In defence of.. Dune (1984)

Dune is the film that arguably killed a seven-year box-office run of big-budget sci-fi in the wake of Star Wars. And it's one of Martin's favourites. But why...?

Sting in Dune. It's what they don't make awards for.

We can’t skirt the issue – let’s begin immediately with the single thing that is most wrong with David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic…

STING I would not have thought that even the poorest actor could – given months of preparation (it was a long drawn-out production) – fluff their lines so badly when they were given so few lines to fluff. We reach, in Sting’s performance as Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, a level of wince-making hamminess that is hard to describe for those who have not witnessed it. We wonder what to do with this performance, and instantly think of carpentry:

“All I see is a Harkonnen I want to kill.”“I will kill him!”

As far as I can remember, Sting has no other meaningful lines in the movie, yet while he is reciting these paltry scraps of dialogue you can SEE the camera, FEEL the coffee in the technician’s cup, HEAR the key grip scratching his arse and doing the crossword. The man is – or was (he was quite good in Stormy Monday) – camera-conscious, the one trait which kills movie actors quicker than a spice overdose.

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Sting is not very good in this film.

Onward then, to other oft-levelled criticisms of sci-fi’s most misunderstood masterpiece.

SPECIAL EFFECTS …notably the ‘worm sequence’. I was 18 and a sci-fi movie enthusiast when I saw Dune at the cinema in 1984, and I distinctly remember my jaw dropping at the spectacle of one of the worms of Arrakis rising up from the desert floor and consuming the spice mining vehicle in one gulp. It is, in my opinion, an excellent piece of model-work, despite that special-effects nemesis, non-scaleable elements (in this case, sand – the others would be fire and water). I was therefore mystified to see the sequence savagely villified in the press and popular culture for years afterward.

Other excellent special effects in the film include the assembly of Atreides ships into the huge transporter ship, a Trumbull-quality series of opticals that unfortunately fade off into very dated work in the interior of the vessel as the floating worms begin to ‘fold space’, and by the end of the sequence, the effects have deteriorated to Doctor. Who (circa. 1984) levels.

H.R. Giger’s production art for the Harkonnen homeworld Giedi Prime dated back to Dan O’Bannon’s special-effects supervision of the lost Jodorowsky production of Dune in the mid-1970s, and Brad Dourif’s cable-car ride through the ghastly grey industrial landscape stands up even today.

In fact the original production artwork done during the underfunded Jodorowsky period has been put several times into print, so wonderful is the work of Giger, British sci-fi illustrator Chris Foss and the legendary Ron Cobb – and O’Bannon successfully gathered these visonary conceptual artists together again three years later as the heart of production design for Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).

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INCOMPREHENSIBILITY/FIDELITY These two criticisms of Dune must be treated together since they are so closely linked. Anyone who has actually read Herbert’s richly detailed epic will know that screenwriter Lynch was more faithful to it than any director who has ever been asked to compress a sprawling novel into a two-hour movie. Many directors would have stopped at merely being faithful to the spirit of the work, but Lynch leaves in huge, admittedly baffling chunks of the book’s alien vernacular which may confuse, but which add verismillitude and depth to the texture of the world portrayed. This is no ‘dumbed-down’ imagined universe.

SO WHAT’S TO LIKE ABOUT THE FILM? 1) The production design is original and exquisite, with set construction eating up the largest proportion of a budget that nearly ruined the DeLaurentis empire. The wooden world of House Atreides alone is a wonderful example of sci-fi atavism, something envisaged by Vincent Ward in his ultimately studio-compromised vision for Alien 3.

2) Jurgen Prochnow (later to return to Lynch’s body of work in Twin Peaks) gives perhaps his last truly committed performance. He perked up a little in John Carpenter’s In The Mouth Of Madness, but really this was the last we saw of a great acting talent that reached its peak in Wolfgang Peterson’s Das Boot (1981).

3) Francesca Annis graced this production with her extraordinary talent and beauty as the Lady Jessica, having made only one other foray into fantasy cinema in her career to date, in Krull (1983).

4) The excellent Freddie Jones – already a David Lynch veteran from The Elephant Man (1980) – does a characteristically masterful turn as the number-obsessed Mentat and Atreides confidante Thufir Hawat.

5) As mentioned above, Dune does not lay out its panoply of cultures and language in a dumbed-down fashion but lets you guess the meaning of certain rites and words. For a film with this much money behind it, given the timorous nature of most movie-backers, this is a bloody miracle.

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6) The portentous refrain of the main theme is memorable, and Brian Eno’s atmospheric score sums up the vast and arid majesty of the planet Dune.

7) The late Kenneth McMillan pulls off a quite extraordinary turn as the ‘floating fat man’, the Baron Harkonnen, and the canon of fantasy film has no more loathsome and repulsive villain to offer.

8) The idea of sonic weapons – original to David Lynch’s screenplay – is very cool indeed.

Dune was an extraordinary experiment in applying the risky rigour of auteur film-making to the kind of big-budget production normally overseen by accountants, and if it is a failure, it’s a magnificent one.