David Lynch and Sand Dunes, or, Odd but kind of wonderful
Where do I start with this? I mean usually I don’t have any problem with finding a way into writing a blog, there is usually something for me to work with. Some kind of starting point, some logical and coherent way into the piece that will allow me to introduce you to the film and book in way that makes sense. Usually I start by talking about the author of the book or the director of the film and some of their respective histories. Here’s the thing though – this time, both of these guys are, to put it mildly, ever so slightly odd. I don’t use the term lightly either by the way but when going through my previous reviews I realised I hadn’t ever really done anything that honestly compares to this slice of mythical/spiritual/sci-fi/space opera/romance strangeness. This is Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 novel ‘Dune’ and the weird adaptation from the mind of David Lynch that hit cinemas (to general bafflement) in 1984.
With that in mind then, let’s dive right into this weirdness starting with the film’s director and here some of you might start to struggle. Lynch has been called the American surrealist and his works, starting with the cult horror film Eraserhead, have progressively gotten stranger. He has a fondness for non-linear narratives and some weird, often horrific imagery to create films that feel like fever dreams rather than straightforward films. He’s what critics somewhat euphemistically label ‘challenging’ and whilst some have called ‘Dune’ his worst film, there was possibly nobody working in cinema at the time who would be a better fit to take charge of the film. Before going on to mention the book, an interesting side note; one of the film projects that Lynch turned down to do Dune? Return of the Jedi! RETURN! OF! THE! JEDI! Just let that fact sink in for a moment, one of the boldest surrealists in cinematic history could well have directed a Star Wars movie. Somewhere, there is a dimension were that occurs – I only wish it was this one.
He turned down ROTJ though and was allowed loose of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic ‘Dune.’ Now, for those of you who have never heard of this book it is a little difficult for me to properly articulate just what the book is. So, here’s the deal and as per usual I’ll try and avoid any spoilers but those who haven’t at least googled by know, may well have to brace themselves for a few spoilers. The book is set in a universe ruled by an Emperor and different regions of the known universe are controlled by powerful dynastic Houses. The most important substance in the entire galaxy is the spice melange, only found on the remote desert planet, Arrakis. The spice is so important, not only because it can extend your life span, but because the hallucinogenic properties of the spice allow inter stellar – granting ship navigators the ability to find their way along interstellar paths. As the natives on Arrakis grow restless, affecting the levels of spice production the Emperor gives control of the planet to the powerful House Atreides, much to the chagrin of their political rivals House Harkonnen. The son of the Duke, Paul Atreides, travels with his father and mother and after a double cross his father is killed and along with his mother they are forced to flee into the desert. Once there the pair becomes part of the Fremen, the natives of the planet and it turns out that Paul is their prophesied Messiah. Once he acquires control over the tribe he basically stages a coup and takes over the entire planet.
I think it should be immediately obvious what the problem with the adaptation is – THIS FILM IS TERRIFYINGLY COMPLEX! Critics and audiences found the film dense, full of complex mythology and back story that the ruthless editing did not give time to breath. Herbert’s book is a colossal achievement, with a complexity only comparable to the world building and mythologizing of JRR Tolkien. Without the time and space to explain and introduce the audience to the world it becomes impenetrable.
As I said, an awful lot of this is down to the editing. Lynch shot a film that clocked in at a buttock numbing 3 hours. The studio wanted a standard two hour run time and so re-shot films to condense exposition, and added voice over narration at the start. If you want to know what this feels like have a look at my paragraph summarising what the book is about – whilst it may seem comprehensive I have missed out so much of the novels depth and mythos that makes Dune such a good read – there are entire sub-plots that I’ve missed out, crucial characters that I have had to skip, or this entire blog would be a recap of the plot.
It isn’t all bad though – even though Lynch refuses to talk about the film now – the film looks stunning. Lynch fills the screen with arresting visuals, though some of the gorier imagery may test those of a milder disposition and the effects haven’t aged all that well. The performances are mostly good too; particularly of note is the, as per usual, bonkers Brad Dourif as well as Jurgen Prochnow Paul’s father. The star of the film though is Kyle MacLauchlan as Paul who convincingly portrays the journey from pampered posh by to spiritual leader of a revolution. The final facts about the film I don’t really feel require much context. The film’s soundtrack is provided by Toto. Yes, really. The film also features this. I’m not sure what else needs to be said in the film’s favor because if that doesn’t convince you, I don’t think this film is for you.
So, this is decidedly a mixed bag and there are major, major problems with this film. It’s crowded, complicated and far far too short and the critics savaged it deservedly. I can only imagine what it would have been like if Lynch had been allowed to explore the Dune universe rather than being so rushed. The book is packed with deep and complicated history and mythology that made the book one of the greatest of its genre ever written. Despite all this, I can’t hate this movie. It’s a poor battered object but if I’ve managed to pique your interest you’ll find a real curiosity, though as a standalone film I would probably only recommend it to the hard core sci-fi film fans or those who really want to know more about Lynch’s minor works. As an insight into Lynch and his style it’s a visual feat that is gorgeous to look at, but if you really want to explore the universe of Dune, stick with the book. I just wish studios wouldn’t keep doing this…