Bad Ass Retro Review: ‘Dune’ 1984

I never got into Dune. Frank Herbert’s science fiction saga was either too dense or too convoluted for my young mind, and I was a restless child full of endless stores of energy. Dune just seemed dull compared to my childhood obsession, Star Wars.

But where books are easy to avoid, movies are more persistent.

When I was ten, my family moved from a small town to an even smaller town, and we were without cable for a handful of years. The antenna on the side of the house was highly unreliable (Dad had a pair of vice grips attached to it that one of us had to occasionally go out and turn to try and improve the signal). But this was the era of Home Video, and my family made it through those lean years in television desolation by stocking up on VHS tapes (it helped that my aunt ran a video store in a nearby town). Movies like Conan the Barbarian, Outland, The Highlander, Excalibur, and The Road Warrior were on regular rotation in our household. My dad had read all of Herbert’s books and was a big fan, so David Lynch’s flawed but interesting film adaptation found its way into our household’s looping playlist of Action/Sci-Fi/Sword & Sorcery films.

Even though I never really paid much attention to some of these films, my proximity to them allowed them a kind of unsanctioned audience in my impressionable mind, and as I grew older, some of them began to fire my maturing, teenage imagination. My love for movies like Blade Runner and Local Hero began this way. I realize now, of course, that if my dad was a fan of something, that thing had a better than average chance at securing my own interest at some point in time.

Despite all of that, I was slow to warm up to Lynch’s Dune. As a teen, I had become a huge fan of The Police, so Sting’s presence in the film acted as another potential lure, but I still found the SFX hokey and the script nonsensical. It would be some time before I would find enough patience and maturity to sit down and really give Dune a fair shot. Even then, though, my feelings were very mixed.

This will only Sting a little.

I rewatched Dune a few nights ago. I hadn’t seen it in years, and I thought it was about time to sit down with it again. The clunky SFX and overly-complicated mythology no longer barred my interest to it, and, in some ways, endeared me to the film even more. The set design for Dune is on par with that of Conan the Barbarian, Alien, and, in some ways, even Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Padishah Emperor’s throne room, House Atreides, and Arrakis Palace interiors are incredibly ornate, while the House Harkonnen interiors are sparse and industrial. The Fremen desert sets are even more sparse than the Harkonnen sets, but convey a completely organic feel, setting up a few of the film’s few parsable themes of nature versus technology and Man versus God.

The baroque throne room of the Padishah Emperor (played by José Ferrer).

Each of these sets, despite the accusation of being “alarmingly homogenous”, are, on the contrary, incredibly unique, thoughtfully-crafted, and, more than any other facet of the film, convey the differences between the characters and cultures who people each of these environments. As a craftsman, I can only imagine the work that went into building these sets. I had to pause the film, particularly in the scenes set on Caladan (home planet of House Atreides), to get a longer look at some of the wood-paneled interiors. The sets work so well, in fact, that they fade into the background and you hardly notice them. It’s a testament to the talents of the designers and builders of the sets and at the same time unfortunate, as the skill that went into these sets’ construction is trivialized by their successes.

The exterior miniatures are almost as impressive as the interiors. The architecture, environments, and ship designs are as unique as the interiors, and though some of the motion capture SFX are awkwardly-implemented and antiquated (even at the time when compared to film series like Star Wars and Star Trek), the awesome scale communicated by the model ships and buildings is at times breathtaking.

House Atreides arrives on the planet Arrakis.

As an aside, for this reason alone, this film belongs in a list of 70s and 80s science fiction films which perfectly illustrate the superiority of practical film effects compared with the CGI-drenched films of the last decade or so. Because these filmmakers were limited by what they could physically build or present through some sort of sleight of hand SFX tricks, these shots were used sparingly. I think this kind of filmmaking encourages the audience to engage its imagination in order to fill in the gaps left behind by these limited effects shots. In modern big budget films, directors can just describe what they want to see and have computer effects wizards create them. The only limit is the imaginations of the creators, which sounds great in theory, but it means the audience is no longer required to bring much in the way of imagination or intellect to the table. This can be impressive and satisfying in the short term, but I think it inspires less wonder and engagement from the audience with the material over time, and I think it’s why so much of blockbuster cinema spends so much time these days looking over its shoulder at the past. It’s trying to identify what about those films made them so enduring, but every director nostalgic for the movies of his or her childhood seems to miss what seems so obvious to me: The success of those pre-CGI films, their indomitability, isn’t strictly contained in the genius of the filmmakers themselves but is actually enshrined in the collective imaginations of generations of film fans. My opinion.

Giedi Prime, seat of House Harkonnen.

But back to the program.

Outside of the visuals, Dune sags under the weight of an unwieldy and utterly unintelligible script, uneven pacing, atrocious performances from accomplished actors and actresses, and ill-conceived ideas on how to convey the film’s complicated plot.

Frank Herbert’s Dune is dense. It, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, makes use of appendices flush with maps, a glossary of terms, and “reports” on the religion, ecology, and characters from the novel. To familiarize the audience with some of this information, Lynch’s Dune utilizes inner dialogue. In other words, the actors voice their thoughts in hushed tones, and these bits of audio are then clumsily edited into the film in between dialogue while characters stare into the distance with knowing looks on their faces.

It’s awful.

The acting, almost without exception (I’ll get to the exception), is frighteningly bad. Lynch somehow manages to turn genre favorites like Kyle MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart, and Brad Dourif into seemingly freshman thespians who deliver their lines with all of the nuance and subtlety of a fucking Death Star blast. The only actor in Dune in a starring role that manages to rise above the atrocious dialogue and inelegant direction is Kenneth McMillan as the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Harkonnen, at least as he is drawn on screen, could have been an utter disaster, a caricature of an S&M villain from a Mad Max film crossed with Archie Bunker. But McMillan plays him straight, never for a moment letting on that he’s playing at being villainous. His Baron is at the same time inept and terrifying and completely unsettling – his scenes alone are worth giving Dune a look.

Kenneth McMillan as the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.

When the credits roll on David Lynch’s Dune I couldn’t help but feel that the film was less finished than given up on. I still have no idea why Virginia Madsen is even in the film. Symbolism abounds but never seems to amount to anything.  Ideas are introduced and never explored. There’s something buried there in the fits and starts and gasping dialogue and goofy mythology, but it’s almost impossible to know what that thing is (if anyone figures it out, let me know, please). Almost all of the actors, at one point or another in the film, come across as if they’re reading for parts in high school plays. While the thinking behind their use is understandable, the inner dialogues of the characters (and MacLachlan’s dream sequences) are clumsily implemented, imbuing each scene with a kind of stuttering, staccato effect that kills any potential for the film to build momentum and suspense. The first half of the film slouches by while characters impart seemingly important pieces of exposition, and then, suddenly, as if coming to the realization that it has lost the race by a mile but must give the appearance of a strong finish, Dune sprints to a completely contrived and hackneyed ending, betraying even its own sense of itself. Dune is like a punk band that hisses and spits and sticks its middle finger up at the crowd only to apologize and slink off the stage at the end of the show.

Spoiler alert: the Chosen One saves the day.

As an adult cinephile, it’s hard not to watch Dune and feel at once disappointed and grateful that something so ambitious and strange and flawed can exist in the world of cinema. The thought that someone actually funded this beautiful monster and audiences spent money to look upon its twisted form is somehow perverse and encouraging at the same time. And there’s something to be said about a big budget genre film eschewing the dogma of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking in an attempt to do anything different. Dune is deeply flawed, roughly hewn, and full of inexplicable quirks, but it hearkens back to a time in mainstream cinema when even the most disastrous of failures could be looked back upon with some kind of appreciation.

  • William Dhalgren

    Thanks a lot, man.

  • Poppity

    That’s a good point, CParis. I actually hadn’t realised it was Kyle’s first performance. 🙂

  • Glad you’re back : )

  • This movie fucking rules and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. Come at me.

  • CParis

    According to IMDB, Dune was MacLachlan’s first film – so I’d give him a pass for an amateurish performance.
    As for the many veteran actors chewing the well-constructed scenery – everyone’s got bills to pay.

  • Read the books Joe!

  • Read the books. You’re in for a treat. I envy you.

  • Man, this was an amazing read. Seriously, after a crazy weekend I finally got to read this and man it was so enjoyable. You, Sir, as Sailor said, need to write effing more.

    Dune will always have a special place in my heart. The books more than the film, and I get where you’re coming from (I loved the piece on Hollywood looking over their shoulder) and I may not see eye to eye with you about this film, but this was my favourite line:

    Dune is like a punk band that hisses and spits and sticks its middle finger up at the crowd only to apologize and slink off the stage at the end of the show.

  • sailor monsoon

    Kids and their goddamn hip lingo

  • Is that what kids are calling it these days?

  • sailor monsoon

    Maybe we’re emailing each other about Dune.
    You don’t know

  • 2/$20. Picked up 1971 Beguiled as well.

  • William Dhalgren

    I saw a bunch of new comments on the article and thought people were discussing the movie. You got my hopes up talking about emails and hangouts and shit!

  • William Dhalgren

    I hope you got a good deal!

  • True. Hang me back when you get a chance

  • Dune is the shit.

  • sailor monsoon

    Yay.
    That sort of counts as emailing

  • I got a google hangout from you I think lol. I have to go on my desktop to view it. Can’t on mobile lol.

  • sailor monsoon

    Did i email you?

  • I bought it today because of this review.

  • DryButSoupy

    That’s a really good one, too. I probably stopped listening to his solo stuff around the same time you did. There were really strong songs on all those early albums. He’s always been a strong lyricist in my opinion.

  • William Dhalgren

    I can listen to The Soul Cages after all these years and still be haunted by those songs. That dude must have been in a lot of pain when he wrote that album.

  • DryButSoupy

    Sting did have some solid solo stuff, particularly early on. It was more influenced by jazz than his stuff with The Police, but I think Dream of the Blue Turtles is a pretty decent solo debut.

  • William Dhalgren

    The Police were my favorite band for a long time. I even followed Sting’s solo work up to Brand New Day. Finally got to see The Police in concert when they got back together (was that ten years ago?) and toured and it was such a letdown. They slowed so many songs down and Andy Summers might have been in a coma for most of the show. You never know what you’re gonna get on reunion tours.

  • Joshua Martyniouk

    I have seen this film once!
    I hate this movie so much and we need to roast this movie once Netflix makes a better movie of Dune!

  • Joshua Martyniouk

    I
    Fucking
    Agree

  • sailor monsoon

    This is true.

  • William Dhalgren

    Well, since you’re a film fan rather than a casual movie goer, I would definitely recommend that you give it a watch. The brilliant thing about watching movies at home these days is that you have Wikipedia and a score of other resources to help you sort through the noise and make sense of the plot should you need it. I think Dune is a kind of terrible masterpiece. A celluloid monument to grand ideas and imperfection and failure. How could you passs that up?

  • William Dhalgren

    Not at all. I think the point about LOTR being, at its core, a straightforward story is well-made. If you cut away all of the world building, you’ve got a quest story. I just think the same can be said of Dune, at least to some degree. Stripped of all of the strange names and political machinations, Dune is basically just another Chosen One story.

  • DryButSoupy

    Dune is one of those movies that I’ve seen small parts of but haven’t yet gotten around to watching all the way through, probably because of a lot of the criticisms you describe. As a youngster seeing trailers and parts of it on TV it seemed alien and fascinating and weird. But if I watched for very long I lost interest, always telling myself that maybe I needed to start from the beginning. But it never stayed with me as something I eventually wanted to invest the time in. The books have such a reputation as being masterpieces that I guess I just assumed the movie was as well. I never really even bothered to read much about it to see whether it was favorably reviewed or not.

    Your critique has left me thinking about it what I’ve always assumed…that it’s something that LOOKS like it’s worth watching but probably isn’t. But I must say, I still have the inclination to give it a shot..at some point…maybe.

    As an aside, I, too, was/am a big fan of The Police and Sting’s presence was a big reason for any attention I might have given to this movie’s existence.

    Thanks for the enjoyable read.

  • sailor monsoon

    That seems suspiciously like sarcasm…

  • William Dhalgren

    Love to hear your thoughts.

  • William Dhalgren

    I know my dad has seen it, can’t remember what his thoughts were on it, though. I’m not sure I care enough to give it a try. One day, though, I will finish that book!

  • Joe Newman

    I haven’t read the books either, but I have heard good things about the miniseries.

  • William Dhalgren

    You make really solid points, Sailor!

  • I’ll hunt it down.

  • sailor monsoon

    I think the mythology of LOTR is deep but ultimately it involves a guy throwing a ring into a volcano.
    If you boil it down, it’s not that complicated.
    Which is why it’s stood the test of time.
    It’s essentially a men on a mission story and those appeal to every generation.
    Dune does not only involve a lot of planets and different bloodlines, it’s really political.
    Hit that Dune wiki and try and decipher the madness.
    I think it’s far harder to adapt and would actually be terrible if we ever got a faithful adaptation.
    I like the Lynch one but i can’t wait for the Villeneuve version
    And still wish Jodorowsky got to make his

  • William Dhalgren

    I have the book here in front of me, and I’m not sure how it on its own could be more complicated than LOTR and The Silmarillion. In fact, having not read a single Dune book, I’m willing to stick it out there and say there’s no way it’s denser than Tolkien’s Middle Earth mythology. But your point about how Jackson and Co. broke the structure to make those films work stands, and that’s kinda what I meant. I think the same thing could be done for Dune. Again, as you said, I think you would lose a lot of the subtleties of the mythology to action and big budget spectacle, but it is what it is. Like I said, in the end, I appreciate what Dune is rather than what it might have been if it had hewed more closely to the typical blockbuster format.

  • sailor monsoon

    Yeah but LOTR was adapted by breaking it’s structure.
    The films are far more streamlined.
    Dune is like all 3 of those books combined plus the simillarion.
    It’s a lot of mythology.
    You would have to pick one plotline and focus on that.
    Kinda like the neverending story and akira, both of which only cover half of the source material.
    Lynch, like you said, created a spectacle.
    Regardless of whether or not the story works, the film should be praised for merging the over the top theatrics of stage musicals to the big budget aesthetic of Sci-fi films.
    It’s a crazy hodgepodge of ideas and it kinda works

  • William Dhalgren

    Aw, thanks, Duke. You guys are so supportive. Thank you for reading, bro. You should give this movie a look. Add it to your 80s required viewing and come back and tell me what you think.

  • William Dhalgren

    I still have not read the source material, so I’m not sure whether it can be adapted in a way that adequately represents Herbert’s intentions. I think if LOTR can be adapted, Dune can. As it stands, though, and not being a fan of the books, I think Lynch’s Dune holds some cultural value that it might not have done if it had been successful. It’s sort of a monument to queer spectacle. A throwback to the carnival freak show.

  • Y’all really making me up my game. I’m already gonna go hard with my AFI since the last 10 have been brilliant. And now this comes along making me reconsider how much effort I should put into my 80s reviews.

    Damn you Dhalgren and your brilliant work.

  • sailor monsoon

    Pros:
    Set design, costumes, and the scale
    Cons:
    I don’t remember the acting being bad (it’s been a while) but Dune can not be faithfully adapted. It’s overly complicated and so is this film. It’s the cinematic equivalent to one of those 10 dollar burgers at Carls Jr.(or hardees depending on where you live) it looks like a glorious, hearty meal but once you take a bite, 80% of the burger falls apart.

  • William Dhalgren

    Means a lot that you read all of my drivel, brother. Thank you.

    Now talk about the movie.

  • William Dhalgren

    It’s published here! Thank you so much for your sweet compliments, Poppity. Means a lot, for reals.

  • Poppity

    This is simply amazing work, William. Are you sure this shouldn’t be published somwhere? (This must have taken you ages!)

    I do not like Dune myself though my hubby loves the soundtrack. Kyle MacLachlan is indeed really bad in this and you wonder why he ever signed on for the nonsense. Perhaps he just wanted to be someone’s muse.

  • sailor monsoon

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