Universal // 1984 // 137 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // July 18th, 1999
A place beyond your dreams. A movie beyond your imagination.
Whether you like this adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel or not, you have to admit that the visuals and music are done on a very grand scale thanks to the bizarre imaginings of David Lynch. Universal gives it a passable, catalog title treatment on DVD, but it deserves better.
For a fair number of people, I think that this movie falls into the same category as the Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers. As a film adaptation of a classic science fiction book, each film is going to have a crowd of detractors who will savage it for butchering the perfection of the author's original story. In each case, I have at one time read the original book, and I think the key is just to accept each version on its own merit. Books and movies are very different media, and I think it is harder to do a book to film adaptation than the reverse.
As for Dune, I cannot imagine the original book being simply ported to a film. It is at times tediously slow and ponderous, and simply had to be chopped down to size and reworked for the big screen. The movie is still well over two hours, and I think is much better than the goes-on-forever version that has shown up on the SciFi cable channel. (That version, incidentally, prompted David Lynch to insist that his name be removed from its credits.)
As the movie opens, Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) tells us of the spice melange that allows Navigators (spice mutated humans) to "fold" space and travel without moving. As a consequence, spice is absolutely vital to interstellar trade and travel, particularly because it is available only from the vast desert planet Arrakis (also known as Dune). We then learn that the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (Jose Ferrer), ruler of the known universe, has set in place a devious plan to eliminate a potential rival, Duke Leto Atreides (Jurgen Prochnow) and his House. This plan requires House Atreides to take over the spice mining operations on Arrakis from their bitter enemy, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) and his House, after which they will be trapped and destroyed by a combined sneak attack by House Harkonnen and the Emperor's Sardaukar terror troops. Needless to say, this plan worries the Navigators and their Guild. They warn the Emperor in the starkest terms that any interference in spice production bodes ill for him.
We are then introduced to Caladan and its inhabitants, the House Atreides. Behind the scenes over many centuries, a religious sisterhood, the Bene Gesserit, have been manipulating bloodlines in hopes of creating the Kwisatz Haderach, a "super-being." Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis) had disobeyed the dictates of the sisterhood, and bore her beloved Duke a son, Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan). As we meet them, House Atreides is preparing to make the move to Arrakis. Both assisting the Duke and instructing his son are Thufir Hawat (Freddie Jones), who comes from a race of human-computers known as the Mentat, Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart), the military advisor, and Doctor Wellington Yueh (Dean Stockwell). House Atreides suspects the Emperor's trap, but is confident that the wealth of Arrakis combined with the power of their budding new army (using the power of sound weapons and a form of battle called the "wierding way") will allow them to survive.
Our next stop is Giedi Prime and House Harkonnen. Their planet is dark and polluted, as is the House. The Baron Harkonnen is twisted inside and disfigured outside, a flying fat man of evil. His cohorts include a darkly brilliant Mentat of his own, Piter De Vries (Brad Dourif), a slow-witted thug, the Beast Rabban (Paul Smith), and handsome yet totally psychotic Feyd Rautha (Sting). They plan, plot, and generally exult over their inevitable destruction of House Atreides.
House Atreides loads up into a gigantic Guild ship and is "folded" to Arrakis. Once there, they begin the slow process of setting up their own defenses, taking over spice production, and rooting out Harkonnen saboteurs. A trusted officer, Duncan Idaho (Richard Jordan) reports to the Duke that he suspects that the planet's inhabitants, the Fremen, exist in vast numbers and could be allied to the Atreides cause. The Duke then inspects the spice mining operations, meeting the Imperial Ecologist Dr. Kynes (Max Von Sydow) and rescuing a trapped mining crew in the process.
Peace does not last long, as a traitor deep within House Atreides sabotages their defenses and destroys vital weapons, leaving them wide open to the attack of House Harkonnen and the Emperor. In the chaos of the attack, the Duke and his family are captured, and only Gurney Halleck escapes their clutches. While the Duke attempts a final revenge upon the Baron, his son and wife are taken to the desert to become food for the giant sandworms. They escape their captors and run into the leader of the Fremen, Stilgar (Everett McGill) and his tribe. The Fremen are suitably impressed by the "wierding way" and accept the pair into their tribe in return for learning the techniques.
As the universe continues, Lady Jessica is chosen to replace the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother of the Fremen tribe. Paul, known among the Fremen as Paul Muad'dib, becomes an integral part of the Fremen, as he both falls in love with a young Fremen warrior, Chani (Sean Young), and trains the Fremen in the "wierding way." The Fremen then begin a long campaign to reduce the Harkonnen army on Arrakis and stop the free flow of spice over a two year period. The Guild is unhappy with this turn of events, and peremptorily orders the Emperor to fix the problem or face "life in a pain amplifier."
Not exactly a shrinking violet himself, the Emperor orders his entire force of Sardaukar terror troops deployed to Arrakis to begin the genocide of the Fremen populace. At the same time, Paul is facing a crisis of confidence and feels compelled to put himself to the all but fatal test to see if he is in fact the prophesied Kwisatz Haderach. He survives the test, and with his newfound sense of destiny proclaims his Jihad (Holy War) against the Emperor and his forces, aiming to eliminate the Emperor and stake the claim to be in total control of spice production.
Paul Muad'dib and the entire race of Fremen launch a massive attack upon the Emperor's fortified encampment, with the assistance of a horde of sandworms as living battleships and troop transports. After a massive battle scene, we find that the Fremen are victorious, and have captured the Emperor and his advisors as well as Feyd Rautha and Guild representatives. Feyd soon expresses his contempt for his captor, which earns him a knife-fight to the death with Paul Muad'dib. The movie then ends with a remarkable event, indicating that Arrakis will never be the same.
Even in its theatrical release, this is a long and often slowly paced movie. Many of the immense cast of characters are either introduced with little explanation or exit as easily, or both. However, adding the necessary exposition would have added tremendously to the bulk of the movie at a substantial cost to the pacing and enjoyability of the movie. The area where this movie really shines is in showing off the costuming, set decoration, and generally oddly Nineteenth Century style that is at odds with the usual visual depiction of a science fiction movie. In reality, this is more of a space opera than a usual sci-fi flick, with grand sweeping visuals and music to match. It is a true treat for the eyes, as long as you don't mind a number of obvious (due to poor matting, or some other reason) effects shots.
Perhaps it is due to the length and deadly serious nature of the story that the actors don't get very much room to really strut their stuff. Kyle MacLachlan does a decent job, but you never get a real depth of character from him. A pity, given his importance in the story. Patrick Stewart is pleasantly passionate and dignified, and makes me wish that Captain Picard had as much stern presence as Gurney Halleck did. Oddly enough, I think Sting did a nice job, giving us a convincing performance as a very self-proud and homicidal minded Harkonnen who practically oozes stylish evil from his pores. Dean Stockwell does well with the conflicted, quiet Doctor, as does perennial wierdo-playing Brad Dourif with coiled-snake Piter De Vries.
The video transfer is acceptable, but far from reference quality. Aside from the fact that it is a non-anamorphic transfer, several scenes exhibit an annoying level of noise (often in dark wood, or similar background material). The print has a noticeable amount of film defects (blips and the like) and bits of dirt. Given these limitations, it is nevertheless a pretty movie. I have until recently owned the VHS widescreen version of Dune, and the DVD smokes it, as it should. Here, you can see much greater fine definition in the unique visuals, particularly in the Emperor's scenes, and a richer color saturation. With the preponderance of browns and blacks this may be difficult to see, but until the DVD I didn't realize the Atreides uniforms (which you see while they are still on Caladan) are actually dark green.
Probably a first for me, I think the audio surpasses the video in quality. I found myself frequently looking right or left, thanks to the nice directionality of the front channels, and there is a lot of ambient low level sound throughout the entire movie. The thumpers, in particular, are nicely represented by my subwoofer. On occasion, there is a bit too much of a jump in the sound between normal levels and an action scene, but nothing too bad.
Universal chose to give us only a light dusting of extras, which seems to be typical treatment for their average catalog title. We get reasonably detailed production notes and selected cast & filmmakers bios, and the original theatrical trailer (1.85 widescreen and of middling quality). We also get a two page insert with the chapter list and bonus features, static movie themed menus, and the preferred Amaray keepcase.
This is another disc that just cries out for a commentary track. Given some of the bizarre visuals (particularly regarding House Harkonnen) and the difficulty in both adapting the book and actually filming the movie, I would love to hear David Lynch recount his experiences and give us some insight into his decisions about the story and look of the movie. There are also a LOT of unused scenes that were filmed but cut, some of which were used to create the long TV version. This could form the basis for a fine selection of outtakes and deleted scenes on a Special Edition, as well as the storyboards and other visual material that is out there. Helllooo, Universal!
After my first run through for this review, I took a second look and noted that perhaps some of the video problems are due to a low average bit rate used for much of the transfer. I bet that if Universal would clean up the print of its blemishes and dirt, and use a dual-layer disc, they could ratchet up the bit rate and make a reference quality transfer. Plus, they'd have plenty of space for some nice extras.
One small point on the sound -- at times, I wished that the thumpers and explosions had more punch, but with a less than recent movie, I wouldn't expect the bass track to measure up to some of the more modern releases.
One of the more visually interesting movies I have seen, with a pretty impressive group of actors in a science fiction epic that uses every bit of the big screen. For the average viewer, it's worth a rental, and if you are a sci-fi fan, I'd still recommend it if you can get a good deal, as this is an okay but not phenomenal DVD.
Despite its story shortcomings, the visual style is decisive in this Court's verdict. The film is guilty of only misdemeanor faults, and deserves lenient treatment on probation. Universal is granted special dispensation, and will not have a conviction on its record if it gives us a Special Edition disc in the near future.
Review content copyright © 1999 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 137 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Talent Bios
* Production Notes
* Theatrical Trailer
* Film Highlights