To begin with, let’s make sure we have all got this straight: David Lynch doesn’t play by your rules. In the world of cinema, especially the kind of pop art house cinema that Lynch works within, many work extraordinarily hard to be seen as iconoclast, insightful, and cerebral sometimes to the point of obfuscation. Lynch does this effortlessly. He does this so well that even in a film like Dune, a massive commercial sci-fi action enterprise in which he himself claims that he “sold out,” he delivers something more striking and unusual than most artists create in their careers.
The film is a space opera following the political machinations of a large empire whose operations are tied to the production of “spice” on the planet Arrakis. The emperor believes that Duke Leto of House Atreides is becoming too popular and a possible adversary, so he attempts to maneuver a fight between House Atreides and House Harkonnen on Arrakis in which the Harkonnen will win and destroy the Atreides. What the emperor does not know is that Duke Leto’s son Paul may be the mythical Kwisatz Haderach, a savior figure that the religious sisterhood the Bene Gesserit have been trying to create through genetic manipulations between the bloodlines of the universe. Oh, and there are giant awesome sandworms.
It’s hard to believe that Lynch ever even made Dune, a movie with a massive budget that included a production crew of 1,700. Dune was only Lynch’s third feature-length film, following the head-tripping Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. Dune was to be his big commercial breakout. Instead, it was largely regarded as one of the worst films of 1984.
Lynch distanced himself from the film. He now refers to it as his only failure, the film in which he compromised himself and gave up control. The film was produced by Dino de Laurentis, a sometimes controversial film godfather. There are conflicting reports, but the general consensus seems to be that Lynch presented a very rough cut to producers that came in at around four hours. He said he was planning on cutting it down to three hours, but the film was taken over by the producers and they, with some assistance from Lynch, cut it down to two hours and 16 minutes, the length of this new Blu-ray release. There is a three-hour extended edition that Lynch disapproves of even more, as it was compiled out of bits and pieces of leftover material for syndicated television.
The movie certainly feels trimmed. There’s a lot of narration, particularly at the beginning where we have not one, but two extended scenes of exposition, one with Virginia Madsen’s disembodied, disappearing and reappearing head, the other a telecommunications dispatch explaining the roles of the various kingdoms involved in interplanetary intrigue. Things move fast, sometimes too fast. Throughout the film we hear the thoughts of the characters on-screen, which fill in, sometimes too pointedly, exactly what's happening. One of the largest complaints from the critics of the time was that the movie was completely incomprehensible, particularly for those who hadn’t read the novels.
I’ve never read any of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. Perhaps it’s that I went into the movie knowing its reputation, or perhaps it's having a lot of experience with other David Lynch projects and knowing the unusual voice he's become, but I found the movie entirely comprehensible. I imagine it probably helps having taken in a fair amount of Lynch, as one feels freer to let go of the strict plotting and enjoy the feel of the movie, its rhythms and imagery. Although the editing of the film is in great contention, it is effective. The movie builds at a great pace, feeling at times both epic and intimate.
The film’s greatest achievement is its design. Lynch doesn’t just create one new world, he creates many, building their surroundings out of their natural habitats. The movie feels other-worldly in the best way possible, as though all of these massive societies have sprung up on their own after centuries of development. Everything has been imbued with a deep sense of history and tradition.
The film is gorgeous, even when it’s hideous. The world of the Caladan, the home of House Atreides, is austere and beautiful. The desert planet of Arrakis, where the famous spice is mined, is massive, imposing and stunning in its sparsity. The world of the villainous Harkonnen is truly revolting, filled with disease and bodily fluids and dripping with substances whose origins you probably don’t want to know. Some of the effects are absolutely stunning and surreal, like the shots of the emerging birth of Paul Atreides' sister. Others look absolutely cheesy even for the time, like old Ray Harryhausen effects. But Ray Harryhausen is beloved even today because his effects were charming and effective, as are the cheesier effects in Dune. Even if they don’t look like the most believable effects, what is happening behind them is engrossing, and so the lack of polish, at least for me, can be easily forgiven.
Lynch gathered a pretty spectacular cast for the film, including Patrick Stewart, Sean Young, Sian Phillips, Jurgen Prochnow, Virginia Madsen, Francesca Annis, Max Von Sydow, Dean Stockwell, Sting, and, for the first time, his muse, Kyle MacLachlan. They all do fine work, making sure everything feels as majestic and regal as it needs to. Of special note is Kenneth McMillan, who has certainly created one of the slimiest, nastiest villains on film with his portrayal of Baron Harkonnen. He gets that kind of squeeling, giddy, villainy precisely right. He's one of those villains you don't just love to hate, you thrill to hate him.
It's an unsteady movie. It should have been longer, the reliance on voice-over can be too much, there are moments where it truly is unpolished, and there are even a few somewhat unsettling political undercurrents running through the film. Mostly this has to do with the portrayal of the Harkonnen, particularly Baron Harkonnen. It's hinted that not only is he supremely evil, but also probably gay. The movie was made around the time when the AIDS crisis was beginning to become a large public concern, and having a film with a potentially gay villain who preys on young men and has lesions surrounding his face much like those seen on AIDS victims probably wasn't the most forward-thinking and progressive way to portray the character. But then again, I could just be reading a lot into this. He's an effective villain, regardless of his potential political problems.
The Blu-ray release is wonderful in its technical aspects. It has the original aspect ratio preserved in incredible 1080p. The more spectacular visual moments of the film truly stand out here. The movie has an extensive visual palette, with extraordinary bright colors and light displays coming up against deep, textured blacks. The large battle scenes and huge desert vistas are crisp, clear, and gorgeous. And for the makeup special effects freaks, every single oozing pustule on Baron Harkonnen's face comes through with stomach-churning clarity.
The audio is equally good. DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lets the sound come through extremely well. This is a movie to turn up and really let the audio take you somewhere. A major plot point is the Atreides' ability to turn sound into a weapon, so when the band of rebels starts blowing up all kinds of business with their "weirding" weapons or when Paul Atreides puts so much power behind his voice that he splits the ground beneath Sting at the film's finale, turn up the volume so you can feel that great bass rumble come through. Also, the awesomely bombastic score is by Toto with a theme by Brian Eno. You're going to want to hear it on the best audio you can, and the Blu-ray delivers pretty darn well.
The special features are pretty much lacking. There's a few throwaway docs about the design of the film which give a few interesting trivia notes, but nothing extraordinarily insightful. The problem, which Universal really can't do much about, is that Lynch has essentially refused to talk about the movie or engage with it in any way, so the main creative force behind this singular vision is nowhere to be heard. We do get about ten minutes of deleted/extended scenes which give only minor hints of what the extended cut or Lynch's original intentions may have been.
It's a divisive film, so it's hard to easily recommend it, but if you can get yourself in the right frame of mind to just let Lynch run you somewhere surreal and hypnotic, you should definitely grab this disc.