Cargo Cult: Dune

Cargo Cult: Dune

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

A postscript: the Cargo Cult series isn’t (entirely) about trashing bombs. Everyone knows Dune bombed. Overthinking It can’t add more to the generations of critical derision that have already buried this movie. So why cover it?

Cargo Cult is, again, about high concept train wrecks. Someone comes to the studio with a big idea and the studio gives them a check. “Go nuts,” they say. “Make your rock ‘n roll fable or your Nazi horror film! Star power? Compelling story? Great special effects? Who cares?”

Looks fun, right?

Looks fun, right?

Several studios had tried and failed to address Dune before de Laurentis and Lynch grappled it. The most famous failure was probably Alejandro Jodorowsky (director of El Topo). Casting Salvador Dali as the Emperor, at a reported budget of $100,000 per hour, may have been the first misstep. Or perhaps this scene threw the project off course:

In the film, the Duke Leto (father of Paul) would be a man castrated in a ritual combat in the arena during a bullfight (emblem of the Atreides house being a crowned bull…) Jessica – nun of the Bene Gesserit – sent as concubine at the Duke to create a girl which would be the mother of a Messiah, becomes so in love with Leto that she decides to jump a chain link [sic] and to create a son, Kwisatz Haderach, the saviour. By using her capacities of Bene Gesserit – once that the Duke, insanely in love with her, entrusts her with his sad secret – Jessica is inseminated by a drop of blood of this sterile man… The camera followed (in script) the red drop through the ovaries of the woman and sees its meeting with the ovule where, by a miraculous explosion, it fertilises it. Paul had been born from a virgin; and not of the sperm of his father but of his blood…

(source: Metal Hurlant magazine)

So Jodorowsky’s vision may have been a bit much. But can you blame him for being excited by the possibilities? Dune is a novel about (among other things) collective genetic unconsciousness, a racial memory that stretches back through eons. It’s about prescience and what it means to have a prescient leader. It’s about folding space and peering through time. Jodorowsky may have diverged from the script, but was his weird ending – in which Paul has merged his consciousness with the entire Fremen race and transforms the planet of Arrakis – really that inappropriate?

Well, yes. Because how do you depict that?

While the epic story of a man uniting a nomadic people can be told – John Harrison told it, remarkably well, in the Sci-Fi miniseries – the truly intriguing parts of Herbert’s epic might remain forever beyond us. What does it mean to see all possible futures at once? To expand one’s consciousness beyond conventional limits? Movies have struggled with depicting that for years.

It takes more than just a high concept to make a film. The reason cult films survive, even in spite of their critical failure, is because we love those concepts. We want them to succeed. We want a director of vision to find just the right cast and beam these concepts into our mind. But it doesn’t always work. That’s where the high concept train wrecks of the Eighties, like Dune, came from.


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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