[In this new series, Overthinking It writer John Perich dissects the “high-concept train wrecks” of the early 80s. These big vision monstrosities, known for their weird music and kitschy style, left their stamp on the first half of the decade. John takes a look at these cult classics, from birth to termination, and their impact on pop culture.
The following entry contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS, so don’t read on if you’re really curious.]
What Is It
Dune, the 1984 David Lynch adaptation of the 1965 Frank Herbert sci-fi novel.
The Big Idea
Ten thousand years in the future, the Atreides, the most honorable noble family in the Galactic Empire, take colonial governorship of the planet Arrakis. Arrakis is the only planet in the galaxy which produces the spice melange, which extends life, enhances awareness and grants prescience. The Atreides are sacrificed as pawns in a scheme between the Emperor and their rivals, House Harkonnen. The Atreides’ son and heir, Paul, flees into the desert, where he becomes a religious leader to Arrakis’ natives.
Why It Showed Promise
David Lynch. Though he had nothing under his belt but Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and a few unseen student projects at the time, the critical buzz around him grew every day. If anyone could handle Frank Herbert’s bizarre vision of blue-eyed prophets, giant sandworms and baroque galactic empires – without merely cribbing George Lucas, which was something of a cottage industry in 1984 – it was Lynch.
Dino de Laurentis. The infamous Italian producer had a history of big budget spectacles – bombs when they failed, but gems when they succeeded. Lots of people thought of Dino (by 1984) as the man who brought us Waterloo, Mandingo and the terrible King Kong remake. But he was also the executive producer of Serpico, Death Wish, Three Days of the Condor, Ragtime and The Dead Zone – all critical darlings. Think of him as you would Christopher Walken: though he’s no guarantee of quality, you can’t say he lacks style.
Dune itself. Thanks to Star Wars, the early 80s were a field day for big budget sci-fi. But where Lucas’s films were a pastiche of Japanese mythology, spaghetti western and one film nerd’s marble notebooks, Dune is … well, it’s Dune.
A full discussion of the merits of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece deserves its own Overthinking It post, or a Fenzel-level tangent. Suffice it to say: Dune is the great science fiction novel of the last century. Dune is about identifying with one’s family, the games people play in politics, the role of religion in shaping culture, the semiotic bonds of language, how resource rushes change a society, coming to grips with mortality, opening the doors of perception, life, death, space, time and love. It’s about the human experience on every level.
Where It Goes Off The Rails
The acting. Everyone in the movie either chews the scenery like it’s gingerbread or mumbles.
The best example: the scene where Thufir Hawat, Dr. Yueh and Gurney Halleck interrupt Paul Atreides while he’s studying. Hawat (Freddie Jones) blurts his lines like he’s waking up from a nap. Every time he tries to act sincere it comes out stiff, culminating in an odd chop to Paul’s shoulder that’s supposed to be fatherly. Yueh (Dean Stockwell, later of Beverly Hills Cop 2 and Quantum Leap) clearly just dropped a quaalude, as he can barely open his mouth wide enough to deliver his dialogue. And Gurney (Patrick Stewart) berates Paul for not taking his knife practice seriously, then draws a knife of his own, holding it like a TV remote.
Of course, they’re not the only example. Baron Harkonnen manages to scream without moving his mouth. His son Feyd (played by Sting in all his cod-pieced glory) struts around with a mad leer but nothing else by way of characterization. And Lady Jessica spends most of the film sobbing. Perhaps the longer cut of this film (see below) had greater variety in their performances. But what we’re left with would shame a soap opera.
The writing. And the dialogue these poor men have to deliver isn’t much better. Lynch tries to cram as many of Herbert’s bizarre concepts as he can into a few weary scenes. As a result, the first twenty-five minutes of the film are pure exposition. It’s a pure data dump.
And it’s not even artfully arranged. Consider the aforementioned Atreides briefing scene.
PAUL: Things have been so serious here lately.
GURNEY: Soon we leave for Arrakis. Arrakis is real; the Harkonnens are real.
PAUL: Dr. Yueh, do you have any information on the worms of Arrakis?
That’s exactly how it plays out – changing from one topic to the next without so much as a segue.
The poor pacing doesn’t help the writing, either. Lynch leaves himself about forty-five minutes to portray two-thirds of the novel: Paul coming to power amongst the Fremen warriors, meeting and falling in love with Chani, teaching them the “weirding way” and leading them to rebel against the Harkonnen and the Empire. He shortcuts a lot of burdensome storytelling by simply narrating what happens. One moment, the Fremen are tentatively accepting Paul and Jessica in their midst; the next, Paul and Chani are making out in an underground corridor. “I love you, Chani,” mumurs a Kyle Machlachan voice-over. Good to know!
The setting. Herbert’s chief strength, the intricate weirdness of his setting, is also one of the movie’s great weaknesses. If you don’t believe me, sit down with a friend who’s never read the novel before and watch the movie up to this scene:
I did. And then, off of her confused look, I had to explain.
“See,” I began, “thousands of years ago, there was a war against the robots. All robots and computers were destroyed. So now there’s a special profession of people who think like computers. They’re called Mentats. That guy with the fluffy eyebrows who chopped Paul on the shoulder? He was a Mentat, too.”
“And when did the movie explain that?”
The … um. Complaining about nightmarish scenes from the director of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks might seem naive, but Lynch takes it to new levels with Dune. The sci-fi setting actually hinders his ability to shock us, since, in the bizarre future of this galactic empire, we don’t know what’s “normal” and what’s “weird.” Are the psychic nuns who speak in reverb normal? Yes. Are the Harkonnen slaves with heartplugs normal? No. What makes the sonic space-lasers employed by the Atreides significant, other than their weirdness? We don’t know.