by Dennis Fischer
CineFan 3, Winter/Spring 1984/1985
David Lynch has done, by and large, an excellent job of condensing Frank Herbert's monumental novel while remaining true to it. The main problem the film has is that it should have been at least another half hour longer. It manages to tell the story of Dune in detail, each scene containing all the necessary information required and then springing to the next scene. Unfortunately, the story's characters suffer because of this. We do not get to spend enough time with them to get to know them and develop any strong feeling for them. Some characters, like Duncan Idaho, seem to be dropped like hot potatoes as soon as they are introduced.
Lynch presents DUNE as a story that Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) is telling, yet strangely enough omits Irulan's most important part in the story--that she is the one who marries the hero Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) so that he can become the new Emperor of the Galaxy. Ironically, she is wife in name only, for the love of Paul's life is Chani (Sean Young), his concubine, and their relationship echoes that of Paul's mother and father, Lady Jessica (Francesca Ann is) and Duke Leto Atreides (Jurgen Prochnow).
The current Emperor Shad dam IV (Jose Ferrer) fears the growing strength of the Atreides family, and so has conspired with their arch-enemies, the Harkonnens, to give them the planet of Arrakis (or Dune, as it is commonly known), and then attack them with the Emperor's elite soldiers, the Sardaukar, known far and wide as the greatest fighters in the universe. Lynch also adds a bit where the Guild Navigators (who have the monopoly on space travel) demand that Paul Atreides be killed.
And so the Atreides family must leave their home world of Caladan for the barren and parched world of Arrakis, the desert planet. The scene of the Guild Navigators 'folding space' is a bit too reminiscent of Lynch's wonders of the theater scene in THE ELEPHANT MAN, his most accessible and highly acclaimed film to date. Once on Arrakis, certain important details have been excised. The Shad out Mapes (Linda Hunt) has her most important scene taken away from her, that in which she gives Jessica a crysknife (made from the teeth of Dune's giant sand worms) and indicates her part in a prophecy which is to be fulfilled. The Fremen, of which Mapes is one, are the secret masters of Dune. Because of the harsh environment they live in and their subsequent discipline in adapting to it, the Fremen are actually superior to the Sardaukar as warriors, a point that the film neglects entirely. Instead, Lynch simplifies the matter by having the Atreides bring a new sonic weapon which will allow the Fremen to triumph after they have benefited from the knowledge of Paul's own rigorous training.
Lynch also mysteriously changes the meaning of Paul's Fremen name, Muad'Dib, from meaning "Mouse" (which the Fremen regard highly both as an example of desert living and as a constellation that helps guide their way) to meaning the shadow of the second moon", a poetic but meaningless explanation. He also ventures into the potentially ridiculous by making "Muad'Dib" a deadly name when shouted into Atreides sonic weapons. "His name kills," says one of the characters.
We never get a chance to understand Dr. Kynes, Imperial planetary ecologist and secret leader of the Fremen at the start of the film, or his dream to change Dune from a desert planet to a rich, water-laden paradise. The value and importance of water on Dune is not stressed the way it is in the book. Nor is the connection between spice--the drug that extends life has most of the Arrakis nobility addicted to ;t, and makes hyperspacial travel possible for the space guild--and the Giant Sand worms of Arrakis who manufacture the spice in their bodies.
In fact, the movie develops a particularly rushed, "we're running out of time so let's summarize and get to the climax" feel after Paul and his mother have been stranded out in the desert. This is unfortunate, as much of the most interesting portions of Herbert's novel occur during these parts of the story.
Yet, there is an area where Lynch's fidelity to the novel hurts the movie. In the book, much is made out of how Jessica and Paul are trained to read people's body language and gauge their inner thoughts. Examples of this are done by counter pointing speech with voice over dialog. The technique works very well in Herbert's novel, but is clumsy in the film and should have been re-thought. Still Herbert is very pleased with the translation of his novel into film, and well he should be, for the film does have the basic plot and retains much of the original book's dialog. However, one of the most effective characters in the film is the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, played by Kenneth McMillan who appears to have insisted on some changes in his dialog. McMillan retains the basic aspects of the book's Baron, a perverse, mono-maniacal despot with a weakness for sexually abusing young boys, but adds original touches of looneyness.
In the book, the Beast Rabban is Simply an overly oppressive ruler and he is not given much characterization. Paul Smith expands him into a sadist who greatly enjoys his work. Rock musician Sting has a small part as the Baron's favorite nephew, Feyd, who has an unexplained fondness for wanting to kill Atreides. Sting performs well, but it s not the major role his fans have been led to expect by the money hungry promotional department who saw the rock star as a big potential draw. In the book, Feyd is shown to be very clever and devious, aspects which make his bloodline very important to the gene Gesserit who were hoping that Jessica would bear a daughter to the Duke instead of the son he wished for. The film dispenses with his plots against the Baron.
The film lacks the kind of awe, admittedly very hard to achieve, that a film like 2001 generated. Its special effects are occasionally flawed and often appear rushed, particularly in a scene of an ornithopter landing which clearly has a different grain than the other elements in the same shot. Tony Masters' wonderful designs, though, are worthy of the highest praise and ought to win him a much deserved Academy Award. Freddie Francis is one of the world's best cinematographers, but while his work is good here, he's not at the top of his form, though the film is quite finely photographed. The cast is very well chosen, except that Everett McGill lacks the forcefulness and charisma required as Stilgar and Sean Young looks her worst in the scene where Paul calls her the most beautiful woman he's ever met.
Undoubtedly, while not entirely successful, DUNE is one of the most ambitious films recently created and I suspect that the film will develop a small but hard-core group of admirers who will make it a science fiction perennial for many years to come.
Dune | David Lynch main page
© Mike Hartmann