Here's a dichotomy for you: As entertainment, or an adaptation of a novel, or anything vaguely resembling a watchable movie, Dune just plain sucks -- but as some kind of freaky '70s-throwback movie-art head-trip experience, it's only paralleled even moderately closely by Alejandro Jodorowsky freakouts like El Topo. That Jodorowsky, the single weirdest director in the world, was originally tapped for the film and that David Lynch, the second-weirdest directory in the world, eventually came on board to replace him, makes a kind of perverse sense. A more workmanlike director wouldn't survive trying to get through a story this far-out; Dune needed someone as whacked as Lynch to even begin to get off the ground.
Well, they got off the ground, all right, and after three and a half years and $40 million the whole flaming Zeppelin went aground, hard. Roger Ebert hated the movie ("the whole thing looks like it's been left out in the sun too long") and the New York Times devoted an entire page or more, if memory serves, trying to say something nice and in the end helplessly admitting that it sure was one strange film. Even fans of the books were scratching their heads in complete disbelief at how weird the thing was.
It bombed, of course. The rest of the ticket-buying audience took one look at this thing, with its little handouts of terminology used in the film given to you at the theater door and its crazy baron who installs "heart plugs" in his subjects so he can rip them out and watch them bleed to death when they piss him off, and stayed far, far away. The fact that this was even in multiplexes nationwide, and not art theaters with hippie audiences lying down in front of the first row and giving everyone else a contact high, was just something else. Almost as good as knowing that Alan Parker's no-less-freakish Pink Floyd The Wall got pushed hard to the same megamall crowds as a "musical," and boy did they choke on that one, too.
And if the existing what-the-hell-is-this? aroma surrounding Dune didn't scare people off, the plot would do the trick in seconds. Eight thousand years hence, the various worlds of the Imperium are under the rule of the Emperor Shaddam IV. The most precious and important substance is "spice," a drug that allows people to move spaceships with their minds and turns their eyes blue when they take too much of it, sort of like marijuana in reverse. House Harkonnen, the family that controls the world on which the spice is found, Arrakis, are arranging to swap the ownership of the planet with their mortal enemies, House Atreides. We know the Harkonnens are the bad guys because their baron is big, fat, ugly, horribly diseased and played by Kenneth McMillan, while the Atreides duke is Jürgen Prochnow and his son is Kyle MacLachlan. (To top it off, the Harkonnen homeworld is like a cross between a slagheap and the machine shop in Lynch's earlier film Eraserhead, while the Atreides planet looks like the coast of Nantucket.)
Why do this? Because, you see, the Harkonnens can then attack the Atreides after they are allowed to take control of the planet, and get rid of both the duke and his son. The duke's concubine Jessica is a member of the venerable Bene Gesserit order of women, who for millennia have been attempting to breed a superbeing, only she wasn't supposed to bear him a son, just a daughter, because that goes against her strict instructions from her mentor, who comes to the Atreides house before they leave for Arrakis to test young Paul only to discover that he may be the Kwisatz Haderach that they have been laboring to produce all this time only they fear they can't control him and all this is not even 20 minutes into the movie, mind you.
The rest is MUCH more complicated.
Face it: explaining the plot of Dune to someone who hasn't been there is like trying to find luggage that's been through Heathrow. There are so many relationships, explained or unexplained, defined or just hinted at, that there's no point in keeping track of it all. (That may simply be due to the fact that it was trimmed down by about three-quarters of an hour from Lynch's original intended length; he disowned the longer 4-hour version edited for TV with the pseudonym "Judas Booth.") What there is in there, though, is maddening in its density. Every time I see the movie (an act which for other people probably qualifies as masochism but in my case is simply journalistic thoroughness), I spot yet another plot element shoehorned into the film sidelong, whether through a flash of an image or a throwaway line of dialogue. Most of the time in a film this isn't a bad thing, but because Dune is so conventionally insufferable, it's not the sort of discovery process you want to undergo repeatedly. Unless, of course, you're looking for something else, and the one thing Dune has in spades is, well, being something else.
The story also sports some of the most tongue-splintering names ever etched into a credit crawl (for that we can blame Herbert, not Lynch, actually): Thufir Hawat, Duncan Idaho, Gurney Halleck (that's Patrick Stewart, by the way), Feyd-Rautha (Sting, for God's sake!), and the Shadout Mapes (no, not just "Shadout Mapes," you goons, it's the Shadout Mapes, there's only one of her and she's played by Linda Hunt who was so wonderfully memorable as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously but here she spends half her screen time face-down on the floor gargling a death rattle with a knife in her back). Francesca Annis, Virginia Madsen, Kenneth McMillan, Dean Stockwell, Sean Young, an infant Alicia Witt (with a horrifically redubbed voice), Brad Dourif and Lynch regular Jack Nance also stumble through the movie at various times.
Movies like Dune are too unwieldy for actors to inhabit safely: they get chewed up and barfed back out. Some of the people deliver decent performances (Annis); some of them just ham it up (Sting, Dourif, McMillian), and some of them just grin and bear it (Stockwell, Young) despite being given the most unreciteable dialogue since Harrison Ford shoved his copy of the Star Wars screenplay back at George Lucas and growled, "You can type this shit, George, but you sure can't speak it." Come to think of it, most of Dune's dialogue consists of the sort of disposable pop-profundity ready-mades that seem tailor-made to be torn off and flung over the shoulder: "A man who can destroy a thing controls a thing." "Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens." "It is by will alone I set my mind in motion." If people are talking like this in the 110th century, I'm glad I won't be around to hear it.
The reason Dune is worth bothering with at all has nothing to do with the story, or characters, or even the various themes swimming through in the film like the motes of stardust dandling around in the big tanks of brine that hold the movie's "Guild Navigators" (people who took too much spice and mutated into giant brains and no longer have genitals; how's that for an anti-drug message?). Granted, there's a lot of thematic material peeled wholesale from the book's pages -- power politics, messiah complexes, drugs as the last great frontier of human experience aside from space travel, and overarching allegories to Western-fueled power struggles in the Middle East. It's all floating around in there, somewhere, and only those of us with the most stamina would dare lowering themselves into the film to bother fishing any of it out.
But none of that matters, because the real reason to watch Dune is because every single shot in the film is either staggeringly ugly, disgustingly lurid, achingly beautiful, or just too goddamned weird to even process correctly. It's an IMAX gawk-fest wedged onto a smaller screen, only the scope of the images is not always what makes them so jaw-dropping. Consider: Early in the film the Harkonnen baron holds court in a room with a shower system that has hot and cold running crude oil, and has all of his lackeys wear reverse orange mohawks. When he kidnaps one of the Atreides loy alists, he poisons him and gives him a sphinx cat wired into something that looks like an Isuzu diesel engine: as long as he keeps the cat a live by feeding and grooming it, the cat will produce the antidote. See, it's art, you don't have to know what it means.
What gives the film an additional flavor of out-there-ness is a strange shoddiness that runs through the whole film. Despite costing an insane amount of money, the movie looks amazingly grimy and patched-together. The huge sandworms that go plowing through the desert look like someone shoving dildos through a sandbox. Bad bluescreen and model work abound. The actors recite their lines woodenly while lost in giant, arabesque sets or struggling with junky-looking props. Individually, these things stink. But they add up to something, a feeling about the whole project that ultimately makes it weirdly fascinating.
Here's my theory: Lynch had started with the Dune novel as a springboard, and sure, there's enough of it there to keep the fans of the book busy, but probably figured, "Hey, the best way to make a movie about the future is to make it feel like it was from the future!" And if nothing else Dune feels like it was made by someone from that time period, talking to people in his own time period, using jargon and shorthand we don't get and images we don't connect with. It's visionary and transcendent and jolting without ever actually being any good, but how many movies do you know have the nerve to be that far-out? The best thing you can say about Dune is that it makes no concessions to play nice.
Dune was the first finished attempt to bring Frank Herbert's SF novel in front of cameras after several aborted tries. Jodorowsky, when he took his crack at the project, had the most amazing backing imaginable before the financeers decided to split en masse: H.R. Giger and Jean "Moebius" Giraud to do the set designs, Salvador Dali in a starring role as the Emperor, and either Pink Floyd or French prog-rockers Magma (both massive fans of the books, and both also pretty strange in their own right) to do the score. Instead, a decade later, we get Lynch, Anthony Masters (who?), Jose Ferrer, and, um, Toto. (Brian Eno had a hand in the score, too, but let's face it, even Brian Eno is not enough to save you from Toto. For that you need at least Alice Cooper.) For the lowdown and dirty on the whole story, go dig up The Best SF Movies Never Made and boggle freely: you can read there how Claire Noto's never-produced The Tourist -- which also was to have sported Giger's designs -- had its tour bus break down on the Universal Pictures lot.
Lynch survived Dune and has since gone on to mess with the collective head of his audience in both good and bad ways: his follow-up project was Blue Velvet, a movie that whatever else you could say about it was Lynch's defining film. Then came the wretched excess of Wild at Heart, the odd-for-oddness's-sake Twin Peaks, the compulsively uninteresting Lost Highway -- and then, back to back, two of his best films yet: Mulholland Drive and The Straight Story, the first one actually going somewhere with his jiggery-pokery and the other one telling a story so sweet and direct it almost feels like a different man is at work in it. But Dune was the first (and probably last) time he got to addle people 's brains on such a huge budget. And to such openly contradictory effect, too: Who else would build a throne room so opulent that the walls themselves seemed to be aglow with gold leaf, and then stick in it the phoniest-looking severed head this side of a Japanese ninja cheapie?
And yet, there's a part of me that is wonderfully jealous of both Jodorowsky and Lynch, actually, just for being near this project. The whole throwback / freakout feeling of Dune, messy as it is, has more loony soul to it than the well-crafted garbage currently befouling your local twelve-screen. There's also a personal angle to it: I always wanted to make a trippy, crazy movie using deliberately atavistic, '70s techniques -- shoot it with 1955 Panaflex cameras, build miniatures out of craft store materials, edit the whole thing by hand on a "Green Machine" and create the score using EMS VCS3 and ARP 2600 synthesizers. The problem is that DV cameras and computers are versatile and super-cheap, and that deliberate atavism is turning into a luxury that only the richest time-wasters can bankroll.
No, Dune isn't a piece of trash, but it isn't what they claim it is on the box copy, either. It's so unlike what it was intended to be -- an adaptation of the novel, an SF epic, a watchable film -- that you can't help but marvel at it. Call it one of Ones That Got Away, even from its creators -- like The Shaggs, or many of Ray Dennis Steckler's movies (which, cinematically, are the closest things to Dune aside from the aforementioned Jodorowskyisms), or maybe one of those flabbergasting Hong Kong mind-manglers like Wolf Devil Woman. It's an original, for better or worse. And one David Lynch's Dune is all we'll ever need.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind