Following the science-fiction movie explosion of the early 1980’s – arguably the most influential period for the film genre in history – expectations were at an all-time high approaching the mid-decade. Ground-breaking features such as The Empire Strikes Back, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and Blade Runner paved the way for filmmakers to broaden conceptual horizons in cinema. Who better to ‘spice’ it up than David Lynch, with his adaption of Frank Herbert’s seminal novel: Dune.
The year is 10191. The power of the universe lies balanced between the Space Guild, who have privatised and monopolised interstellar travel, and the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV who rules over every known planet, star, and galaxy. Central to this balance is the spice known as melange. A fictional drug endemic to the desert planet of Arrakis which grants longer life and a more expansive consciousness. We follow Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan), son of Duke Leto Atreides, as their House is installed on Arrakis by the Emperor, deposing their bitter enemies House Harkonnen. Betrayal and conflict ensue, rendering our hero desperate for survival and eventually reliant on the permanent inhabitants of Arrakis, the arcane Fremen. Their esoteric beliefs facilitate Paul’s transition into the Kwisatz Haderach, a prophesised leader able to attain previously untapped prescient powers, preparing him to exact revenge on his conspirators.
Confused yet? If you are, fret not because you join the majority of those cinema-goers in 1984 not familiar with Herbert’s masterpiece. Trying to cut source material worthy of at least 6-7 hours on-screen, and cramming it into 2 hours 17 minutes, is one of the few reasons why Dune was met with near-unanimous derision by critics. It is clear that everything has been condensed and diluted to fit the duration of a standardised feature film. To accomplish this, multiple voice-over narrations provide ongoing exposition to accompany the incomprehensible screenplay; a script re-written 6 times by Lynch who had not read the book before agreeing to compose it. Despite this constant exposition and psychic-character driven narration, the unstructured storyline will leave even the most ardent Herbert fans scratching their heads.
Coming a year after the culmination of the Star Wars franchise’s first trilogy did not help Dune. The comforting and familiar nature of Star Wars is in complete contrast with the deep, theological elements that define Lynch’s film. An explicit drug which governs intergalactic peace, locals who are determined to replenish their world and force ecological change, and religion as a form of deeper consciousness are all potent themes throughout. The idea that melange and fossil fuels are interchangeable, or that a flourishing biological world improves the lives of its inhabitants, were not as resonant then as they are with today’s green-conscious generation. Dune set out to challenge audiences, but unfortunately, it is difficult to convey a message when the audience is unsure of what is being said.
Lynch had the benefit of a great ensemble cast at his disposal, and although the film is dominated by the featureless MacLachlan and Francesca Ennis (Lady Jessica), there are some timeless portrayals. Brad Dourif’s inexorably menacing performance as Piter De Vries defined his versatility as an actor, and did him no harm when auditioning for Grima Wormtongue nearly 20 years later. The late Max Von Sydow, fresh from playing Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon, yields a fantastic, more subdued role as an emissary and secret leader of the Fremen. Lastly, a younger Patrick Stewart gives his characteristic matter-of-fact showing as Gurney Halleck, the Warmaster of the Atreides house. When Josh Brolin reprises the role of Halleck later this year, may we all pray that he, and the quite unbelievable outfit assembled by Villeneuve, are given slightly more to work with than the 1984 cast.
Despite frequent criticism, I would argue that most of the special effects and set pieces reflect the $40 million invested in the film. The steampunk, Metropolis-inspired planet of Geidi Prime sets the bleak tone early and is reinforced by the dusky, monochromatic desert backdrops on Arrakis. Makers, the massive worms protective of the melange, are brought to the big screen with wonderful effect. The computer-generated creatures quickly become dated however they are still a monumental achievement of the time. Even an immense warp scene using a Space Guild portal is weird, wonderful, and positively Kubrickian. The true shame of Dune is that the effects and sets are lost in a confusing story.
Perhaps audiences were unable to relate to the deeper, more meaningful themes as a consequence of a convoluted adaption. Perhaps it is the lack of a Millennium Falcon or USS Enterprise in a film featuring numerous unexceptional spaceships. Or perhaps coming out the same year as Ghostbusters and The Terminator proved too tall an order when attempting to stamp itself on the sci-fi genre. Ultimately, Herbert was quietly content with how the film portrayed his novel, despite the dilution of his scrupulous source material. Additionally, given the numerous re-writes, setbacks, and cuts, it is a triumph in itself that Lynch managed to achieve something semi-cohesive and present it to audiences. Debated for years, Dune does not feature as one of the iconic 80s sci-fi films, but it is not as abysmal as many people obstinately stake.
Denis Villenueve’s Dune is currently set to be released on 18th December 2020