Cargo Cult: Dune

Cargo Cult: Dune

Overthinking the train wreck that was Dune. You knew this day would come.

… And Then, Tragedy
This is how the movie begins:

Two minutes of exposition, staring at Virginia Madsen’s giant face. She fades in and out for no reason, as if a projectionist took his hand off a switch for a few seconds. And, “Oh yes, I almost forgot …”

That’s right: this movie starts failing before the opening credits even get started.

I don’t think I need to belabor how stunningly bad this movie is. Lynch wastes the first half hour on meandering exposition. Then, once the Harkonnen reconquer Arrakis, Paul’s rise to power among the Fremen tribes and his discovery of his prophetic nature – a story that took Lawrence of Arabia three hours to tell, by way of comparison – runs about forty-five minutes. His love affair with Chani, his growing acceptance among the tribes, his psychic introspection and his wrestling with his desire to rule the Fremen vs. his desire to free them: all narrated, never shown.

Contributions to Pop Culture
Countless, including:

  • Several video games which borrowed their look and feel from Lynch’s movie. The first Dune video game, in 1992, was a strategy game that incorporated most of the movie’s characters in a different plot. You control young Paul Atreides and must balance the House’s efforts between spice mining (to meet the Emperor’s quotas) and military production (to defend against the Harkonnen). The voice acting and animation were what you’d expect from 1992.

  • A little studio called Westwood Games produced an unofficial sequel, Dune II, which broke ground on several real-time strategy game conventions that we now take for granted: resource gathering, the tech tree, multiple playable factions with unique unit types, the fog of war, etc. Dune II laid the groundwork for Westwood’s magnum opus, the Command and Conquer series.

  • The trippy oddness of the film inspired several electronic acts, including Aphrodite, MFG and Mortal. The most famous Dune reference for contemporary audiences probably comes from Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice.” The song calls back to the movie’s weirding modules (the “tone of my voice” is the titular “weapon of choice”), as well as a line Paul mumbles to Jessica when fleeing through the desert (“walk without rhythm, and it won’t attract the worm”).

Where Can I See It

On DVD in any of several formats. The original theatrical release runs just over two hours. There’s a three-hour Extended Edition that restores a lot of cut footage and pads out the running time. The problem: the details restored don’t help! They help the film breathe, making it feel less stilted, but it still doesn’t make a lick of sense. Also note: David Lynch has disavowed the three hour version, going as “Alan Smithee” in the credits.

In 2000, John Harrison released a three-part miniseries, Frank Herbert’s Dune, on the Sci-Fi channel. Though the effects suffer slightly in comparison – particularly anything outdoors; the matte-painting backdrops don’t substitute for a desert the size of a planet – the miniseries still brings a compelling original style to every shot. The characters have more depth and personality; the rich setting is explored in greater detail and more of Herbert’s epic story is brought to life. I (and many other critics) consider this version superior to the Lynch attempt in every meaningful way.

Peter Berg has been attached to a new version of Dune for several years and has expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for it. However, recent rumors suggest that Peter Berg has left the Dune project. Neil Blonnkamp (District 9) and Neil Marshall (The Descent) have been floated as possible replacements; nothing yet confirmed. IMDb still lists the new Dune as a 2010 movie, but that’s clearly impossible, given that not a frame of film exists.

12 Comments on “Cargo Cult: Dune”

  1. anton keller #

    it is “Atreides” …


  2. thinkwatchthink #

    The costume design in the Sci Fi miniseries just killed me. I think my dad took one look at one of the Bene Gesserit hats and went “Gods, what a monster.”

    That Patrick Stewart line being pretty much the sum total of David Lynch’s contribution to the pop culture of our household. :)


  3. perich OTI Staff #

    @anton … dang it, you’re right. Fixing now.


  4. Lmorus #

    An interesting feature about the “Dune” project is that it was a paradoxical point of creative ebullition for many significant collaborations : Jodorowski hired the artist Jean Giraud (Moebius) for detailed, visionary storyboards, and they ended up making the greatest sci-fi comic book series of the 80’s that I know of, L’incal. Pretty much everyone involved in later major sci-fi movies was somehow involved in the making of the Dune project : H.R Giger and Ridley Scott, and also Vangelis, plus the guy who cowrote Alien, Carpenter was there also, and a few others that I don’t remember about…
    And even though it ultimately crashed, this failed Jodorowski project still gave an impetus to the industry, showing producers that big-ass sci-fi movie could be made interesting and even profitable with the available technology, which made them more open to the idea of greenlighting a similar project… and that was in 1975, two years before Star wars…


  5. Phanatic #

    I can’t believe you gave a rundown of Dino DeLaurentis’s triumphs and did not include Conan the Barbarian.

    The Atreides were not sacrificed as pawns in a game between two rivals; the Emperor specifically wished to destroy the house, because it was both popular within the Landsraad and because it had developed an army capable of rivaling the Sardaukar, which were the power preserving the Emperor on the throne. House Atreides was the target of a conspiracy between the Emperor and the Harkonnens, not an unwitting pawn in a game played between rivals.

    It’s a damned shame the movie is so bad in so many ways. Stewart, at least, has a brief shining moment when he ends up as a mercenary working for spice smugglers and again encounters Paul. And it *looks* perfect: the worms, the stillsuits, the harvesters, the ‘thopters, they’re all perfect. All the trappings of nobility really look like they’re part of a social order that’s persisted for thousands of years.

    If you combined everything the movie did right, with everything the miniseries did right, well, that’d be it.


  6. perich OTI Staff #

    @Phanatic: I specifically called out “critical darlings.” Conan the Barbarian is fun stuff, no argument here.


  7. Thefremen #

    Although not specified in the film version, the events of Dune start in the year 10,191 AG, where 1 AG marks the formation of the guild. We currently reside in the year 9,391 BG iirc. Google dune timeline for more info.


  8. Dan #

    It’s hard to overstate just how influential “Dune II” was as a computer game. It pretty much DEFINED the real time strategy genre for every game after it, even up to the present day.

    The extended version of the movie, to my knowledge, didn’t really restore a lot of footage, because there WASN’T a lot more footage to restore. Instead, it panned, Ken Burns style, across a series of storyboards accompanied by JUST what the movie needed – more voiceover.

    No wonder David Lynch had his name removed.

    Vangelis was not, to my knowledge, involved in Dune. The music was done by Toto (great soundtrack, by the way) who I always felt should go on tour with Kansas.

    Here’s a discussion question… does the fact that the other five books in the series were much, much worse than the first one retroactively detract from the respect that should be accorded it?


  9. formivore #

    For what it’s worth, I somehow saw “Dune” at a very early age and have vivid, haunting memories of it: sandworms, that pain box, Atreides’ blue eyes (really Peter O’Tools eyes no?). Its strange how certain movies can become personal aesthetic touchstones which later on in life you discover are universally considered derivate moral/artistic embarrassments.

    Another movie like this for me is “Midnight Express.” This totally blew my 8-year old mind but given that it’s about the horror of Turkish prisons, I’m going to guess it’s not a critical favorite. Hmm, on second thought there could be a common thread here – namely a certain precocious bent towards spectacles of Ottoman-themed cruelty.

    Parents, don’t leave your kids home alone.


  10. toni #

    I hope you would do a Cargo Cult of Phantom of the Paradise:

    This movie is insanely full of intertextuality. Almost every single scene is “borrowed” from some other movie, my favorite being a single take scene of car bombing taken straight from the opening of Touch of Evil, only it’s filmed with two cameras simultaneously shown in split screen. Hell, the premise of the movie is combination of Phantom of the Opera in the music world meets Faust.

    This stealing of scenes actually makes a bit of sense when you realize that the story is about a music mogul who steals first smaller artist music, then their lives.

    I saw this movie few times when I was very small and this movie just got stuck in my mind mainly because of few scenes of great Nightmare Fuel, but seeing it today the movie is actually funny and almost without any camp.

    If you haven’t seen it you owe it to yourself to watch it.

    And yeah, I tried to watch the extended version of Dune before reading this article and it almost destroyed me. Gladly my mind understood to switch itself off for damage control. The exposition-riffic narration, augh… Next I’m going to try the Lynch cut.


  11. perich OTI Staff #

    @toni: Phantom of the Paradise looks insane – as in, literally the work of a schizophrenic. Even though it’s before the 80s, I think I have to watch it. Thank you for the recommendation!


  12. R. #

    Feyd isn’t the Baron’s son. He’s his nephew.


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