Universal // 1984 // 137 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // April 27th, 2010
"The experience [of making Dune] taught me a valuable lesson. I learned I would rather not make a film than make one where I don't have final cut." -- David Lynch
In 1965, author Frank Herbert published Dune, a science fiction epic whose mythic storytelling delved deeply into the subjects of religion, politics, economics, ecology, and cultural entropy. The book was an immediate success, winning Hugo and Nebula awards in 1966. Because of the complexity and density of its story and themes, Herbert's book was long considered unfilmable. Producers Dino and Rafaella De Laurentiis decided to give it a go anyway. In the early 1980s, they hired then up-and-coming director David Lynch (Mulholland Dr.) to helm the project. At the time, Lynch had directed two films -- the impressive independent movie Eraserhead, and his first studio financed project, The Elephant Man. Both movies demonstrated Lynch's visual acuity, his masterful control over tone, and his ability to weave a weird narrative tapestry while still keeping character front and center. Plus, Lynch had made George Lucas' short list of directors for Return of the Jedi, though he'd ultimately been passed over for the gig. He surely seemed as logical a choice as any to tackle Herbert's challenging, highly literary book.
Too bad, then, that this collaboration between David Lynch and the De Laurentiises produced a final product so unsatisfactory that it only reinforced the notion that Dune cannot be adequately translated to the silver screen. So, what went wrong? Let's take a look.
How to sum up a plot as convoluted as Dune's? If you've never read Herbert's book, good luck following all of this.
Set 20 millenia in the future, when the known universe is controlled by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer, Lawrence of Arabia), Dune concerns the control of spice, a mysterious substance that allows bizarre, mutated beings known as Navigators to "fold space," thus enabling distant space travel. Spice can be found on only one planet, the barren desert world of Arrakis, also known as Dune. In a convoluted scheme to consolidate his power, the Emperor decrees that control of Arrakis change hands from one of the royal houses to another. The evil Harkonens are commanded to turn the planet over to their sworn enemies, the Atreides. Duke Leto Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow, Das Boot) suspects a trap but, duty bound to the Emperor, prepares his family and his people for the move to Arrakis. Duke Leto's concubine, Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis, Krull), is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a matriarchal order that wields great religious and political power in the universe. Despite orders from the sisterhood to have only female babies, Lady Jessica gave Duke Leto a male heir, Paul (Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks). She believes her teenage son might be the Kwisatz Haderach, a prophesied messiah whose ability to consume spice will make him more powerful than any of the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers.
Has your head exploded yet?
After arriving on Dune, the Atreides are promptly betrayed. Paul and Lady Jessica flee into the desert, where they are in constant danger from the enormous worms that live in the seas of sand. Eventually, they are taken in by Fremen, the indigenous people of Arrakis. Paul proves himself a capable warrior and charismatic leader. He takes the Fremen name Muad'Dib, and begins to teach the people the weirding way, a devastating method of combat involving the use of sound. Paul intends to defeat the Emperor and Baron Vladimir Harkonen (Kenneth McMillan, The Pope of Greenwich Village), drive them from Dune, and turn control of the spice over to the Fremen. He will only succeed, though, if he is indeed the Kwisatz Haderach.
By now, you've probably begun to see the challenges involved in making an even remotely coherent movie adaptation of Dune.
David Lynch's Dune isn't a good movie, but it is a fascinating one. It appears to be the point at which Lynch decided that being a commercial director of traditional Hollywood fare wasn't going to work out for him. We probably have it to thank for his next film, the brilliantly unconventional Blue Velvet. As indicated in the quote at the beginning of this review, it was definitely the point at which he decided that he would never again make a film over which he didn't have final control. After a troubled production and difficult shoot, Lynch and the De Laurentiises were forced by Universal to deliver a cut of Dune that was a manageable length of just under two hours and twenty minutes. The studio's intervention created persistent rumors among fans of a sprawling four-hour cut of the flick that adhered more closely to Lynch's original vision. Rafaella De Laurentiis has denied the existence of such a cut, saying that Lynch never had the opportunity to edit the film exactly as he saw fit, that effects shots weren't even completed for some of his preferred sequences. Whatever Lynch's original intent, it's difficult to believe adding 20 minutes to the picture's running time could have fixed its numerous flaws.
Dune's real problem -- more easily understood with the benefit of hindsight -- isn't one of directorial control. Knowing the idiosyncratic trajectory of Lynch's career over the last two-and-a-half decades, it's easier now to recognize that he was maybe the least appropriate director for the project. Watching Dune through 21st-century eyes, one can see Lynch's natural inclinations struggling against his desire to honor Herbert's original work. The novel is concrete, technically dense, and deeply intellectual. By contrast, Lynch works best from his own subconscious, filling his movies with nightmarish images representing ideas that are meant to be felt rather than dissected intellectually. Despite Dune's rigorous technical and narrative demands, one can see in the movie's lush designs Lynch's desire to make a Lynchian phantasmagoria, filled to the brim with vaginal and phallic creatures, unexplained weirdness, and imagery that burrows its way into the viewer's primitive brain and refuses to let go. The director's earnest desire to properly respect Herbert's wordy, expository, and complex book takes the form of an awkwardly expository introduction by Virginia Madsen (whose character, Princess Irulan, is otherwise trimmed from the story), and by making various characters' internal monologues external through a half-assed use of voice-over narration. It's awkward, hokey stuff that actually makes the movie more confusing by introducing concepts and background information that never quite feel necessary to understanding the basic flow of the plot. Worse yet, the voice-overs reduce most of the actors' performances to self-parody. Dune is one of the most deadpan unintentional comedies to emerge from Hollywood's long history of incompetence.
Dune might have worked as a nightmarish, Lynchian fable that dropped viewers into the middle of its world and allowed them to revel in its visual beauty and mythic story (stripped of its political, religious, and ecological content, the story is similar in many ways to James Cameron's Avatar). A faithful adaptation of Herbert's work might be achieved by shooting a trilogy of movies all at once à la Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. David Lynch and the De Laurentisses came up short because they tried to squeeze a David Lynch flick and a faithful adaptation of Herbert into a single film with a bare running time of 137 minutes. It was a fool's errand from the get-go.
Dune was twice released on DVD. The first disc was a barebones affair that hit store shelves in 1998. The second was a stylish two-disc set that came in steelbook packaging and offered both the theatrical cut of the picture, as well as the 189-minute Alan Smithee cut that was assembled for television broadcast without Lynch's permission or input. This new blu-ray edition splits the difference between the two DVDs, offering the theatrical version of the movie as well as the slim batch of extras from the two-disc set. Completists may complain about the absence of the Smithee cut, but many of its elements weren't of a quality that would benefit from a high definition transfer. I'll also go on record as saying that the Smithee cut is of little interest because of Lynch's lack of involvement -- the only reason Dune is worth 137 minutes of anyone's time is as a fascinating case study in a failed David Lynch movie.
Universal serves up Dune in a 1080p/VC-1 that is sharper and more attractive than previous standard definition versions, but still flat and lackluster. Colors are accurate, but have the dullness and lack of sheen typical of early '80s film stocks. The optical effects are frequently wretched, plaguing the image with obvious compositing and extremely coarse grain. Despite the transfer's flaws, this is probably about as good as the movie will ever look. The effects shots may pale in comparison to the work done by Industrial Light and Magic during the same period, but the costumes, set designs, and miniature work are utterly spectacular. Blu-ray is undoubtedly the best way to view these gorgeous elements of the movie.
Audio comes in a hot DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track. Dialogue is bright and loud, while effects absolutely thunder. The score by rock 'n' roll supergroup Toto blasts through the entire soundstage. More importantly, Lynch's sound design here is much like his work in his more personal films. All of the movie's dialogue, effects, and music sit on a thrumming bed of nearly constant low, wet-sounding ambient noise. The arrhythmic throb of LFE gives one the impression that the entire movie is taking place inside some sort of cosmic womb. It's atmospheric, well-executed, and very Lynchian. Fans of Dune should upgrade to the Blu-ray if for no other reason than the improved audio experience.
Extras are limited to a handful of featurettes, all of which were ported over from the Extended Cut DVD:
Deleted Scenes (17:18) -- Hosted by producer Raffaella De Laurentiis, this is less a collection of deleted scenes than a full-blown featurette describing changes made to the film due to budget restrictions that forced David Lynch to remove a number of scenes for which effects shots were not completed, replacing them with a newly written scene that plowed through necessary exposition and (sort of) made sense of movie's plot. Deleted content also includes an extended voice-over narration by Virginia Madsen that fills in a lot of the conceptual gaps from Herbert's novel. It demonstrates that Lynch should have either gone all in, or left the narration out. His trimmed down narration is not only hokey, but it only makes the movie more confusing for anyone who hasn't read the novel. The featurette is presented in full frame standard definition, with the deleted scenes offered up in non-anamorphic widescreen. The scenes are often rough, grainy, and loaded with dirt and damage. Still, this is a fascinating piece considering the controversy over how much the final cut of the movie represents David Lynch's original vision.
Designing Dune (8:54) -- A behind-the-scenes look at production designer Anthony Masters' (2001: A Space Odyssey) fine work on the picture, this featurette provides a look at early sketches, drawings, and paintings, as well as props and sets.
Dune FX (6:00) -- From explosions to wirework to giant worms, this short featurette takes a look at the movie's practical special effects.
Dune Models & Miniatures (7:01) -- This piece examines the fine miniature model work by Emilio Ruiz del Rio (Pan's Labyrinth). Regardless of Dune's many flaws, the picture has a scale and weight that is indebted to model-making and miniature photography that sells the illusion that the vistas, buildings, and vehicles are massive.
Dune Wardrobe Design (4:49) -- Bob Ringwood (Batman) and the members of the costume department recall their often frantic and improvisatory work on Ringwood's rich and detailed costumes for the movie.
The disc is also BD-Live and D-Box enabled.
A high-definition presentation doesn't change the fact that Dune is a failure -- albeit a fascinating failure if only because its director went on to a unique and important career as a seminal independent American filmmaker. Still, Lynch's greatness doesn't justify shelling out 20 of your hard-earned dollars for this mostly lackluster Blu-ray. All but the true believers should avoid this one.
Guilty as charged.
Review content copyright © 2010 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 137 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* D-Box Enabled