Menu

user avatar

Schlock & Awe: DUNE

Sometimes you hear things about movies and you just kind of take them for granted. Lots of people say Citizen Kane is the best movie ever made, and even if you haven’t seen it, you can just say, “Oh yeah, Citizen Kane‘s the best movie ever made,” without much context for it. And then you actually watch Citizen Kane and you’re like, “Damn, this actually IS the best movie ever made.”

A similar thing happened with me concerning David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The movie is one of the most notorious disasters in sci-fi history, and Lynch himself has all but disowned the picture. Recently, I saw the brilliant documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune about Chilean surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to make the “unfilmable” novel into a film, and I, who has never read anything in the Dune-verse, was sufficiently intrigued enough to seek out the Lynch version. And guess what; it’s just as incomprehensible as everyone said, and probably even more so.

Jodorowsky had been trying to get Dune made in the pre-Star Wars 1970s and a lot of his ideas would have been revolutionary had the film actually come to fruition. By time it was actually made in the early-1980s, it was yet another attempt by Italian mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis to cash in on the space opera craze Star Wars created. In 1980, of course, he got the Razzie-winning Flash Gordon made. While Dino served only as executive producer, his daughter Raffaella was the on-hand producer for Dune. To handle writing and directing duties for the incredibly dense source material, they handed it to Lynch, who had only made Eraserhead and The Elephant Man prior to this.

Dune 7

I should point out yet again that I’ve never read any of the Dune novels, and the version of the film I watched was the Theatrical Cut. I understand there’s an extended version which is longer and explains more, but I also hear it uses production photos and drawings since lots of it weren’t ever filmed. That might be nice for Dune fans, but I’m talking about a sci-fi movie, so the cut that people saw at the time is the one I care about. As such, I had next to no idea what was actually going on, especially toward the end of the film. However, I will attempt a brief synopsis for those who have no foreknowledge. There’s also a good five minutes of spoken-to-camera prologue and world set-up by Virginia Madsen as Princess Irulan, a character who doesn’t even show up until the end of the movie, to guide us plebs.

Dune 4

Way out in space, there are aristocratic houses that rule various planets. They’re all designated as “House _____,” just like in Game of Thrones. One of these planets produces a very important spice called melange which powers most of the galaxy’s stuff. Most importantly, this spice allows for “folding space,” a way for spacecraft to travel excessive distances without ever moving in physical space (a pretty weird thing to invent, it has to be said). The Emperor of the galaxy (played by Jose Ferrer) senses a threat to his throne by the leader of House Atreides, Duke Leto (Jurgen Prochnow), so decides to stave it off by giving him control of the planet Arrakis, a/k/a “Dune”, the only planet that produces melange, and then having the Atreides’ sworn enemies, House Harkonnen, attack and kill them. While all this is going on, the Duke’s son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) is learning how to be more awesome and has some ability, that his mother also shares, to persuade people using a deep monster voice and then he eventually teams up with people who live on Dune whose eyes turn bright blue and fights back against Harkonnen and the Emperor.

Dune 8

Okay, that’s fairly complicated, but it’s not the hardest thing to figure out, right? Well, you’re forgetting that we’re talking about David Lynch here, who goes out of his way to make things as muddled and oblique as possible. I was with this movie for about the first hour (of its 2 hrs 17 min runtime), or as much as I could be, but by the midway point, I was lost like so much sand on Arrakis. It doesn’t help matters that probably 55% or more of the spoken words in this film are internal monologue. We hear the thoughts of every character, not just our lead, and a lot of what they think to themselves could and should be inferred from facial expression. Parentheticals are for the actors to know, not for the audience.

Dune 2

The other problem is that characters will say lines that I guess are meant to have meaning but they don’t because we’ve never known what they’re doing in the first place. At one point, Paul triumphantly says “The sleeper has awakened,” and there’s a musical cue to punctuate it. This prompts me to ask several questions: Was the sleeper ever in danger of not awakening? Is the fact that the sleeper has awakened a good thing or a bad thing? Who is the sleeper and why is he awake? Another example comes at the end of the film after Paul has defeated his sworn enemy that he’s only just met Feyd Rautha (Sting. Oh yeah, Sting is in this movie) and then the little girl with an adult voice who is apparently real powerful says, “And how can this be? For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!” Oh wow! So Paul’s the Kwisatz Haderach? Good for him; he really deserves to be the Kwisatz Haderach. WHAT THE FUCK IS A KWISATZ HADERACH?!?! You can’t end your movie on a line proclaiming something that we don’t know what it is!

Dune 3

I could go on and on about the problems with the script and the way the story makes no sense at all and the lines (like Paul’s “If a person can destroy a thing, a person can control a thing”) were probably taken directly from Herbert’s book, but I’ll stop doing that so I can talk about the stuff in the movie that’s actually good. VERY good in fact – the music, the effects, the costumes, the set design, and pretty much everything in the movie not having to do with story and character. This movie is technically marvelous. Each set is enormous and highly detailed and seem to be entirely of a piece with each other. The costumes, too, are ornate and complex and you can tell where everybody’s from based on what they wear, which I appreciate in a space opera, especially one so confusing otherwise. The model work is also very impressive, which is not what I expected given the film’s reputation. I mean, the parts where people are riding the giant Graboids doesn’t looks amazing, but the rest of it is really well done.

Dune 6

It’s a very well shot and well designed film, and even fairly well directed from a visual perspective; it just doesn’t have anything going for it otherwise. The characters are aloof and impossible to relate to, the story tells us too much and not enough all at the same time, and the actors clearly have no idea what’s going on from moment to moment. This might be a fault in Herbert’s novel, or the fact that maybe the source material is just unfilmable. Jodorowsky was going to make his version 4 hours long or something like that, and the Sci-Fi Channel made a big long miniseries of it that probably allows for more development in, well, everything. The only good thing that came from Dune is that it gave Lynch the spark to make Blue Velvet, which is pretty much his masterpiece.

Dune 5

Dune is worth watching for its visuals and score, and the fact that there are a billion and one recognizable people in it, but just don’t expect to grasp anything without copious Cliff’s Notes or an annoying friend who’s read everything.

Tags , , , , , , , , , ,

82 comments

  • As someone who read the book, even I have to admit that it’s hard to follow at times. There were parts that I thought to myself, “Okay, they cut this, this, and this out and jumped to this point with almost no explanation. I understand why this movie would be confusing.” The Sci-Fi Channel mini-series (which is 3 episodes that are each almost as long as an episode of Sherlock) does develop and explain a lot more but they also make some really weird changes to certain parts and it just looks cheap as hell. The Sci-Fi Channel mini-series overall is only marginally better than the David Lynch movie since you’re trading production value for story and characters.

  • Lynch’s Dune is a masterpiece. Complicated, long and flawed, yes. Original and beautiful, also. Lynch is a man of vision. The Dune film was rich in texture, dialogue and strangeness. Strong actors, characters. I love this movie.

    I hated it in 1984 because it was nothing like typical science fiction of the day. Sometimes you have to see a movie more than once.

    Also, I was a child.

    This review seems to compare the amazing pre-production of Jodorowsky’s possible Dune to Lynch’s. The documentary makes my mouth water with what might have been but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater!

    Jodorowsky’s Dune would have probably been amazing! We will never know. You may have an opinion of Lynch’s Dune but I think it is an unfair and biased opinion. Maybe Jodorowsky’s would have been better than Lynch’s. We will never know (unless it is miraculously made).

    It is foolish to let Jodorowsky’s possible great movie bias an actually great movie.

    Just my opinion, but I suggest you give Lynch’s Dune another chance. And then enjoy it several hundred more times.

  • Lynch’s Dune is a masterpiece. Complicated, long and flawed, yes. Original and beautiful, also. Lynch is a man of vision. The Dune film was rich in texture, dialogue and strangeness. Strong actors, characters. I love this movie. 
     I hated it in 1984 because it was nothing like typical science fiction of the day. Sometimes you have to see a movie more than once. 
     Also, I was a child.
     This review seems to compare the amazing pre-production of Jodorowsky’s possible Dune to Lynch’s. The documentary makes my mouth water with what might have been but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater! 
     Jodorowsky’s Dune would have probably been amazing! We will never know. You may have an opinion of Lynch’s Dune but I think it is an unfair and biased opinion. Maybe Jodorowsky’s would have been better than Lynch’s. We will never know (unless it is miraculously made). 
     It is foolish to let Jodorowsky’s possible great movie bias an actually great movie. 
     Just my opinion, but I suggest you give Lynch’s Dune another chance. And then enjoy it several hundred more times.

  • I first saw Dune when it came out on VHS, I think I must have been around 10 at the time. I really enjoyed it. It played to my love of the Star Wars movies with the whole evil empire and blue eyed, spice snorting Jedi guys. I had the action figures (Sting would later meet his end at the blade of a lawn mower), I had the poster magazines, it’s fair to say I was a fan. However, I can’t help but to agree with Kyle.
    I think what Kyle is saying here, is that Dune is a beautiful mess of a movie. I’m not sure that I understood the intricacies of the plot, if I did it would be due to my mother being a fan of the book and explaining as we watched, but that didn’t matter to me then.
    I’ve since read the book myself, and seen the movie several times and with each viewing it has become more of a frustrating experience. While I applaud the ambition of trying to cram all that plot into an easy to swallow running time, it just doesn’t work. As Kyle points out, it’s a beautifully made and visually stunning film and that’s what keeps me coming back to it. Thanks for giving an honest opinion Kyle, from someone who’s not too precious to accept it as a valid one.
    Maybe, just maybe, that lawn mower had a point.

  • Actually, if you JUST read the book, you might find it is incomprehensible as well.   I watched the movie and was bewildered but intrigued by the style.  Then I read the book and everything clicked for both.  The book is genius.  Genius like how Tolkien’s world building is genius. But, it takes a little work to absorb the lore.  Anyway, I don’t necessarily like how the book was translated, but the movie is still an amazing example of visual style that shouldn’t be dismissed.  

  • This review told me too much and not enough all at the same time. Also, it was too wet whilst somehow being too dry, concurrent with it having great taste, but being less filling.
    Hey, I don’t speak Russian and I haven’t read any Tolstoy; can I review “War and Peace” for you? 

  • Oo, I knew as soon as you said, “And then you actually watch Citizen Kane and you’re like, ‘Damn, this actually IS the best movie ever made'” the comments would be ugly. Though they may exist (the internet is full of interesting things), I’ve never met a Citizen Kane fan who was a Dune fan, and vice versa – each group thinks the other movie stinks (I’m in the “Citizen Kane stinks” group; although Dune is not high on my watchlist, I’d watch it long before I’d watch CK).

  • i must totally disagree, I have loved this movie since I first saw it during it’s theatrical release and both own the Steel Book DVD with both versions and the Theathrical BD which, I just saw the other day!!! It is amoungst my favorite films and will always be, just stop over anaylizing and enjoy it for the excellent cast and what it is.

  • Read the book in Jr High. (accidentally read the next 2 out of order, got completely confused)

    Saw the movie when it came out in the theater (high school).

    Read the review.
    Completely boggled by reviewer’s take.
    Folding space weird? Didn’t catch dad telling Paul the sleeper must awaken? Compared the naming of the clans to Game of Thrones?

     o.O
    Not likely to read another article written by said author due to extreme WTF!?!?!?

  • Um, sorry you were confused by this movie, but I saw it when I was 8 and understood it.
    For instance, the Kwisatz Haderach is basically a human god, which you get from story bits which you were complaining about (inner voices, etc).  It’s a complex story, with a complex plot line, and isn’t for everyone, especially if you can’t manage deep thoughts about a topic.

  • OK, so obviously a lot of people disagree with Kyle’s review, myself included. I just don’t understand all the vitriol about it. Sure, I have a hard time seeing how Kyle didn’t seem to be able to follow it; I first saw it in the theater when I was 13 and it more or less made sense. And I get that there are people who totally LOVE the movie. I’m kinda surprised – though I shouldn’t be: because the Interwebs – that so many people seemed to have taken this review so personally. Also, I’m curious if those same people have read the book. I hadn’t when I first saw the movie but had by the time I’d seen it again. And while I still thought the movie was overall entertaining and looked great, my view of it had been lessened tremendously. To this day, Dune is easily my favorite book. And yes, the beginning is slow; but just like a quality Joss Whedon project, you have to deal with quite a bit of exposition so that he can really set up the awesome intricacies down the road. Anyway, despite the unnecessary changes from book to movie, I still thought it was a decent flick. Again, I can’t but wonder if the people who loved the film/considered it a classic have also read the book…

    • I’m not sure it’s exactly vitriol (things always read worse online), but more annoyance that Kyle seemed to have put a lot of work into the article, yet it reads as though it were written by someone paying more attention to their phone than to the movie.  It’s hard to say that I grasp these things when I was 13, because I’ve seen the film so many times since then that it’s just a part of my permanent memory.

      I will also disagree with those calling this a “classic”.  While I love the film,  it was a box office failure and, for the most part, disliked by everyone including sci-fi fans.  I was definitely in the minority with my love for it.  Most of my friends said “you like that boring movie where everyone whispers ‘The Spice’ all the time?”  Yes.  Yes, I did :-(

    • I was a bit miffed that a reviewer would attempt a review of a movie he/she clearly didn’t pay attention to enough to understand, and comment on “source material” (the 412 page novel it’s based on) he/she hasn’t read.
      I’ve read the novel and enjoyed it and the movie.

    • Agreed that it followed the source material far more faithfully. The problem was that it seemed very low-budget and suffered from an embarrassingly bad production design. The Lynch movie was the opposite. The look and feel (aside from the unnecessary mutation of the Weirding Way) was spot on, IMO. The implementation of story (either edit)… not so much.

  • I’ve always found Dune to be, by far, Lynch’s most straightforward movie.  Eraserhead?  No, don’t get it at all.  Dune?  Sure.  It’s pretty much straight up religious science fantasy.

  • The internet is a confusing place where every single article is met with derision. If this post had been on how awesome Dune is, most of the posts would be on how crappy it was. I have seen Dune a couple of times, and I never understood what was going on. It’s probably as much my fault as the film maker’s. This post has prompted me to watch the movie again.

  • You do realize you can read right? So maybe pick up one of the Dune books.. or just watch the movie more than ONE TIME and all your questions will be answered. Why do we have to suffer through this idiocy and degradation of a brilliant and classic film from some young idiot who has no sense of the film whatsoever. Hey, how about next time you ask “Cake Boss” to come do a review on Marxism. smh. So disappointed you’d allow this Chris Harwick. I had the impression you were more intelligent that that. This “review” is pathetic.

  • I saw this flick when I was 14 and for the last 30 years have not had a problem with it. I liked it, understood it and have rewatched it many times.  And everything you questioned had answers. Everything. Someone wasn’t REALLY paying attention. Oh, and folded space is a LONG running hypothesis. Go watch EVENT HORIZON and then come back and give DUNE another try.

  • Um. You guys. You’re being sort of mean to a guy whose “crime” was expressing his opinion about a movie. It may not be an opinion that you agree with, but I don’t think that’s a legitimate reason to call him names and accuse him of not being a “real nerd”. That seems exclusionary to me. I thought Nerdist was a place for positive enthusiasm and discussion, a supportive community.

  • I saw the film at age 11, having only played (not even beaten!) the 1992 computer game–which is great, by the way–and didn’t walk away from it confused. It is certainly a bizarre and complex film, and being that it wasn’t divided into three films, which Hollywood would gladly do today, it’s understandable that so little of it is understood by mainstream audiences. But it’s not impossibly head scratchy, as the author implies. It’s a flawed but brilliant film.

  • Sir, you fail at SciFi.  Folding space was not invented in Dune and takes very little reading to encounter multiple universes that use the concept.  The Kwizatz Haderach is adequately explained (granted, no better) and you must not have been paying ANY attention when they talk about what the spice does.  Yes, the movie trusts the audience to think and pay attention.  Something modern movies don’t typically do, but they should. It annoys me that I’m never trusted to follow any level of complexity in a movie these days.

  • Dude. You lost me at “extended version which is longer and explains more, but I also hear it uses production photos and drawings since lots of it weren’t ever filmed. That might be nice for Dune fans..” It is widely known among everyone who knows anything about anything, that Dune fans DO NOT like the bastardized re-cut version that David Lynch did actually disown. The theatrical cut that you watched is the ultimate version to watch, is widely praised by fans, and only confusing to kids who can’t pay attention while watching grown up movies. 

  • I was actually the first person in line to see this at the theatre in Ottawa in 1984. I was a huge DUNE fanatic.
    …and to be left flapping in the breeze over Jodorowsky’s non-starter, after being teased by pictures in Starlog magazine of H.R. Giger’s sets and Chris Foss’ spaceships that never got to see film, was a crushing blow. Then Lynch brought us the De Laurentiis opus.

    I HAD to see it!

    I saw the movie with two friends, one who had read the book, one who hadn’t. The first thing I said when we came out was ,”People who have read the book are going to love most of it, and those who haven’t are going to be confused as f**k!” To which my friends pretty much agreed. Actually, the one friend who hadn’t read DUNE, had intended to prior to the movie, but the movie left such a bad taste in his mouth that he wanted nothing to do with the book afterwards.

    I have the movie on DVD and watch usually once a year. I still enjoy it, but I think I pick out more things wrong with it each time.

  • SPOILERS: Well more precisely, the “spice” melange exists only on Arrakis and it harvested from it’s desert sands. It cannot be synthesized. By consuming massive quantities of spice, mutated human Spacing Guild navigators gain prescience and “SEE” a safe course through space but the engines of the ships do the “folding”. It isn’t really well explained at the end of the movie but Paul Muad’Dib threatens to destroy all spice harvesting. This forces the Emperor and Spacing Guild to submit. The movie also fails to mention that computers are not allowed to exist anywhere due to 1000 years prior, A.I. robots almost destroyed the entire human empire and that spice withdrawal is fatal. Theres a lot more… yup, not too complicated :D

  • SPOILERS: Well more precisely, the “spice” melange exists only on Arrakis and it harvested from it’s desert sands. It cannot be synthesized. By consuming massive quantities of spice, mutated human Spacing Guild navigators gain prescience and “SEE” a safe course through space but the engines of the ships do the “folding”. It isn’t really well explained at the end of the movie but Paul Muad’Dib threatens to destroy all spice harvesting. This forces the Emperor and Spacing Guild to submit. The movie also fails to mention that computers are not allowed to exist anywhere due to 1000 years prior, A.I. robots almost destroyed the entire human empire and also that spice withdrawal is fatal. Yup, not too complicated :D

  • The film is confusing and I saw Dune as a kid through kid eyes. I loved it as it was one of the first scifi films I had ever experienced. As bad as it is, it still looks cool and I think a great version of this film could be made. I think if Pixar or Dreamworks did a CG animated version it could be Jodorowsky’s Dune.

  • “WHAT THE FUCK IS A KWISATZ HADERACH?!?” – This is actually what the whole story is about. Granted Lynch did a piss-poor job of explaining it. Paul is the product of a genetic program started by the Bene Gesserit (The chicks in black.) who are trying to create the ultimate human being. They have been intentional breeding highly skilled and intelligent people with one another over thousands of years to create this superman whom they wish to control. However, Lady Jessica disobeys them (Bene Gesserit can control the gender of the children they produce) and she has a son just to please her husband, Duke Leto. (She was supposed to have a daughter to breed with Feyd Harkonnen.) This throws the Bene Gesserit plan into the chaos just as they were about to succeed. The Kwisatz Haderach can predict the future (and as Paul finds out, can change it) because he has access to the “genetic memory” of all of his ancestors. In other words, he can see all possible futures and is able to shape the future of the universe based on his supreme knowledge of the past. The spice is the agent that makes these crazy mental abilities possible, which is why it is so important. Really, what Dune boils down to is two things – first, a metaphor for politics where great powers fight for control of essential resources and secondly, planetary ecology. The spice is a product of the sandworms and makes space travel and, therefore, the empire possible. (Psst…it’s a metaphor for oil.)  This isn’t exactly the type of easy-to-follow concept you want in a screenplay which is what makes this story, supposedly, unfilmable.That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Lynch’s film is quite bad and it doesn’t get the brilliance of the book across at all. He also threw in the weirding modules, which aren’t in the book. Needless to say, THE BOOK IS SO MUCH BETTER!

  • Absolutely love Dune! At the age of 6 I was floored when Lynch’s adaptation came out in ’87. Everything about that movie started me out as the syfy fan I am today, combined with Star Wars and Star Trek. I am 33 now and I have seen that movie more times than I am actually willing to admit as it probably is in excess of 100!! There is nothing in that movie that I did not understand and wasn’t able to follow completely by the age of 12!!! The Shocker: I did not even know it was based on a book until about 8 years ago!!!

  • Slander!  Legit the best movie of all time. Who doesn’t want to watch Sting knife fight in his underwear!?  Doesn’t have anything else going for it!?!?!!?!?!?  PAUL MORDEEB!!!!!  

  • Tried reading the book a few times, but could not get past all the BS at he beginning – all the political, planetary, intergalactic, “house” trivia and statistics piled in with weird names… Just too much to try and forge one’s way through for being the first book in the series.

    I do agree the film is muddled, but not half as much as the book. The fact that they were able to construct a fun, albeit off-kilter and inexplicable, story for film is amazing.

  • What is the point of this article?  Why would you 1) Write a review of a 30 year old movie that ever sci-fi fan has already seen & fallen in love with2) write a review of Dune while knowing nothing about the film or any of the books3) Try to convince people that this classic,  amazing film is somehow not a good film
    This wins the, “Worst Nerdist Article of the Day” award (which is kind of like a razzy only no one thinks its funny)

  • I first watched this in my pre to early teens because my father was a fan of the books (he’s read them all) and may not have understood all of the intricacies at that age, but do remember that it fascinated me so much that I did desire to watch it again and have now watched it many times.
    I agree that the movie itself is probably not incredible (I think they’d need to take the Peter Jackson approach and split it into separate movies to do it properly) and there are some complex and involved story lines, but I definitely didn’t have the trouble comprehending it that is being expressed here, (and, as Paul says, most of the things that are points of confusion were in fact explained in the movie).
    In fact, I’d have to say that I find it very Shakespearean with all the plotting and scheming, twists and turns, alliances and family feuds, etc (for the record, I love Shakespeare).
    That’s it. You’ve convinced me. I need to schedule some time to re-watch this.

    • also for the record, my father may have read all the books, but I haven’t (though they are on my reading list). My knowledge/comprehension is based purely on the movie and miniseries.