Welcome to the fourth installment of No Sacred Cows, where, in theory, I, The Bearded One, explain all the flaws in geekdom’s classic movies. Except that, of course, I’ve done that once, with Blade Runner. Then I did a modern movie, Star Trek 2011. Then I demonstrated I could be really mean by going after Epoch, a made for TV POS which was surprisingly fun. So you know I’m not good at following rules, even ones I made up… which is why, instead of doing a beatdown on Godfather like I’d intended (I still can’t find the DVD) or Equilibrium (I left those notes around here somewhere)… I’m going to tack on a fourth version of this column, where I defend a movie I really like. Now this isn’t about telling you why a bad movie isn’t so bad, although that’s part of it. Mostly, it’s about explaining why a movie you may have thought wasn’t very good was in fact brilliant.
And to start it all off, I’m going to begin with a movie that was absolutely panned by critics and failed at the box office, DUNE. First off, let me set this up right. Dune is, and has been since the moment I saw it in the theaters at the tender age of 8, my favorite movie. I love it. Not only did I manage to wear out at least two videotape copies of it, I wore out a DVD… I didn’t even know that was possible. I have watched DUNE, in whole or in part, at least two thousand times. I played the entirety of Final Fantasies VIII, IX, X, and XII with it on in the background, on a loop (Final Fantasy VII was played with The Voyage Home on a loop). I cannot express how perfect I think this movie is… and before you ask, I read the book after seeing the movie, and since that time the novel has been my favorite as well. I’ve read three copies to dust. I read it once a year these days. That said, No, I’m not a huge fan of the series. I think Dune is outstanding and the others are hit or miss, with the prequels being, by and large, just as good as the sequels.
Criticisms of Dune are many and are largely divided into four groups: The “It’s Ugly”, “It’s Mean”, “It Takes Itself Too Seriously”, and “It’s Confusing” camps… plus, of course the group who say “It’s Not Like the Book!” I’ll tackle these points one by one, but let me first say, to those who think Dune is confusing, “Suck it up, buttercup. Good Art is supposed to make you think. If it didn’t, it’s not Good Art, it’s Pop Culture.”
To those who think Dune is an ugly movie, you are right and you are wrong. It is, at times, utterly horrific, grotesque, and alien. It features a hugely fat man covered in motor oil with sores all over his face luxuriating in the pain and suffering he causes. It features strange prosthetics, way too close close ups, and over everything is a red layer of spice sand. The Vessels and Navigators of the Spacing Guild are alien, inhuman, and nothing like we expect spaceships to be. It is, in every way, not Star Trek… and I think that was the big problem a lot of the critics had.
Before Dune, space travel had been depicted as incredibly clean and very earthy. Star Trek led off the bunch, but shows like Space 1999 and the original Battlestar Galactica, as well as movies like 1968’s 2001, 1977’s Star Wars, and even 1979’s Alien in all it’s horrific detail still featured clean spaceships with things that were recognizably Earth in origins. Dune… wasn’t. It was baroque. It was dark. It was moody. It wasn’t idealized, or glamorized or vulcanized. It wasn’t a glorious future or a wondrous past. It was just what it was, and the sound was incredible, it rumbled and hummed in the blood. If you haven’t seen it in 5.1 surround, do so, with the lights low and nothing to distract you. There are palaces and armies and mutated humans and gigantic, awe-inspiring sandworms. It was the Game of Thrones in Space… three decades before The Game of Thrones. And it wasn’t camp. Nothing, absolutely nothing in the film backs down from Herbert’s vision of the distant future.
David Lynch’s masterpiece (and despite the fact that he’s not thrilled with the movie, I think the rest of his stuff is overblown dross and can’t stand any of it) pulls absolutely no punches. Could it have been better if Lynch had final cut? Don’t know, don’t really care. What’s on screen is stunning. The longer version wouldn’t have had the opening, wouldn’t have had the interior monologues, and that to me would have been a shame. I know of no other film which does it, letting us the viewer in on the thoughts of the characters. It’s a brilliant translation of something you get to see in novels but never in movies. The titanic set pieces with their incredible architecture, combined with matte paintings to make the environments truly come alive, hundreds or thousands of extras, and exquisite costuming bring the world of Dune to life in a way few movies ever manage. I’ve never believed the world I saw on screen was realer than I did with Dune.
Is it at times a little ridiculous? Perhaps, but it never pauses to reflect on it and it is never self conscious of being over the top.
To those who accuse the film of being “Mean”, they’re usually talking about the Baron Harkonnen’s actions and how he acts, claiming it’s somehow homophobic to portray the evil, ghastly monstrous toad as homosexual. I’m not going to get into a long debate here, but having a badguy who’s a homosexual is no more homophobic than having a badguy who’s italian is racist. It is clear that the Baron Harkonnen is not evil because he’s attracted to pretty young boys. He’s evil because he’s evil, and one of the ways in which he is evil is he’s a gigantic sadistic hedonist, which includes any number of tastes, both normal and horrible. And his death at the hands of the tiny Alia and her Gom Jabbar is simply fabulous. Perhaps those who think Dune is too “Mean” are saying that because practically everyone gets killed, often in fairly horrible ways. If so, that seems to be in fashion today so I guess Dune was just ahead of its time.
For those who say the movie is so unrelentingly serious they can’t help but find it funny or a mess… I can’t imagine why. All period pieces have to embrace that level of seriousness. Does anyone call Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments into doubt when they deal with serious matters in a serious fashion? Not in the least. Yet, at that time, and to a certain extent even today, we somehow expect science-fiction to be less serious? I don’t think so. Verisimilitude is the hallmark of excellence, and Dune is the freaking War and Peace of Sci-Fi.
Finally, we come back to those mental lightweights, yes I’m talking to you, who think the movie is confusing. It’s very simple and spelled out for you in nice easy steps. “A beginning is a very delicate time. Know then that it is the year ten thousand one ninety one. The Known Universe is ruled by the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam the fourth.” From that moment, from the moment Irulan’s face appears on screen, you are drawn into the film. She tells you everything you need to know, summing up the entire setting and plot in a little over 1 minute and a half. The Credits, superimposed over howling desolations of windswept sand dunes to music written by Toto and Brian Eno, should blow you away. It’s glorious. That is followed up by quite possibly the most useful infographic in movie history. It lays out the four planets that are central to the Plot “Arrakis, Caladan, Geidi Prime, and Kaitain”, then tells you why each is important “Source of the Spice, Home of House Atreides, Home of House Harkonnen, Home of the Emperor of the Known Universe”. In 2 minutes, anyone paying attention should know most of the background they need to know. “The Most Valuable substance in the Universe is the Spice Melange. The Spice Extends Life. The Spice Expands Consciousness. The Spice is Vital to Space Travel. The Spice exists on only one planet in the entire universe. The Planet is Arrakis, also known as Dune.” On Dune live the Fremen. They have a Prophecy that a Messiah will come to them. One does. Wow, didn’t see that one coming.
The casting is nearly perfect, even when you include Sting as Feyd and Brad Dourif as Pitr, who are, yes, over the top and chew the scenery… but in a fun way. Even the final credits fascinates me with it’s originality. It shows the cast, with their images in alphabetical order while the Prophecy Theme plays as if to remind you of who and what you just saw.
Anyway, the last complaint is in how the movie differs from the book, primarily in the differences between the two versions of the Weirding Way. In the book, it’s a form of martial arts, in the movie it’s a form of sonic weapon. There’s a good reason for this. Establishing a martial art as superior to another fighting style requires a lot of explanation and screen time. Since the movie was limited to essentially two hours (and even the four hour script couldn’t have done it justice) it was a lot easier to create a sonic weapon which can be demonstrated in 20 seconds of screen time. Everything else is just silly harping. The fact of the matter is that few movie adaptations are anywhere near as faithful to the original as Dune is.
What I love best about Dune is the passion, the absolute dedication that everyone involved had to the project. Everyone, even Kyle MacLachlan who was really too old to play Paul, does a spectacular job and, despite often quite difficult and tricky dialogue, they never do one iota less than their absolute best. And nothing looks fake… sure, there are some weaknesses in Special Effects brought on by the passage of time, but quite frankly, the animatronic Worms and Navigator look more realistic to me than the CGI ones of the miniseries. The slightly wonky movements make them look alien and bizarre instead of fake.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Dune, what makes it stand out the most is that quite frankly no other movie is comparable. Nothing else on it’s scale has ever been attempted. The closest are James Cameron’s Avatar or The Chronicles of Riddick, both hugely ambitious sci-fi films with massive set pieces, highly stylized settings, and a cast of thousands, but both ultimately fall short because their stories are smaller and more action centered.
I love this movie. Not a single scene would I change (although I might add back in some of the deleted scenes). I might make sure that Brad Dourif knew how to pronounce “Landsraad” without sounding silly (the first d is supposed to be unvocalized, making the word sound more like “Lansraad”, but it’s a minor thing.) And I would have given the Stillsuits hoods, even if they were always shown pulled back, just because it’s silly that they don’t cover the heads at all… but other than that, my only complaints are that Gurney Halleck (played by the excellent Patrick Stewart) and Duncan Idaho don’t have enough screen time… and there are a few lines I’d change. Predominantly “Atreides patrols were doubled.” (doubled from what?) and “That language, translate it. Harkonnen!” (Harkonnen’s might, might, have their own language, but it’s never shown in the movie, so it comes across as weird.) and the way Booby Traps are called “Sabotage Devices” bugs me a little. But, as I’ve stated before, no movie is perfect and if my most serious complaints are about minor lines of dialogue…
I honestly can’t recommend any movie more than I do DUNE… but watch the original theatrical version before you watch the extended version. The extended isn’t very good… in fact David Lynch had his name removed from it. And if you think it couldn’t have been worse, you’re wrong. At one point, Alejandro Jodorowsky was attached to the project, and he essentially wanted to throw out the entire plot of the book and cast Salvador Dali as the Emperor… Salvador said okay, as long as he got a solid gold toilet as his throne. So, yes, it could have been much worse. But what we got wasn’t bad. In fact, it was damned near perfect. Would I like to see a remake? Maybe, but what I’d really like is a remastered copy of this wonderful movie… and a Dune-Cat.