Cargo Cult: Dune - Overthinking It
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Cargo Cult: Dune

[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

Where It Goes Off The Rails
Ah, hell.

… 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:

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?”

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.