Dune (David Lynch, 1984)
Was having a badly-needed spring clean of the hovel this morning, and I came across a whole stash of free DVDs from newspapers that I’d never got around to watching. One of these was a David Lynch. Eraserhead I found haunting, The Elephant Man a bit too liberals-patting-themselves-on-the-back, but mid-80s Lynch means Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks; i.e. absolute mastery. I’m no sci-fi enthusiast but I was keen to see what David Lynch did within the genre.
What can I say? Dune is bloody awful. Good things are the decor, costumes, some of the visuals, photography from English new wave titan Freddie Francis; even if there’s no fucking chance whatsoever that whatever life forms that are around in 8,000 years time are going to dress like dignitaries of the Hapsburg Empire with lovely blow-dried Nick Rhodes haircuts.
Bad things are… everything else. Here we have a series of epic novels compressed into a two-hour film, and it’s impossible to follow. Characterisation is one-dimensional, lots of ham acting, people are miscast, and worst of all it’s boring. Dog’s dinner of a film. About halfway through I consciously gave up on the film, and from then on I was just waiting for the end.
Apart from everything else, one of the odd tricks employed by the film is to mix up actual dialogue with the articulated thoughts of each character. For example, the Duke’s partner Jessica will ask someone “What happened to your wife?”. Then, her lips not moving, we will hear her say to herself “He’s hiding something from me!”. I can see what they were trying to do- create a multi-faceted world where nobody’s motives can be taken at face value. But the trick is intrusive, very distracting, and doesn’t quite work. Shouldn’t the actors be able to convey their thoughts and feelings through, er, facial expression and body language?
Not knowing what else to say, I’ll try my usual trick of talking you through the film. We start with a head-shot of a pretty girl, dangly earrings and her hair in Princess Leia buns, before an outer space backdrop. In a rambling monologue (“Oh yes, I forgot to tell you…”) she tells us that it’s the year 10191 and she’s the daughter of the Emperor wot runs this universe. More or less everyone depends on the spice of the planet Arakis, which “extends life” and facilitates space travel by allowing people to “fold space”.
Cue neo-classical titles. Gotta love the Albertus font. A robot voice outlines the geo-political situation in 10191 for us; there are four main species on four main planets, each of whom is playing the other three off one another, but they all have unfamiliar sci-fi names and we don’t quite grasp what’s going on. The Emperor supposedly presides over everything, but with the supply of spice under threat he receives a visit from the Spice Guild.
In a lavish, golden room whose decor is a Gaudi-esque imitation of coral reefs, lots of generals in nice uniforms confer. The Emperor (José Ferrer) murmurs to the Reverend Mother (Sian Phillips), a bald lady in Tudor costume, that “I shall want telepathy”. The room empties as the Spice Guild are announced- a lot of chaps in chemical suits surrounding a big black tank. In the tank is a gigantic blob (Geri Halliwell) that exhales red fumes. It resembels a massive brain with eyes, a mouth, and minuscule arms.
Blob tells Emperor that he’s not happy. Emperor reassures Blob that one of the planets was building a secret army to take over the planet wot the spice comes from, but he’s getting their rival planet to occupy Planet Spice. Blob tells Emperor he will be required to kill Paul Atreides, and for God’s sake be discreet about it.
The Atreides live on Caladan, a planet characterised by raging seas hurtling onto ragged rocks. Paul (a young Kyle MacLachlan, as rosy-cheeked as a Tory front-bencher) is sitting in a wood-panelled room, checking an astral map on a laptop, when in walk Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell and some bloke in furs with gigantic bushy eyebrows. Without turning he identifies the three by their footsteps. Lt. Gurney (Stewart) puts him through some sparring and we get 80s-tastic graphics, in which their limbs and torsos become encased by blurry, floating rectangles. Paul is going into battle soon and he needs to take his manoeuvres more seriously.
On Arakis, the spice planet, there are worms of up to 500 metres long; that’s where the Atreides lot are headed. Paul is put through his paces against a robot column that comes from the ceiling and has dozens of arms and swords. Lots of ducking and diving from MacLachlan. He steps outside to see his father the Duke. We establish that he’s the Atreides’ best man and much depends on him. “The sleeper must awaken”, urges the Duke.
Paul has a dream/premonition with views of Arakis, Sting laughing and vowing to kill him, and some girl. His mum Jessica lets the Reverend Mother into the palace and gets told off. She was told only to bear daughters to the Duke, so that the Atreides might be linked to their Harkonnen enemies by a political marriage, and she disobeyed. “You were my greatest student and my greatest disappointment”, mutters Phillips. She puts Paul through a test. He has to put his hand into a box that burns his flesh, and if he takes his hand out he will die. Paul passes the test and there’s some vague talk of him maybe being “the one”.
Over to Geidi Prime, home of the Harkonnen. It’s more industrial; scaffolding and lurid green light, rows of stormtroopers in gas masks. Everyone has ginger hair and their leader, the Baron, is a fat pantomime villain whose face is disfigured by hideous boils (get the feeling that there are goodies and baddies here?). He shouts and storms about like Leo McKern, levitating when he’s particularly excited. His aides are a few fat blokes and Sting, doing a decent pop-eyed Macolm McDowell impression. The Baron wants to control the spice and has a traitor amongst the Atreides who’ll help him.
Paul, his parents and a pug dog are leading a convoy of ships to Arakis. They enter the planet through a baroque golden doorway. Bit of incomprehensible, 2001-ish special effects. The Atreides take charge of the planet and have to contend with all the booby traps and suicide squads left by the Harkonnen. The Duke hears a report about the natives of Arakis, the mysteious Fremen. These are dudes with luminous blue eyes, and there are lots more of them left than they’re letting on and they could be helpful.
Soldiers queue for meagre water rations. Dr Eueh (Stockwell, with a comedy scouser perm and moustache) x-rays captured Harkonnen rebels and has an exhange with Jessica which idenitifies him as unstrustworthy. Paul is attacked by a flying needle that comes out of the wall, and a Fremen housemaid tips him off that there’s a traitor in their midst.
Paul & the Duke meet Doctor Kynes (Max von Sydow, did you really need the money that badly?) who has the blue eyes and shows them “still suits” for outdoor expeditions; they trap your sweat and breath, purify it and make it drinkable. There is no natural moisture on this planet. They go out in a buggy to see spice mining in action. Dr Kynes detects one of the giant worms that defend the spices nearby, and the Duke orders all the miners out. The worm destroys the mine, Dr Kynes is impressed at the Duke’s compassion.
Walking about the compound, the Duke is shot by Dr Eueh, who is our traitor. He’s disabled all their defences because of a personal vendetta. He has nothing against the Duke, and gives him a poison capsule for the inevitable moment he meets the Baron- it will emit a gas and kill them both. The Harkonnen troops attack, there are lots of explosions and battle scenes. Are we bothered?
The Baron shows up, spits in Jessica’s eye and orders his men to dump her and Paul in the desert, where the big worms will eat them. The Duke is conked out and uses his capsule to kill the Baron’s doctor by mistake. Jessica talks with a lion’s growl that hypnotises the toughs who are taking her and Paul away. They get control of the ship and land at the planet’s south pole. After a boring chase by a giant worm, they meet a colony of Fremen that includes the girl from Paul’s dream. Love at first sight.
To further transcribe this bollocks would be to waste your time and mine. Paul becomes a guerilla leader for the Fremen and they disable all the spice mines (“He who can destroy a thing, controls that thing”; is this an argument for the nuclear deterrent?). Jessica gives birth to Paul’s little sister, a telepathic five-year-old who dresses like a muslim woman. There are interminable shoot-em-up battle scenes, in which the obligatory rewrites of Holst’s Mars, The Bringer of War are spolit by grinding guitar solos being laid over the top.
Paul becomes some sort of Warrior Messiah (MacLachlan may be perfect for the unsure boy prodigy, but Warrior Messiah he is Not) who conquers everything and everyone, culminating with his defeat of Sting’s mockney punk rocker in a duel. It’s all silly, pompous, devoid of any characterisation at all, and with no apparent awareness of how meteorically silly it is. That Lynch was able to follow up this catastrophic, epic folly with Blue Velvet leaves me altogether bewildered.
Perhaps I should leave the last words, as does the film itself, to that telekinetic little sister; “And how can this be? He is the Quidzath Zaggurat!” That’s one thing to call him.