WTF Case File #170: Dune

WTF Case File #170: Dune

I am at best a casual fan of fantasy and science fiction, genres that engender such obsessive fervor that casual fans barely qualify as fans at all. In the A.V. Club geekosphere, it almost seems heretical to feel lukewarm to mildly positive about franchises full-on cultists turn into the core of their existences, series with magical names like Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, and The Lord Of The Rings. 

When it comes to these genres, I’m a commitmentphobe. I just don’t have the patience or the time to commit myself to understanding the nooks and crannies of the mammoth universes these franchises inhabit. I get turned off by elaborate mythologies and convoluted plots. It’s not that I feel I’m too good for this kind of genre fare; if anything, I’m not good enough, since I tend to get easily confused.

That’s why I’ve been reluctant to delve into David Lynch’s notorious 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s franchise-launching novel Dune until now. It felt too much like homework. Sure enough, within 10 minutes of popping in the movie, I felt like one of those old people at movie theaters who irritate their fellow film-lovers by poking their partners and loudly asking, “Who is that person? What’s going on now? What’s the connection between that person and that other person, and where are they going?” I needed a cheat sheet for Dune, or at least a Cliffs Notes guide of some sort.

Science-fiction tentpole films are disadvantaged from the start, in that they need to hook audiences in emotionally and offer plenty of eye-popping spectacle while simultaneously revealing the rules and conflicts of fantastical new worlds. That’s especially true of Dune, which devotes much, if not most, of its running time to explaining just what in the hell is going on at any given moment, yet proves incomprehensible most of the time nonetheless. Yes, it’s death by exposition as Lynch fights a losing battle to streamline an endless science-fiction classic into 137 minutes of even semi-coherent blockbuster entertainment. 

Bringing Frank Herbert’s novel to life was a Herculean task that had already defeated such formidable directors as Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott. Jodorowsky was set to adapt the film in the mid-1970s, with design assistance from H.R. Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud, music by Pink Floyd, and a prospective cast that included Salvador Dalí (who agreed to play the emperor for $100,000 an hour), David Carradine, Orson Welles, and Gloria Swanson. It is a testament to just how mammoth an undertaking Dune had become that Jodorowsky’s adaptation, which burned up $2 million in mid-1970s pre-production costs before dying, was to run 10 to 14 hours.

Next, Ridley Scott took a crack at the project, but left to direct Blade Runner, a film that seems to have drawn heavily on his and Jodorowsky’s plans for Dune. (Jodorowsky also felt, perhaps not unfairly, that Star Wars “borrowed” from his Dune storyboards.) The project then somehow fell into the hands of an eccentric young filmmaker with two strange, small projects under his belt: a weird little AFI-funded arthouse oddity called Eraserhead, and The Elephant Man, a gorgeous biopic of Victorian medical oddity Joseph Merrick.

Heaven knows what attracted David Lynch to the project, since according to Cinefantastique, he hadn’t read the novel, and didn’t even know the story. Yet he signed on anyway, and committed roughly three years of his life to directing a movie whose daily outlay for bottled water was probably more than Eraserhead’s entire budget. It consequently fell upon a filmmaker not particularly interested in linear stories to make sense of a mammoth, insanely complicated tome for a mass audience. He did not succeed, to put it mildly.

Dune begins, depressingly but predictably, with an opening orgy of exposition that explains and explains and explains without fully explaining anything. Virginia Madsen—at the height of her ethereal beauty—is cursed with facing the audience directly as some sort of space-princess lady and explaining an elaborate mythology about a mysterious spice known as mélange, which expands consciousness, has the power to “fold space,” and is crucial to space travel. It is, in other words, the essence of the universe. Imagine a cross between hemp, oil, and manna.

Within the first three minutes, I was desperately confused, but the exposition had only just begun. After Madsen’s Dune For Dummies introduction and the opening credits, we’re schooled further with even more information about the planets Arrakis, Caladan, Giedi Prime, and Kaitain, and their complicated relationships with one another.

In the early going, Lynch’s unparalleled gifts as a creator of haunting images help obscure the film’s incomprehensibility. There’s a stunning scene in the early going where space emperor José Ferrer consults with a beastie that looks like Jabba The Hutt turned inside out, and communicates through what appears to be a moist, fleshy vagina.

Lynch fills the frame with phallic and vaginal imagery, creating an alternately dark, dirty, and sun-blasted world full of Eraserhead’s groaning industrial noises and pervasive grime. He also isn’t averse to borrowing from Star Wars’ appropriation of Leni Riefenstahl’s aesthetic during certain crowd scenes. Some of the film’s sequences have the disconcerting power of a waking nightmare, like this sequence, where Kenneth McMillan, an effete, deranged baron with plague-like boils all over his face, an omnivorous sexuality, and antigravity boots, floats ominously.

From what I was able to deduce, Kyle MacLachlan plays the son of Jürgen Prochnow, a powerful, beloved duke. MacLachlan possesses messianic powers such as the gift of prophecy, which makes him a threat to Ferrer, McMillan, and various other outer-space heavies. So Ferrer and his minions hatch a sinister plan to murder Prochnow and trap MacLachlan’s people by giving them the spice-producing planet Arrakis, then arranging for them to be ambushed by their longtime enemies, the Harkonnen. 

I should probably concede at this point that I’m relying on Wikipedia’s summary of the film for background, since I had no idea what was going on. I felt like I was failing a test I didn’t know I had to take. To me, the film largely consisted of grotesques reciting alternately portentous or exposition-heavy lines in a solemn whisper that may have been internal monologues or some form of telepathy. 

Dune is rife with biblical overtones: MacLachlan’s messianic figure, for example, bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Moses, and also a carpenter who had some crazy ideas about peace and love. MacLachlan helps realize his destiny by traveling to Arrakis to teach the mysterious Fremen how to defend their home planet from outside invaders and from the giant sandworms that patrol the surface and seriously fuck up tourism.

Dune’s plot is so comically convoluted that Lynch is sometimes reduced to having characters repeat vital information over and over for the sake of dullards like myself, such as in this scene, in which a traitor played by a beetle-browed Dean Stockwell (two years from re-teaming much more memorably with Lynch on Blue Velvet) repeatedly tells Prochnow to remember to use his poisoned tooth to take out an enemy. Consider this clip exhibit No. 1 from the film’s marathon game of Exposition Theater:

Elsewhere, Lynch, who foolishly imagined he’d be allowed to make a three-hour film, was forced to condense years’ worth of events and plot machinations into tidy little montages, as in this clip, which summarizes two years of frenzied activity in a little more than 30 seconds of unsatisfying voiceover narration. 

Lynch assembled a cast full of heavyweight British thespians, then saddled them with impossible dialogue and alternately underdeveloped and cartoonishly broad characters. Early in the film, for example, Patrick Stewart, playing MacLachlan’s mentor/trainer, responds to his young charge’s excuse that he’s not in the mood to train: “Mood’s a thing for cattle and love-play.” I can’t begin to fathom what that means, or why Stewart is interested in love-play involving cattle in the first place.

As a sort of final insult, the film closes with end credits redolent of telenovelas, rather than would-be box-office smashes. 

Dune is exhausting from the get-go. The only actor who emerges from this mess unscathed is Sting, who lends a sneering charisma to the scene-stealing role of a warrior who suggests a cross between Sid Vicious, a glam-rock peacock, a male stripper, and Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. The film could use more of the sleazy energy and snarling enthusiasm he brings to the role—or any energy whatsoever, for that matter. Three esteemed filmmakers tried to transform an iconic novel into a blockbuster, and the only damn thing about the film anyone seems to remember are some cool-looking sandworms and Sting strutting around in a metallic codpiece my colleague Tasha Robinson refers to as his “Hawkman Underoos.”

Dune thoroughly defeated me, as it did Lynch. In hindsight, the project was more suited to the strengths of Ridley Scott, a filmmaker adept at telling engaging stories on giant canvasses, than Lynch, who has never had much use for clear narratives, special effects, or epic spectacle. Dune needed a craftsman with a steady hand and solid commercial instincts, not a mad genius. With Dune, a brilliant iconoclast got crushed under the weight of blockbuster machinery. Thankfully, redemption waited just around the corner in the form of 1986’s Blue Velvet, a film that found the maverick filmmaker on slightly more comfortable ground. 

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco

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