could find, but remember this was 1984, no internet, so I relied on publications like Starlog and The Hollywood Reporter to get me up to speed. The first inkling of trouble came after a preview screening that was not well received. David Lynch went on Entertainment Tonight to deny that there were any negative reactions and to share a clip featuring a Sandworm. Since the worms were part of the stories surprise, the fact that we were seeing something early worried me. Mary Hart tried to talk it up but I got a sinking feeling in my stomach.
When the film did arrive, the second week of December, I was both relieved and disappointed. My disappointment had more to do with everyone else reaction to the film, not my own. I was pleased with the film in so many ways that I was able to overlook flaws. Box Office was not good however and that meant that the sequels would not be coming and that the film was not being embraced by a wide audience. Fans of the novel should find a lot of things in the movie that are to their liking, but as a piece of action cinema, it leaves a lot to be desired.
The story of Dune is complex and filled with backroom intrigue. In an attempt to make it as clear as possible for the uninitiated, Lynch pared down the story and the timeline. In the novel, Paul is a bright adolescent, still full of anxiety about leaving his home planet but also filled with boyish mischievousness. At one point he contemplates sneaking out of the Command ship during the crossing, and seeking a glimpse of one of the Guild Navigators deep in the recesses of the highliner that is transporting them all to Arrakis. There is a parallel story concerning the upbringing of Feyd, the Barron’s nephew. Sexuality, political intrigue and assassination are standard tools in the Harkonnen House. Of course all of that back story would have added another thirty minutes to the movie so it had to go. The film audience is introduced to the Universe of Dune through an opening narration, a quick trip through some reference books, but also constant exposition provided by characters speaking in a manner that is not natural to conversation. Traditions and references to other aspects of the Universe, such as the ban on thinking machines and the planet where technology is developed, are outlined in passing bits of information that never become important to the main story but do explain why some events are happening as they do.
Four key figures are introduced in a very quick way during a training sequence on Caladan. The Duke’s Mentat, a schemer with a chemically enhanced brain Thifur, the House Atredies Doctor, and the master at arms Gurney Halleck, enter the training room and engage Paul, our hero, in some quick history, geography, political science and physical training. One of the ways that Lynch tried to keep Paul from being a full adult was to have him play off the shield training as an unnecessary imposition on the other things he wants to do. This leads Gurney to press him immediately and try to get him to grow up.
The shield training sequence is an early example of computer generated versions of a character being animated for an action scene. While it may look blocky and a bit dated, it was one of the very cool images that this movie started to create an expectation for in the rest of the story. The technique gets used one more time in the film, but the concepts of shields are introduced and the later plot points involving the house shields and the inability to use them extensively on the planet are seeded for us. The scene featuring Patrick Stewart as Gurney playing the interesting musical instrument he carries into the scene is not in the film. It is one of a couple of images that I wish were a part of the movie.
The look of the movie is one of the main selling points for me as a film watcher. The Throne room of the Emperor is gilded and extravagant. The Great Hall on Arrakis has tile details and patterns that suggest a deeper history than we will ever get a chance to know in the film. The space craft used to move the Atredies look like silver plated moths and the Harkonnen ships look like bloated insects. The insect reference are deliberate I think, since many of the creatures in the story are metastasizing from one form to another, much like a bug pupa. The Third Stage Guild Navigator has lost the ability to walk, but floats in a chamber of “Spice” gasses that sustain his addiction to melange and his ability to fold space. In the first scene, the navigator in an industrial glass chamber visits the Emperor to pass on a warning and instructions. Lynch is notorious for the industrial visuals in “Eraserhead” and “The Elephant Man”. He also produced some long form music videos that feature mechanical industrial motifs. Mixing the insect metaphor with the industrial is a natural for him. The Navigator is accompanied by other metamorphosing members of the guild. They are clad in black, slick coveralls that protect them from the effuse that the chamber they maneuver for their superior spews. They have to mop up much of the residue as they move along. It is a weird image but one that strikingly reminds us of how different the worlds are that we are seeing in this story. The Bene Gesserit sisters wear black flowing gowns with long trains and they look like a swarm of black butterflies when they move across the screen. The women in the story do not get as much development as they need. Virgina Madsen is barely in the film, Sean Young needed her part to be more elaborate, but at least they and Francesca Annis who played the Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother, got to wear some nice costumes.
All of the costume work is outstanding. I know from watching some of the behind the scenes features on the video packages, that many of the costumes were put together at the last minute and a huge number of costumes used to show the indigenous Fremen in the city of Arrakeen were basically cut from the film. The stillsuits that the inhabitants wear to hold their moisture are cleverly designed to resemble the interior of a body as exterior, with ribs, muscles and joints emphasized. The fact that Paul knows the correct way to wear his when he first receives it, feeds the mythology that the Freman have of a prophesied messiah. The Harkonnen stillsuits worn by Feyd and Rabban, look more like armor and are much more stylish. This emphasizes the shallowness of the understanding of the planet Dune that most of the outsiders display.
I was shocked to discover that much of the Harkonnen culture as shown in this film, was perceived as anti-gay by many cinema scholars. Admittedly the Baron is a homosexual with the most depraved tastes imaginable, but the brutality he exhibits is more based on the cultures concept of power than sexuality. Attempts to link his skin maladies to an AIDS metaphor seems to strain credulity since AIDS was barely known when this film went into production. It seems much more likely that this is a case of projection by scholars who need to find a theme to fit their narrative. The Baron is of course evil, but his sexual orientation has little to do with that evil, any victim of his desires, man or woman, would have been degraded by the way the Harkonnen royal family treats it’s subjects. Kenneth MacMillian was a good choice for the part, his face and voice work well but he is encouraged to engage in shouting his lines. The spittle that he projects is another one of those things that cues us in that the Harkonnens are the bad guys of the story.
The home planet of the Baron, Geidi Prime is visualized as a surface covered in manufacturing plants billowing toxic gasses into the atmosphere. The dirty emerald green of the walls look stained, as if they were in a house occupied by a smoker for twenty years, with the tar dripping down the walls. The plastic that seems to be a primary ingredient in the costumes stands in contrast to the fabrics of the Atredies home planet and the hemp and leather materials that are used on Dune itself. Lynch and his design team went to great effort to make background images reflect the palaces of each culture. There are details that reveal the meticulous nature of the Atredies, such as their starched uniforms and medallions. The Harkonnens are practical and graceless. The contraption that contains the animals which produce the antidote to Thifur’s control poison, is practical but it looks Gerry rigged. The box that contains the snooper for poison and the tube shaped melange infused food found on Arrakis is practical also but more graceful and elegant in design. The hovering lamps in all the various locations also clue us in as to whether the designers cared about beauty or practicality the most. The detail on the hunter-seeker which is used to try to kill Paul in his room also harkens to the insect references and the mechanical practicality of the assassins. Everywhere there is attention to detail in making the Universe a believable one. The failings of the film have to do with what is done with the things that have been created.
The flying effects of the Baron are impressive, but the same cannot be said of the vehicles. After the motion control dynamics of Star Wars, we expect much more from the film we are seeing. The shots of the command ships being loaded onto the Highliner are static. The Scout ship that Paul and his mother escape on is a model, placed inelegantly in a process shot that looks muddy. The ornithopter that the Duke, Paul and Dr. Kynes take to inspect the spice production process looks as if it was simply superimposed on a generic desert background, it lacks any connection to the environment that it is in. Miniature work is impressive to look at but it is not always convincing on the screen. Anyone who has seen a classic film from the thirties, forties or fifties, knows how hard it is to get water to look right when miniature ships are being photographed at sea. Sand presents some of the same problems and the vehicles and Sandworms move somewhat clumsily in the special effects shots.Scale is very important to selling the idea of the worms but it was one of the things most difficult to achieve. Even the producer Raffalea De Laurentis sometimes described the sandworm models as looking like elongated turds. Whenever people speak of remaking “Dune” one of the main justifications is that modern technology would allow much more convincing effects to be used in telling the story. This is a valid point.
The narrative problems are a result of Herbert’s own making at times. The language and cultures are complex. If the storytelling is quick and efficient, you can get away with a lot of mumbo jumbo that the audience will figure out as the story rolls along. In “Guardians of the Galaxy” for instance, there are multiple cultures and planets and weapons and motives. The script does not worry about explaining all the points, it shows them in context and we catch up. “Dune” is a slower moving story because of the castle intrigue and political posturing. The distributors were so concerned that they passed out glossary’s at some of the locations where the movie played. The novel “Dune” much like “A Clockwork Orange” had a detailed vocabulary that producers were worried about. At the left here you will see the booklet that came with my original purchase of a VHS copy of the film. I bought the tape when the video model was rental and sell through was only over the horizon. It was an $80 expenditure in 1985. I may have the VHS somewhere but I do have the booklet. This scan shows the cover and I suspect it is the same item that was given out at those selected sites where the movie played in 1984. As you can see, there are dozens of pages of terminology that are being defined in much the same way as a dictionary would do. I can’t imagine anyone sitting in a theater consulting the cheat sheet as they are watching the movie. This is just another one of the ways where you can see creatively, they tried to hedge their bets with the audience. Lynch probably trusted the audience more than the studio did, and that is one of the reasons that he regards this film as his one major failure.
I know that we did not get the planned follow ups from Lynch, but you can tell how high the expectations were for the movie based on some of the products that were released. Below is a slide show of the toys that were in the stores that largely went unpurchased because the franchise did not take off. These are all items from my personal collection.
I do have the Sandcrawler depicted on the box, it is just in a different box in the garage. [The phrase “Box in the garage” is commonly used at our house to describe the location of any number of items that we know we own but have not seen since we moved into our house 20 years ago.] The small vehicles run on batteries that were complicated to replace for demonstration purposes, but the guns sold as “Dune” weapons still work and I can happily prove that to you is you will watch the two short clips below.
This is describes as a Fremen tarpel gun, it was never shown on screen and resembles no weapon in the movie. In the film, Lynch invented a weapon based on sound that then was accentuated by the words spoken by the user. Paul’s Fremen name “Muad dib” turns out to be a killing word.
This second weapon is closer to the gun used by the Emperor’s Sardaukar troops. Men raised on a prison planet where the conditions harden them into battle worthy warriors. Of course the planet “Dune” produced superior warriors because it’s conditions were even harsher.
One of the shots sometimes mocked by those who disparage “Dune” is the one of Sting, emerging from the steam shower wearing a jockstrap that looks like it was designed to fly. It was a last minute addition. Sting had agreed to be nude in the scene but the producers balked and a quick costume improvisation distracts from the fact that Sting looks like a guy who worked out every day in anticipation of combat and his maniacal smile and the red hair of the Harkonnen clan make him look intimidating. Maybe the nude shot would have made him more intimidating or it could have undermined the concept entirely. To be honest, I have no desire to know.
The knife fight between Paul and Feyd is elaborately staged and the combat skills of the two young heirs of the Great Houses are shown to good effect. The crysknife of Paul, formed from the tooth of a sandworm looks natural and deadly. The knife provided by the Emperor to Feyd, looks ornamental but still deadly. A last nod to the sensibilities of the environment as a character in the story. Another change in the story comes from Lynch at the climax of the film. The idea that “Muad dib” is in fact a God, gets reinforced by his sudden ability to make it rain on a planet that has never had precipitation before. In retrospect, since there were never any succeeding films, it does give a sense of closure to the story, even though it does not fit with Herbert’s original themes.
It may not be the perfect version of “Dune” but it was the one we got in 1984, and I have loved it, warts and all for thirty years. The look of the movie is it’s saving grace. I saw Alejandro Jodorowsky diss the film in the documentary made about the version he had planned. I’d love to see the nearly animated version of his storyboards that could be made, but it would certainly not be as faithful to the descriptions in the novel that David Lynch fulfilled with this picture. Thanks for your indulgence on this more personal post for the project.