Guilty pleasures: Dune

Long before Spice World there was Dune, the original Spice world of Arrakis, scene of the crime for this month’s Guilty Pleasures.

Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune is a beloved work of science fiction, never out of print. A wordy, complex saga, many attempts were made to adapt it for the big screen, before Dino Di Laurentiis secured the rights and brought David Lynch onboard as Director, impressed by his film The Elephant Man. At the time, Lynch had also been approached by George Lucas to direct Return Of The Jedi, but Lynch turned him down. “I realised that [Lucas’] projects are entirely his, and I prefer to do my own…” Little did he realise the compromises he made on his film would contribute to poor critical and audience reaction, and his refusal to work on blockbusters again.

At first Lynch was daunted by the size of the project. He and other writers couldn’t agree on the script, so he ended up writing it himself. Herbert was pleased with the finished script, saying “The characters are exactly as I have envisioned them…sometimes even better.” [A copy of the script here, via Cinephilia & Beyond.]

In the world of Dune, the Emperor Shaddam IV rules over a Universe dominated by The Great Houses (think Medieval Barons). Among them are arch enemies House Atreides (home of teenaged hero Paul), and evil House Harkonnen. The Harkonnens rule desert world Arrakis, home of The Spice (Melange), a mind expanding drug that The Spacing Guild use to “fold” space, thereby controlling the traffic between worlds. Fearful of the popularity of Duke Leto Atreides, The Emperor puts him in charge of Arrakis. He allows The Harkonnens to destroy their power base there, so restoring the balance of power in his favour. However, Paul (Kyle McLachlan) and his mother Jessica (Francesca Annis) survive and go on to lead the native tribal Fremen as Messiah figure (Maud-Dib) and spiritual Reverend Mother. Paul consumes The Spice and becomes a Godlike figure, training his followers in a Holy war that culminates in a show down with Harkonnen and Imperial forces.

Audiences didn’t understand Dune. They were bored by the exposition, expressed through various characters voiced inner thoughts, confused by the pacing, and expected more action. At one point, the makers actually handed out explanatory leaflets on the complicated background before screenings.

dune terminology

Dune should be viewed as a fusion between a historical drama like The Tudors or The Borgias, and a Messianic cult story, albeit thousands of years hence. It is richly layered, yet straightforward, if one approaches it in the right way.

Listen carefully, I will say this only once.

Unfortunately for Lynch and Herbert, the film came along too early. Audiences were used to the shiny Space Opera of Star Wars, essentially fairy tales with ray guns. Heavy political power struggles didn’t grab them. You’d think George Lucas would have grasped this when he came up with all that taxation of trade routes rubbish in The Phantom Menace.

De Laurentiis was not making a quick movie on the cheap. He fully expected Dune to be a hit and had a wealth of talent, not least Lynch and an excellent cast. The production design by Tony Masters is superb. He previously worked on 2001 and Lawrence Of Arabia. Carlo Rambaldi, Mechanical effects (The Spice Navigator is a creepy highlight) worked on Alien and E.T. Bob Ringwood, the costume designer, had won awards for Excalibur. His still-suit design for Fremen desert survival is very striking. Unfortunately for the actors, the rubber suits did not do them any favours in the reality of Mexico’s Samalayuca desert.

From early enthusiasm, Lynch came to realise he was a hired hand and would not have final cut. The film was edited down again and again, with a rushed final act. Dismal box office receipts led to it being pulled after a short run. A T.V. edited version appeared later, in which Lynch insisted on being credited as “Alan Smithee” for Director, and “Judas Booth” for screenwriter, a hint that the studio had betrayed him and killed his movie.

So what works? Beneath all the exposition is a powerful dynastic struggle and the rise of a boy becoming a cult leader, avenging his father and ruling the Galaxy. Star Wars with brains, but not enough heart. It features incredible almost steampunk design, wrapped around an imaginative background, with a cast of hundreds. Each world and society is clearly delineated, reflecting the society of its inhabitants. Kaitain, the Emperors home, is opulent and ostentatiously golden, but shallow and empty. Giedi Prime, the home of the Harkonnens, is slick, oily, mechanized and brutal, suitable for asset strippers (and cow tongue eaters!).

Caladan in contrast, shows the Atreides living in harmony with their sub-tropical, water rich world, utilising natural woods in their home. A suitable home for the future prophet who will bring balance to the warring Universe. Arrakis is harsh, balanced on an ecological knife edge. The Fremen recycle everything, even body fluids. A fitting anvil on which to forge an army of believers from a people exploited for the melange they are forbidden to benefit from. Dune isn’t afraid to tackle serious topics, and if the audience pays attention, it richly rewards.

Patrick Stewart makes a great impression as Paul’s gruff Master-At-Arms Gurney Halleck, sharing a cool training fight sequence with him, utilising blocky personal force fields and knives. An article in Cinefex at the time elucidated on how the effect was achieved: “Working over live action plate material shot in Mexico, animators at Van der Veer Photo Effects first rendered the multi faceted shield using line drawings and basic rotoscope techniques. Each individual image was then broken down into specific surfaces, with a separate animation cel for each shield segment. A computer controlled ripple wheel system built into the optical printer provided the desired diffusion and three dimensional effect. Among others, Jeffrey Burks and Richard Malzahn devoted some nine months to animating the sequence.”

Freddie Jones is the Atreides’ Mentat, a human computer. In the world of Dune, a Jihad overthrew dependence on computers. Jurgen Prochnow is a noble Duke Leto, and Francesca Annis as Lady Jessica, the Bene Gesserit who rebelled against her Orders instructions and bore a Son out of love and not duty, is the emotional heart of the film. The less said about Sting as Paul’s nemesis, the better.

The desert locations are stunning, and the realisation of the massive sandworms is impressive. These creatures, said Herbert, are a symbol of “the mindless creature in the depths that guards the pearl of great price (the Spice)”. As Paul’s training by Jessica’s hands puts it:

Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little- death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

The film is a visual feast. Kyle McLachlan recently said that it suffered from being over-hyped. Rather than condense the story, he believes it would have benefitted from a Lord Of The Rings style break up:

“It had a throwback quality at a time when we just seeing shiny “Star Wars” stuff. Now you go back and revisit it and you’re sort of stunned at the beauty of some of the scenes.”

A film to be admired then, but a tough film to love. Further unsuccessful attempts have been made to get yet another vision of Herbert’s world off the ground, but for me, David Lynch’s bonkers Spice World is fine, thanks. Zig-a zig-ah!

dune albert dutton and son mark matte


Originally posted 2012-03-15 13:52:16. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Read and post comments on this article