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Dune (1984)

by The Movie Diorama

Dune lacks the valuable spice needed to prevent this deserted adaptation from collapsing in its own inhospitable quicksand. Has everybody got their trusty notebooks? No? Well, it is advisable you acquire one now: ”A beginning is a very delicate time. Know then that it is the year 10,191. The Known Universe is ruled by Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, my father. In this time, the most precious substance in the universe is the spice Melange. The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness. The spice is vital to travel.”. *insert more introductory exposition regarding spice mutation and the “ability to fold space”*. “The spice exists on only one planet in the entire universe. A desolate, dry planet with vast deserts.

Hidden away within the rocks of these deserts are a people known as Fremen, who have long held a prophecy that a man would come, a messiah who would lead them to true freedom. The planet is Arrakis, also known as Dune.”. *insert even more exposition outlining the rivalry between two factions, House Atreides and House Harkonnen*. “The powerful Bebe Gesserit sisterhood for 90 generations has been manipulating bloodlines to produce Kwisatz Haderach, a super being. On Caladan, Jessica, a member of the sisterhood and the bound concubine of Duke Leto Atreides, had been ordered to…”. Actually, let’s stop there. It’s provided me with more than enough melange to criticise this absolute incomprehensible mess.

Surrealist director Lynch was recruited to direct and write an adaptation of Herbert’s lauded novel of the same name. His first, and only, studio endeavour that would attempt to amalgamate the complexity of Herbert’s thematic exploration into dystopian sociopolitical religions with the imaginative visionary wonders Lynch could supply to a feature film. Many directors had attempted to adapt Dune. Including Jodorowsky and Scott. None were successful. These failed ventures substantiated one question: “why?”. Why was it so brutally challenging to adapt Herbert’s sci-fi extravaganza? The simple answer. The novel is too dense to compress into a feature film.

Lynch’s screenplay, having resorted to a five minute introductory narrative heavily denoting the lore and background of the proceeding feature, is an accumulation of plot. Every single grain of contextual sand covering the Arrakian wasteland would proliferate into a narrative dune of plot. There’s no characterisation. No menial conversations. No long stare into the open desolation of Arrakis where colossal sandworms roam the arenaceous landscape. Every line, every pause and every word of dialogue substantiates its central or various sub-plots. It’s all plot! Yet despite a two and a half hour feature of sheer vigorous plotting, the final product still does not make any comprehensible sense. What was the entire purpose of the mutated Guild Navigator? Why did Paul Atreides instantly fall in love with Chani? What’s with Baron Vladimir Harkonnen sexually assaulting and slaughtering a young man? How about the entire final ten minutes?

The point is, no matter how much plot is compressed into one feature film, it cannot cover the substantial expansivity of Herbert’s imagination. Gibbs’ complacent editing butchered the narrative flow regardless of Lynch’s usage of psychic narration and foreshadowing to masquerade clumsy plotting. Attempting to detail the story’s grand entirety comes at the expense of zero characterisation and minimal emotional investment to the ornately designed worlds. The protagonist, Paul Atreides, was borderline dull. MacLachlan’s performance was on cruise control. The rest of House Atreides failed to exhibit any emotion, other than soulless. Fortunately, von Sydow and Stewart added some dramatic prowess to the pace, despite their underused presence. Members of House Harkonnen contrastingly shouted everything at piercingly booming decibels and overacted all facial movements in pantomime fashion. There was no inbetween. Just two rampantly fluctuating volumes of acting credibility. Frustratingly, Lynch’s adaptation had promise.

Despite the extravagant mess that was manufactured by studio interference and creative misdirection, the technical excellence embedded within managed to shine various glimmers of hope. The costume design inhibited the grandeur of Herbert’s intergalactic story. The merging of visual and practical effects enhanced the action scenes involving “Weirding Modules”, essentially sonic weaponry. Toto’s 80s rock score suited the desolate rocky environment (it’s not “Africa” though…). And heck, riding sandworms across the desert to obtain freedom? Hell yeah!

Alas, Lynch’s intended vision was not meant to be. As a general sci-fi enthusiast and admirer for ambition, condensing an approximately four hundred page heavy fictitious novel into a mere two and a half hour plot summary was not the route to pursue. It may evoke technical astuteness and imagination, yet crumbles into an incomprehensibly shambolic mess of galactic proportions. Much like sand, “it’s all coarse, and rough, and irritating. And it gets everywhere!”.