Judge Brett Cullum promises this review won't feature a score by Toto.
Paul: I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when my fear is gone I will turn and face fear's path, and only I will remain.
Growing up I was a geek (big shock, I know), and I read every book published in Frank Herbert's Dune series. Like most serial literary adventures only the first three novels were truly good, and that very first entry was one of the most amazing things I had ever read. Even though I was quite young when I saw the movie Dune, I already knew it was an impossible book to make in to a movie. Dune looked amazing, but it was lacking a lot of what made the book so compelling. How could it not suffer in the translation? The novel was a highly detailed account of political intrigue among several royal families, and the religious rebellion of a desert clan of fundamentalists who thought their savior had come. It was page upon page of interior monologues, political posturing, and religious meditation, and had so many science fiction terms it was published with a dictionary as an appendix. Dune was hardly a simple action space opera like Star Wars. The main character turned from an innocent, scholarly fifteen year old to a religious Machiavellian leader of war over a decade. The whole concept of a messiah called the Kwisatz Haderach being portrayed on the silver screen makes one ache for the simplicity of "The Force."
The movie was a monumental disappointment at the box office when it came out in 1984. Most critics dismissed the film as an incoherent mess, and Roger Ebert named it "the worst movie of the year." Audience reactions were not as passionate—Dune was met with lethal indifference. Rumors swirled about who was at fault for the failure. Could it be that David Lynch wasn't cut out to be a high-budget glossy science fiction director? Did Dino or Raffaella De Laurentiis purposefully sabotage the film by intervening and exercising their rights as executive producers with final cut control? Or was it the studio, which demanded the film come in at a manageable length to maximize box office profits? Or was Dune cursed from the start for even attempting to bring the impossible to the screen?
Facts of the Case
In a very distant future human beings have evolved, and thinking machines have been outlawed due to a horrible war with them some time back. Humans have instead developed their minds to amazing capacities. Out of this evolution several different camps have emerged, all with their own peculiar quirks and skills. Each group plays a role or function: spiritual, mental, or as navigators for space travel. They all need the spice "melange" in some way, shape, or form to perform their duties. The spice is essentially an addictive psychotropic drug which expands consciousness to extreme levels. It is the sole natural resource that fuels the entire existence of civilization.
The known universe is ruled by the Padishah Emperor, with royal families ruling each planet. There is one planet that is important above all others, because it is the sole source of spice in the Universe: Arrakis, also known as Dune. The Emperor has sent Duke Leto Atreides to the planet to govern the spice production, because he is a trustworthy leader. But the Emperor has actually set an elaborate trap for the House of Atreides, for he fears their growing power and their expanded army, trained in a new sonic-based form of battle called the "Weirding Way." He has made a backroom deal to allow the evil House Harkonnen to attack House Atreides, and wipe them out on Arrakis.
To throw a wrench into all this political intrigue, the Duke has a son who should have never been born. His concubine, Lady Jessica, provided him with a son named Paul. This was against the wishes of her religious order, the Bene Gesserit, a mystical group of women who are engaged in selective breeding. Their goal is to produce a messiah who will cleanse the universe. Paul just might be this mythical figure, but he was unexpected, as Jessica was mandated to bear only daughters.
A group of native people called the Fremen live on the planet Arrakis. They are mysterious figures who work closely with the spice, and who have developed a religion around the substance and the giant worms that help produce it. After the attack on House Atreides, Paul and Jessica escape to the desert to live with them. The Fremen have been waiting for a messiah to come; Paul just may be him. He teaches the Fremen the "Weirding Way" in battle, and prepares them for an all-out civil war that will make them the sole controllers of the spice and Arrakis. Will their Holy War (or "Jihad") cleanse the Universe? Is Paul destined to be a messiah?
Dune spent more than a decade in development hell. Many camps picked up the project, and several directors and producers were attached to it at some point in its history. First up was Arthur P. Jacobs, who had so much success with the original Planet of the Apes. He passed away in 1973, leaving the rights up for grabs. Then Roger Corman was looking at the story as a potential project. Wisely, he determined his resources would not be enough to translate the novel to screen with the appropriate scope. A wealthy Frenchman wrangled the rights, and attached Russian-Chilean auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky to his deal (who planned on using Pink Floyd for the soundtrack). But this version of Dune, to be shot in the Sahara, ran out of money before shooting began. In 1979 Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights, because his daughter Rafaella was a huge fan of the book. At first he picked up Ridley Scott to direct, with H.R. Giger to design the production (the winning team that had brought Alien to the screen). Scott proposed a high-tech vision that Rafaella found too cold, and Dino balked at the proposed fifty million dollar budget. Scott went off to make Blade Runner, and Dino left Rafaella in charge of finding a new director.
David Lynch was a hot Hollywood commodity at this point. He was fresh off of several Oscar nominations for his black-and-white production of The Elephant Man, and became a serious contender to helm Return of the Jedi for George Lucas. Lynch was not too keen to work with the controlling Lucas, and at the time was trying to produce a pet project of his named Ronnie Rocket (about a red headed dwarf) through Zoetrope Studios. That outfit went bankrupt due to the poor performance of the musical One From the Heart, and Lynch was suddenly available again. Rafaella was impressed with The Elephant Man, and Lynch was intrigued enough by the novel Dune to sign on to the project. Dune finally had a director, and preproduction began in 1981. Lynch suddenly found himself in charge of a cast of over 2,500 (including extras), and a crew of over 1,400 working in a Mexican desert to realize Herbert's vision (ironically the same desert used in Conan the Destroyer). He had gone Hollywood, and everyone thought this would be wildly successful. De Laurentiis bought the rights to make five Dune movies. Lynch and Herbert actually worked on three scripts, including the first one. Hard to imagine, but it looked like David Lynch was about to make a career out of pumping out science fiction epics about giant worms for decades to come.
The lead cast was an amazingly pedigreed mix of international talent,
newcomers, and screen veterans, including:
The acting company certainly nailed most of the personalities of the book, and they give a brave go at realizing Dune on the screen. MacLachlan had the mostly thankless task of playing a part that starts off as an innocent teen and has to develop in to a Christ figure by the conclusion. He pitched his voice higher in the opening reels, and tried to give some weight to the transformation in many physical ways. He seemed to be born to play Paul Atreides even if his stretch as Muad'dib, the revolutionary "desert lion," seems more restrained than it should. Sting makes the most of his part as Feyd. He gets some memorable lines (he only gets ninety words in the extended cut, but makes them count), and who can escape the image of him emerging from a steam bath in a metal bikini? The rest of the cast aren't afforded the chance to give their roles much depth, since the movie books along at a frantic pace without giving them much in the way of development. Yet most of them delivered what they could given their minimal screen time, and some stamped the roles with unforgettable performances. After seeing Dune, Kenneth McMillan will always be, in my mind's eye, the spitting, slothful, levitating Baron, and Sian Phillips made a perfectly creepy Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother.
So the cast was perfectly capable of pulling off a grandiose space tale. What else went right with the production? The visuals are astounding, and they have a trademark Lynch dreamlike quality that makes them a joy to watch. Amazingly he shoots sci fi as if it were a noir picture, always on the verge of going black and white. Dune has a dirty, kinky appeal apparent on the surface of every scene: the strange sizes of everyone in the film—either huge or small, the milking of the cat with a rat taped to it, images of Alia in the womb, the stillsuits that recycle urine and feces, and red-headed dwarves cutting up an upside down cow (a shout out to Ronnie Rocket). The costumes are stunning and epic in scope. The worm effects, achieved with puppets and scale models, feel immense and powerful in a way CGI just can't deliver. Lynch excels in the dream sequences, and you can see many of the themes in his Mulholland Dr. germinating in this spice-laden epic. ("The sleeper must awaken" stands out as a precursor to his fascination with dreams.)
What went wrong? The script is an unholy mess—full of lost subplots from the novel, disturbing voiceover narrations, and useless additions to the Dune mythology. Among some of the more offensive additions for fans of the literary version of the story: weapons added to the "Weirding Way" of fighting, including shields and voice modules; the taming of the giant worms for a strategic strike on the Emperor; and a rainstorm at the climax (which would have technically killed any worms in the vicinity—thanks a lot Mr. Messiah!). Most of the surprise serpentine turns in the novel were laid out right at the start of the film. So the first act seemed tediously full of exposition, and the second and third feel rushed. Lynch fell into the classic trap anyone adapting from a novel falls into—he stayed faithful enough to the source to confuse everyone who hadn't read the book, and yet took too many liberties to please the hardcore fans. Contrary to popular belief, Lynch did stick closely to the novel in most areas even when he shouldn't have. The dialogue is lifted straight off of Herbert's page, but it often rings melodramatic and stilted. Lynch would go on to prove himself the king of "small town nightmares," but Dune is about as far removed from his Midwest sensibilities as one can get. The auteur is stifled by the big Hollywood production, and his camera moves are stereotypical and flat when compared to other films. And the score? Thank God Lynch found Angelo Badalamenti soon after his collaboration with the rock band Toto on Dune. Dune's soundtrack is a strange mix of orchestral movements mixed with middle-of-the-road rock that sounds dated today, and frankly sounded a little silly even when it was released. The main title is a four note line that repeats endlessly, ad nauseum, over the two and a half hours. In the end, Dune is too large for an intimate director like Lynch.
The DVD for Dune: Extended Version is a robust package housed in a nifty collector's tin that is surprisingly compact. The disc itself is two-sided, with side A containing the theatrical cut of the movie plus extras, and side B presenting the extended television cut in its entirety. The television cut is seen in widescreen for the first time, but the introduction is cropped from its original 4:3 aspect ratio to detrimental effect. The drawings that accompany the alternate introduction are not seen in their entirety because of the widescreen. The good news is the inserted scenes are at least more cleaned up than they were for television broadcast, with less grain and artifacts, and seem almost seamlessly integrated into the film. The bad news is the special effects remain unfinished, so the additional scenes with the Fremen will stand out thanks to the lack of blue on their eyes. (For a full list of inserted additional scenes for the television cut, see the link in the Accomplices Section for "Building the Perfect Dune.") Any hopes of a DTS audio track are dashed by the decision to make this one a flipper disc, which needs to conserve space. But there is a nice amount of supplemental material to be found on Side A. There are roughly thirty minutes of featurettes which concentrate on the production design elements that made Dune so interesting. Some people are going to be even more excited about a "deleted scenes" feature, which promises even more footage than the extended cut. Here is a list of additional scenes included on the disc in the supplemental section:
• Fremen Monk tells Paul he will have to pass tests.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
So why is there a television cut anyway? When Dune failed at the box office, Dino De Laurentiis wanted to find a way to recapture some of the money lost on the investment. He sold the syndicated broadcast rights with additional scenes thrown back in to the film haphazardly. This angered David Lynch, who demanded his name be removed from the credits. He used the common "Alan Smithee" for his director credit, and also a very telling "Judas Booth" for his screenwriting name. Rumors have swirled on the Internet of mythical longer cuts of Dune clocking in above and beyond what we see here with the 177 minute "Alan Smithee" television version. I imagine that, like with any film, we'll never know exactly what hit the floor, but Rafaella De Laurentiis herself in the deleted scenes introduction claims there was never any cuts longer than four hours. And even in that bloated state, the film was padded by the fact each sequence was filmed from three or four angles, and the rough cut included many of these alternate takes to make its time that long. The longest version Rafaella recalls was an assembly viewing which included many "scene missing" sequences never filmed. The only version approved by Lynch, the definitive director's cut, is the theatrical version. Even though the extended version adds scenes, they don't make anything clearer to the neophyte. The television cut doesn't flow as well, and most people will find it deadly dull in its pacing. It also messes up the score by somehow putting musical cues in the wrong place, and often the audio track swells at an inappropriate moment. Also, the audio on the surround mix seems to be delivered at a slightly lower level than what you find on the theatrical version.
Missing in action from this package are any input from David Lynch or the lead actors involved with the production. Lynch has never been one to explain himself, so it is little surprise he is not featured here to discuss Dune. He seemed to walk away after the project, and washed his hands of the entire affair without ever looking back. Still, I am surprised we only get to see Rafaella De Laurentiis and the production crew talking about their memories of the film. With the limited participation, neither cut is afforded a commentary to explain things further. Seems a shame we aren't given more insight, or any archival footage of Frank Herbert, who publicly praised Lynch's adaptation. A British DVD release of the movie included archival BBC interviews with Frank Herbert and some of David Lynch's appearances from the movie's publicity campaign in 1984. No such luck here—you'll just have to settle for Rafaella and the crew talking about Dune.
It's a Universal flipper disc, so it may cause your DVD player to freeze at a certain point. I got through all of the extended edition without a hitch, but one of my players prone to this problem fizzled out right at one hour and thirty-seven minutes into the theatrical cut (when Paul addresses the Fremen in a large war rally). When I acquired a second copy of the movie, it did not freeze at the same place, so perhaps exchanging the discs does help if you notice it. This problem has been seen on other Universal releases, such as The Hammer Horror Series and The Bela Lugosi Collection. The tin packaging is very nifty, but it does not hold the DVD well in shipping and many copies will have a loose DVD rattling inside it on store shelves. Gently shake before you purchase to tell if you're getting an unscratched copy.
In the final analysis, the novel Dune is simply far too complex and dense to make into a movie. Film begs for action and adventure, not sociopolitical satire and meditations on religion and culture. The novel can be seen as a subtle dig at our civilization's dependence on oil (our "spice" if you will), and the cultural clash with those that produce it in the Middle East. The Fremen are desert warriors wishing to bring a Jihad to Arrakis. Sound familiar yet? Just take the first two syllables of their planet's name, and you get something curiously close to Iraq. Of course Herbert was probably more inspired by Lawrence of Arabia rather than any coming crisis in the Middle East, but like all good metaphors it works on many levels. Dune could be seen as even more timely today.
What David Lynch's Dune did right was capture a look and feel of the novel that is appropriately grandiose and textured. It's still light years beyond the Sci Fi Channel's mini-series version of the novel, which looks too clean and silly to compete with the epic visual treatment of the theatrical release. Frank Herbert supported the film, and was pleased with how Dune came out. You can't ask for a better endorsement than that. It's definitely the least "Lynch-like" of any of David Lynch's film, but it's fun to watch him try to crank out a sci fi blockbuster. In the end, the film's failure created enough turmoil to force him to become an auteur, so in some ways the war on Arrakis did save us all.
Dune has never looked better on DVD. Thanks to an anamorphic widescreen print, two versions of the film, and a healthy dose of extras, Dune: Extended Edition is an easy purchase decision for fans and the curious. No matter what your ultimate opinion of the film is, it's an experience we're not likely to see repeated again. Just be wary of loose discs and the freezing problems on some Universal double-sided DVDs. Still, this is the one you've been waiting for all these years. Sit back and demand that "The spice must flow!"
Guilty of being equal parts overblown and underdeveloped, Dune remains a frustratingly incoherent beautiful mess of a movie. The extended version adds no clarity to the proceedings, but does offer fans a chance to see more of the raw footage that might have helped flesh out the epic. It still makes a better novel than movie to this day. But in spite of it all, I love Dune for being the right texture.
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• Deleted Scenes With Introduction by Producer Raffaella De Laurentiis
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