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"A World Beyond Your Experience, Beyond Your Imagination"

By Joshua Zyber
December 20, 2006

What is it about certain movies that can drive a person to obsession?

When David Lynch's film adaptation of Dune premiered back in 1984, it was released to almost universal scorn. Fans of the Frank Herbert novel upon which it was based despised it for daring to leave out a couple paragraphs of the author's verbose prose and changing a detail or two. (Oh no, the desert warriors now fight with guns rather than kung-fu the heresy!) General moviegoers lured to the multiplex by ads that promoted it as the next Star Wars couldn't make heads or tails of its complicated story, were bored by its lack of major action scenes, and had no idea how to interpret the filmmaker's stranger affectations. Roger Ebert declared it the worst movie of the year. Budgeted at over $40 million, it was one of the most expensive science fiction productions made up to that point. (For reference, the prior year's Return of the Jedi cost only $32 million.) And it was a tremendous box office bomb. For years afterward, any mention of Dune would invariably be in the context of biggest movie flops, categorized with the likes of Cleopatra and Heaven's Gate. Even to this day, the film is still considered by most movie-watchers a baffling failure. Its director has completely disowned it. 

None of that matters a bit. I love Dune. No, I adore Dune. I've watched it dozens upon dozens of times, in 35mm and on every home video format that has ever existed. I know the film on a practically frame-by-frame basis. I can recite major portions of the dialogue verbatim. I've amassed a sizable collection of memorabilia and merchandise related to it. Of the thousands of movies I've watched in my life, I would never be foolish enough to call Dune the best film I've ever seen, but it is my favorite. I have no shame about that, no matter how few people will ever understand it. The way some people are fixated on Star Wars or Star Trek, I am utterly, rapturously, obsessed with Dune

And the movie continues to reward me. 

The circumstances by which an eccentric cult filmmaker like David Lynch could ever be put in charge of a major science fiction production still seem impossibly unlikely. With only two features on his resumé at that time -- the bizarro midnight-circuit oddity Eraserhead and the stately black & white historical drama The Elephant Man -- the director found himself courted by no less than George Lucas to direct the then-titled Revenge of the Jedi. Lynch turned that offer down because he didn't want to work on a sequel to someone else's original material. (I suspect he wasn't too keen on all the teddy bears either.) Finding him available, Dino De Laurentiis promptly scooped Lynch up for Dune, a book that had already been through several failed attempts at adaptation by the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott. Lynch had never even heard of the novel at the time, but promptly devoured it and found many opportunities to bring his own vision to the universe Herbert had created. He accepted the challenge. After a grueling four-year production, the resulting film is certainly one of the strangest big-budget extravaganzas ever made. 

I'll be the first to admit that narrative coherency is not the picture's strongpoint. The Frank Herbert novel was quite long and very densely plotted, an epic tale of politics, religion, war, science, philosophy, environmentalism, and adventure. The movie attempts to cram all those elements into a 2 hr. 17 min. length and winds up greatly condensing many of the storylines. It drops the audience into the middle of Hebert's complex universe with insufficient introduction and little attempt to explain the reams of confusing alien terminology. Even the book needed a glossary to help readers navigate the likes of Mentats, Bene Gesserits, Gom Jabbars, ornithopters, crysknives, and the Kwizatz Haderach. The movie has no such handy reference that viewers can refer to. When the Fremen leader tells our hero to "take this Kiswa Maker Hook of our sietch", almost none of those words have been defined in proper context for the audience to understand. As if that weren't perplexing enough, characters often go by multiple names: the lead Paul Atreides is known as either Usul or Muad'Dib at different points in the story, for reasons not sufficiently spelled out here. If you aren't already familiar with the book, it's easy to get hopelessly lost. Some storylines are so compressed that the movie has to bridge them with frustrating and clunky voiceover narration. The major romantic subplot is covered in its entirety by the single line "Paul and Chani's love grew", as if that were all we'd need to know about why these two characters who just met are all of a sudden acting like they're married. And there's no avoiding the fact that the entire last act of the movie falls completely apart, from its indifferently-directed huge battle sequence to the absurdly anticlimactic final line. 

In terms of storytelling, the film is clearly a mess. But what a wonderfully rich, elaborate, and fascinating mess it is. To be honest, plot clarity has never held much interest for David Lynch. He's a visual artist, more concerned with evoking moods and atmosphere than exposition. His best films (such as Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive) can be argued to have little narrative logic at all, but work instead based on emotional logic. Scenes connect and stories progress because Lynch makes you feel them bind together, even when the puzzle pieces don't fit together easily. He's a filmmaker obsessed with details and textures, and tells his stories more through their arresting images than their dialogue. The director has never been much concerned with the mechanics of staging an action scene, but he's called upon to wrangle a couple of big ones here. The results feel disappointingly perfunctory; you can tell that Lynch just wants to get them out of the way so that he can skip ahead to the juicier character moments to follow. As you can imagine, this creates something of a conflict with the needs of the Hollywood studio system, especially when it comes to adapting an existing literary property with a huge fan base. 

Yet for all its failings of story clarity, Lynch's Dune is nonetheless a faithful adaptation of Herbert's novel, sometimes too faithful. It retains most of the author's arch dialogue, much of which is not inherently cinematic in nature, and tries to keep as many of the major subplots as it can pack in. The picture would have been better served as a movie if Lynch had been less faithful to the book and had streamlined out some of the less crucial storylines, even at the expense of upsetting the most fervent Dune fans. Lynch's attention to the nuances of character is a spot-on perfect replica of the book's. The movie's huge multi-national cast nails every role. The film may change some of the details of the plot, but it's always true to the spirit and intention of Frank Herbert's story and characters, a claim that cannot be made of the later cable TV remake/re-adaptation. (Some fans are under the deluded impression that the cheap-jack miniseries is more faithful to Herbert, even though it eviscerates the entire first 1/3 of the book and misinterprets all of the major characters. But that's an argument for another day.) Like the best adaptations, Lynch's film attempts to be more than just an illustrated version of the novel. The director brings plenty of his own sensibilities to the production. This is unmistakably a David Lynch film through and through. It's the little touches, like the Baron Harkonnen's repugnant facial sores, Beast Rabban ripping the tongue out of a cow carcass to munch on, or the cat with a mouse sutured to its back, that are pure David Lynch and some of the most memorable images in the movie. 

For visual imagination alone, Dune is wondrous to behold. Although the Frank Herbert novel was intricately detailed in story and character, the text was curiously lacking in visual descriptions. This allowed Lynch to step in and art-direct the hell out of the picture. The story spans four different planets, each with its own unique culture and history. As depicted here, each has been given an ornate and distinctive production design. The detailed sets and costumes borrow elements that span the centuries from classical Venetian architecture to contemporary industrial wastelands, fused together into a rich tapestry that imagines the future without looking gimmicky or "futuristic". The designs so perfectly fit the story that it's almost impossible to re-read the Herbert novel without picturing the Lynch film in your head. In discussing it, Frank Herbert himself said, "As far as I'm concerned, the film is a visual feast. I would love to have some of the scenes, as stills, to frame and have around me."

Unfortunately, some of the dated blue screen visual effects haven't aged well, and frankly some weren't very good even by 1984 standards. However, the models and miniatures tend to hold up, as do the lovely matte paintings. The use of foreground miniatures to add depth and scope to wide shots is still impressively seamless in many scenes. Fresh off his E.T. success, Carlo Rambaldi was brought in for creature effects; the Guild Navigator he built per Lynch's design -- a sort of giant wrinkled brain that floats in a tank of orange gas, with deformed dwarf appendages, bulging eyes, and a suspiciously vaginal mouth -- is one of the most freakily surreal monsters ever put to celluloid. Even at their least photorealistic, the images Lynch was attempting to create with the special effects are always intriguing. Force fields surround the Atreides soldiers in a series of connected blocky cubes that refract light in curious ways, rather than the expected glowing bubbles. The Spacing Guild heighlighners, massive cylindrical transport ships, "fold space" by miraculously appearing in orbit around a planet, silently and with little visible disturbance. Even the controversial Weirding Modules, the gun weapons that Lynch substituted for the hand-to-hand combat in the novel, fire not the typical laser beams but sound energy blasts that cause a target's molecules to vibrate explosively. (This effect is the least consistently or convincingly applied in the movie, sadly). And of course there are the sandworms of planet Arrakis, gigantic beasts that crush and devour all around them, brought to life via animatronic devices that usually look good in individual shots but somehow never quite integrate properly with the rest of the live-action footage. 

Despite some technical limitations, the intent of Lynch's imagery and the breathtakingly gorgeous photography by Freddie Francis make for a truly unique vision unlike any other science fiction movie before or since. It's a production of extraordinary scope and ambition, one of the few in the genre beyond 2001 or Blade Runner to have genuine intellectual ideas on its mind. Lynch's Dune is more art film than sci-fi action blockbuster, a fact that has only caused misunderstanding and disappointment for most viewers who've watched it under different expectations. General moviegoers wanted an action-packed Star Wars clone, Frank Herbert fans wanted a word-for-word perfect illustration of the novel, and David Lynch fans wanted something completely off the wall with no concessions for mainstream acceptance or popularity. Dune is not quite any of those things. It's a cinematic conundrum, and I find it absolutely beautiful and transfixing. 

David Lynch had a terrible experience making Dune, one that changed his entire outlook on the filmmaking process. Since that time, he has divorced himself completely from the movie, considering it the studio's property to do with as they please without his further participation. He's also turned down directing assignments that he hasn't developed himself, and has insisted on the right of final cut in all of his subsequent contracts. Coming out from under Dune inspired him to hone and perfect his next project, Blue Velvet, which would become his masterwork. If not for Dune, we wouldn't have Blue Velvet, or Twin Peaks, or Mulholland Drive as we know them. Commercial failure or not, Dune was an important step in the development of a filmmaking artist. 

I love Dune. I adore Dune. I consider Dune nothing less than a flawed, misunderstood masterpiece of the science fiction genre, one that's faced an unfair fight for recognition and respectability ever since its debut. 

"Long live the fighters!"

A note about the different versions of the movie:

The original 137-minute theatrical cut of Dune is David Lynch's one and only "Director's Cut". Without his participation or approval, the studio dramatically re-edited the film into an extended 3-hour version intended for TV syndication (with commercials, it ran 4 hours over 2 nights). Lynch has specifically disavowed any involvement with this version of the movie, which bears an "Allan Smithee" pseudonym for its director credit. Although it contains some interesting footage unused in the theatrical cut, the incompetent hacks who assembled this abomination padded its length with cartoon drawings, innumerable repeated shots, and fake scenes cobbled together with random shots stolen from other scenes. It is unbearably awful, and if that's the only version of Dune you've ever watched, you've never seen Dune at all. 

A myth continues to persist that somewhere in a studio vault lays a "4- to 5-hour rough cut" of the film. This is not true and has never been true. Lynch was under contract from the beginning to deliver a movie of no longer than 2 1/2 hours, and when it looked like he might run over this length was ordered by the producers to stop shooting subplots for the second half of the story. Those scenes never made it to film. The rough cut myth has been largely perpetuated by stories of a 4-hour cast and crew screening at the wrap of production. While there may be some truth in this, what would have screened at this event was a Rough Assembly containing every scrap of footage shot for the film strung together in approximate chronological order with little to no editing. All rough assemblies run 4 hours or longer because they include multiple takes, clapboard markers, flubs, and many duplicated takes of an action from different camera angles. Dune was never, at any point, going to be a 4-hour movie. 


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