To me, there are three types of movies. Those you love at first viewing, those you hate and first viewing and those you’re never really sure what to make of but that grow on you. David Lynch’s Dune fits into the third category. I’ll admit that, before seeing it I was intrigued by it’s interesting premise and the few images I had seen. However, my first viewing, like so many, left me scratching my head. The plot was dense and the film felt really hard to follow. However, upon repeated viewings it has grown on me. I’ll be the first to admit that Dune has some pretty serious problems (particularly in it’s script and editing) but that it manages to be an impressive mess nonetheless.
What is Dune?
Dune was originally a novel written by Frank Herbert in 1955. Dune, the film, is a 1984 adaptation of that novel directed by David Lynch. The first thing of note is that attempts to make a film adaptation of Dune had been going on as far back as 1971. However, due to the huge budget the film would require and a lack of confidence that a science fiction epic would pull in viewers, none of these attempts received the needed funding to enter full production.
One of the best known of these projects would have been directed by Ridley Scott with designs by H.R. Geiger. Even when the film didn’t get made, Scott and Geige stayed together on their own science fiction film, Alien, in 1979.
In 1981, after the success of Star Wars and Alien, Dune’s film rights were about to expire, so Italian producer, De Laurentiis, negotiated an extension with Frank Herbert that would include the book’s sequels (both written and unwritten). Laurentiis was impressed with the 1980 film, the Elephant Man, and hired director David Lynch to make Dune.
Lynch had been offered, at the same time, to direct Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, but turned down in favor of Dune even though he had little experience with science fiction and had yet to read the actual novel. The original plan was to divide the first book into two halves with each half being about 2 hours long, but the studio wanted the entire novel to be released as one film. After shooting but before the effects were added, the film ran about 4 hours, but the studio requested that the run-time be reduced to 2. After several major cuts, Lynch was able to get the film down to 2 1/2 hours, covering the events of the entire first novel.
What is Dune About?
Before I say anything else, Dune is a complex story exacerbated by the fact that that story is told in just under 3 hours. That, in a nutshell, is the biggest problem that the film has. I’ll admit that I’ve never read the original novel, so I don’t know how faithful the film is. However, I can say that the story here is interesting as long as the view makes the effort to follow it. I will advise that all viewers seek out the extended introduction. It’s a bit long but it covers much more information and doesn’t leave any important details out like the theatrical introduction does.
Dune takes place in the far future. Humanity has spread throughout the galaxy and is under the lead of Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV with each world being ruled by a leading house of nobles. At this time, the empire is incredibly dependent on a substance known as “The Spice” which, when taken, can be used to extend life and consciousness, opening the door to possible psychic abilities. Probably its greatest asset is that the spice can be used to bend the very fabric of space and allow safe, instantaneous travel to any part of the universe to the Space Guild. The problem is that the spice can only be found on the remote, uninhabitable desert world Arrakis, also known as Dune, where Giant Sand Worms rein supreme.
The Space Guild, sensing that the spice production may be at risk, approaches the Emperor demanding an explanation. He confides in them that he has a plan to eliminate the Noble House Atreides as he fears that the popularity of it’s head, Duke Leo, and rumors that he is building a secret army may threaten his rule. He plans to give House Atreides control of Dune, only to have their longtime enemies, the Harkonnens, ambush them with their own forces and the aid of the Emperor’s own elite forces. The Space Guild approves of his plan, but warns him that Duke Leo’s son, Paul, must die in the attack as he is having prophetic visions of his own destiny which, if they proved true, could bring about the end of the guild and the empire.
The order draws the attention of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a select all female group who use the spice to strengthen both mind and body to superhuman proportions, as Paul is tied to their longstanding breeding program. The program’s purpose is to create the long foretold super-being, the Kwisatz Haderach. Before Paul leaves for Arrakis, he is tested by the Bene Gesserit Reverend, Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, to see if his abilities indicate that he could be their superbeing. To her surprise, he passes the test.
When the Duke and his son arrive on Arrakis, time will tell what is to become of Paul and how his destiny will impact the known universe.
What Happens in Dune?
This is a really hard question to answer in such a short review. As stated above, Dune has an incredibly complicated story. Much like with Batman Returns, I had to leave quite a bit out of prologue just to keep it from being too confusing to the readers. That, in a nutshell, is one of Dune’s biggest problems. The second is that the writing, while never horrible, does seem to exacerbate the problem, particularly after Paul and his family arrive on Arrakis around the halfway point.
There are so many characters with so many diverse motives and connections to the plot that they can often blend together. Furthermore, dialogue, while it gets the exposition out, doesn’t leave a lot of room for character development, leaving a lot of work to the actors. For the most part, they all do a good job, but this fact did often leave me a little lost to who someone was, what they were after or just what the heck was going on.
I will say, however, that this problem is mitigated, somewhat, upon repeat viewings. My second time watching the film, I was stunned at how much better I was able to follow everything and how some of the dots fell better into place. I still had some unanswered questions, but I was much more eager to see the film again than I had been the first time. I still think that the writing and the screenplay could have used a few more rewrites with a few more writers with more experience writing science fiction. David Lynch is a fantastic director, but his weaknesses as the writer of a screenplay, especially one with as much depth and story as this one, are pretty apparent.
How are the Effects in Dune?
Here’s where we get to the good stuff, because Dune has some absolutely fantastic effects. David Lynch is a visual genius and I consider Dune to be the pinnacle of his career on that regard.
To begin, Dune’s sets are absolutely enormous and fantastically detailed and it really requires repeated viewings to really appreciate how fantastic everything looks. The architecture on each of the various planets looks distinct, but memorable and interesting. The homeworld of the Atreides looks almost like the designs from the Classical Russian Empire to me with something of a Winter Palace Vibe. The Emperor’s palace is gilded with gold and extremely detailed, while the mining stations on Arrakis look dusty and like something from the Industrial Revolution. However, easily my favorite sets come from the homeworld of the Harkonnen, which has a very dystopian, HR Geiger style look to it.
The practical effects in Dune also look great. The miniatures look well designed and believable, especially on Arrakis where the sand helps the effect. However, the real standout in the effects department are Dune’s Giant Sandworms which really are in a league all their own. Everything, from the way they move to the way they’re shot makes them feel massive and lifelike, as they should.
When I read that the effects in Dune were criticized upon release for looking “cheap,” particularly for it’s budget, I was pretty shocked. However, upon closer inspection I can see where the complaints came from. While the effects look pretty fantastic for the most part, the scenes using Blu-screen do seem a bit…off. I think it has to do with the focus and lighting of the foregrounds vs the backgrounds, but these scenes all look a unconvincing and, for lack of a better word, cheap.
Overall, though, Dune’s effects really are some of the best I’ve seen on film, right up there with Ridley Scott’s Legend from the following year. In fact, I thought that the visuals, alone, made the film worth seeing a second time, even though I didn’t really care for the film at first. They’re that good.
How is the Soundtrack in Dune?
Like the visuals, Dune’s soundtrack is phenomenal. All of the tracks are fully orchestrated. However, the music manages to feel incredibly distinct from other science fiction epics. It’s themes are dark and heavy, but never grating, and manage to fit the images on screen perfectly.
I guess another testament to Dune’s fantastic effects is that, for many movies with great soundtracks, the music far overpowers the images. That’s not the case with Dune. The music and imagery perfectly compliment and enhance one another. Truly an impressive feat.
How is the Acting in Dune?
For the most part, the acting in Dune is acceptable. The casting choices are all pretty good and I never felt that any actor felt out of place. I will say, however, that these actors may have been held back somewhat by the troubles of the script and the absolute exposition overload they had to dump all the time. Still, no one ever felt annoying or out of place and, in a film with so many characters, that’s an achievement in and of itself.
Is Dune a Good Movie?
To say whether or not Dune is a good movie really depends on what you’re looking for. As far as a story, it has some pretty serious problems. Don’t get me wrong, the story in and of itself is really interesting and thought provoking. However, how that story is told here is a bit of a mixed bag. Again, upon repeated viewings, all of the information you need is there. However, it’s also hard to follow and not laid out terribly well. In other words, if you view a film as a storytelling medium, Dune is not awful but is certainly flawed.
However, if you view film as a visual medium, I can’t really recommend Dune more. Not just the visuals but the cinematography and composition of the shots are truly something to marvel at. If you can look past some less than stellar mid-eighties Blu-screen shots, there really isn’t much out there better than Dune. The look and tone really are spot on.
On the whole, Dune is a bit of a mess. However, it’s an incredibly pretty mess. It’s easy to see why this film wasn’t received very well back in the day, but it’s also easy to see why it’s gained such a strong cult following. The fans, including myself, all admit that this film has some pretty serious problems. However, to the right viewer, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses and the film is easily recommendable. However, my advice would be to give Dune at least two viewings before passing final judgement.