Review of 'Dune'

dune.jpg Filmed in 1984, this is the first adoption of the Frank Herbert's Science Fiction classic novel “Dune” to the big screen by first time SF film director David Lynch who would go on to fame as the director of the cult television series “Twin Peaks”.

In the far future two houses of the “Landsraad”, House Harkonnen and House Atreides are at war with one another. Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer) and the Spacing Guild pit the two against one another for the incredible profit to be gained by harvesting the spice “melange” harvested on only one planet in the galaxy, Arrakis, also known as “Dune”. Duke Leto Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow) is given control of Arrakis by the emperor, suspecting there may be “plans within plans”, and this is proven correct when House Harkonen supported by the emperor's death troops, the Sardaukar, invade the planet, decimating House Atreides. The duke's son Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) escapes along with the duke's concubine Jessica (Francesca Annis) into the deep dessert where they meet the dessert people, the Freman, who believe Paul to be the long-sought messiah to lead them forward. With the second sight granted by his breeding by the ancient order of Bene Gesserit and the incredible effect the spice has on his powers, Paul quick gains power within the Freman while struggling to find his own way foreseeing that the path of Muad'Dib will be brutal, bloody and long…

I first saw this film in the cinema when it was released. At that point I had never read the book but I was captivated by what I had seen, I suppose, engrossed not only in the incredible spectacle but simply enjoying trying to make sense of it all. So much so that we stayed in the cinema to watch the next showing. A short time later I read the book and since then I have read all of the original Dune books by Frank Herbert along with most of the new Dune books by his son Brian Herbert and SF author Kevin J. Anderson. I have also watched the rather sterile Sci Fi channel adaptations Frank Herbert's Dune and the sequel [/reviews/film/sf/37|Frank Herbert's Children of Dune]]. So, what do I think of the original “Dune” movie going back and watching it now?

I have always thought this original film looks great with it's gothic twist on a high technology future: The ornate gold-festooned interior of the emperor's throne room, and the huge ornate gateway that ships pass through when boarding the spacing guild heighliners. It was quite a unique and quirky aesthetic that may have had little to do with what Frank Herbert intended but looked great on the screen. There is also the incredibly brutal violence and gore Lynch puts on the screen: The heart plugs in his young male servants that he unplugs and ravishes in their blood as they quickly die at his (floating) feet, the vivid picture of Paul's hand burning as he undergoes the Bene Gesserit trial, the image of a cat and house in a plastic box being given to a prisoner told he has to milk the cat to obtain an antidote for the poison he has been given…it goes on. These are all shocking images even today.

The film is incredibly hard to follow as it squeezes a large book down into a 2.5 hour running time (famously the first cut of the film was more than 4 hours long). Each short scene is full of exposition delivered at a rapid pace before moving onto the next. With the huge cast and massive narrative it is confusing to say the least.

The acting is, on the whole quite good though Sting as Baron Harkonnen's nephew Feyd-Rautha is so OOT that it hugely distracts. Nuanced he is not. Many of the cast will be familiar to modern viewers including, of course, Kyle MacLachlan as Paul who would go onto fame, much like the director (coincidence? I think not) in Twin Peaks. Patrick Stewart (of future Star Trek Next Generation fame) makes an early film appearance here as Atreides faithful Gurney Halleck. These are all big, dramatic characters with a unique screen presence that helps make sense of the confusing storytelling.

Finally, one of the best things I remember of this film was the amazing score by American rock band Toto who manage to really bring a dramatic sense to the film that moves it along at pace. In true classic film music tradition they develop themes for each of the characters that help the viewer in figuring out what exactly is going on as well as providing a dramatic background for the events on the screen. The score hugely lifts this film. Indeed, whenever I think of certain Dune characters and events even now the musical queues from Toto immediately spring into my head.

A very confused but vibrant and fantastic depiction of a book that they said could never be made into a film from a first time SF director whose avant-garde talents would be seen in the years to follow. To modern eyes “Dune” is quite kitsch and some of the effects have not really aged well (sandworms, spacecraft, etc) but it is still one heck of a ride.

Rating: “Nearly perfect, but not quite”

Review Date: 2021-10-24

Directed by: David Lynch

Studio: Dino De Laurentiis Company

Year: 1984

Length: 137 minutes

Genre: Science Fiction

Other reviewed films by David Lynch: