[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.
… 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
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.
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?”
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.