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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Dune

Starring: Kyle Machlaclan, Patrick Stewart
Director: David Lynch
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 137 Minutes
Release Date: December 1984
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy

*Also starring: Francesca Annis, Virginia Madsen, Sting, Silvana Mangano, Sian Phillips, Richard Jordan, Paul Smith, Max von Sydow

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

When Frank Herbert's DUNE becomes a topic, the author of this review tends to get a little bit sentimental. There are two reasons for that. First, the Frank Herbert's masterpiece, although not the first science fiction novel I have read in my life, happened to be the first one which blew me away. And, second, the movie based on a novel happened to be the subject of the very first article I wrote for a local fanzine. When I decided to write the review of the film, I was contemplating a simple adaptation of the original fanzine article. However, the reason prevailed over sentimentality and I decided to write completely new piece.

As I said before, Frank Herbert's DUNE was the first piece of science fiction that blew me away. But even then, when I was engrossed in a beautiful, mystical and fantastic world of planet Arrakis, I was imagining how would all those pages translate into major motion picture. I didn't have as much insight into film-making business as I have today, yet I saw two great problems. The first one was the fact that the detailed yet very alien Herbert's vision of distant futures and worlds beyond our imagination required a huge, perhaps even unthinkably high budget for film-makers. And, even if some brave producer and director would somehow acquire such great sums of money, they would be faced with another problem. The hundreds and hundreds of pages of text, full of detailed and elaborated scenes, numerous sub-plots and interesting characters were, to say the least, very unlikely to be squeezed into the regular feature film format.

When I began thinking about it, little did I know that someone in the world was really faced with such problems. That person was Dino de Laurentiis, respected Italian producer who had a relatively good record with science-fiction and fantasy genre, thanks to his previous commercial and critical successes like FLASH GORDON and CONAN THE BARBARIAN. For almost two decades, many people were contemplating the cinematic adaptation of DUNE, yet de Laurentiis was the first with the will and resources for such endeavour. His choice for a director was, though, somewhat risky; David Lynch was director who brought attention with unusual visual styles and strictly personal tendencies towards bizarre in THE ELEPHANT MAN, his first mainstream picture, as well as with his experimental movie debut and future cult classic, ERASERHEAD. Choice of Lynch was a mix blessing for de Laurentiis; on the other hand, Lynch would deliver science fiction spectacle very different than usual genre products of those times, like STAR WARS or BATTLESTAR GALACTICA; on the other hand, his unconventional cinematic style was liability in terms of box-office success.

Unlike many other adaptations of popular fiction, and despite the fact that the Herbert himself had his own script version rejected, the movie plot was unusually faithful to the novel. It was set in a very distant future, some 25,000 years from now, when the humanity managed to conquer vast distances between the stars and settle on numerous worlds. The entire known universe is ruled by Padisha Emperor Shadam IV (Jose Ferrer) whose Empire contains areas controlled by different, and often feuding noble Houses. One of them is House of Atreides, led by Duke Leto (Juergen Pruchnow), whose charisma and popularity could be threat to the Emperor's supremacy. So the Emperor plots a complicated scheme, using the mortal feud between the Duke and rival House of Harkonnen, led by evil and sadistic Baron Vladimir (Kenneth MacMillan). He orders the Duke to occupy Arrakis, desolate and desert planet also known as Dune, previously controlled by Harkonnens. The planet is also rich with spice melange, substance essential for the interstellar travel, and of extreme importance for the powerful Guild of Space Navigators. Soon after the arrival, Duke's 15-year old son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) begins discovering the planet's mysteries. One of them is an existence of Fremen, local people whose legends and prophesies speak of the Messiah that would lead them to freedom.

Both those who like and who don't like the movie can agree that David Lynch's DUNE stands out as a very original piece of science fiction cinema. Lynch, together with the cast and crew, took a lot of effort in order to make this movie as different from other science fiction spectacles as possible. First there was a production design by Terry Masters and costumes by Bob Ringwood that gave the movie certain pseudohistorical, yet very recognisable atmosphere. Than there was music by pop group Toto, whose ambientalist sound, together with new age theme by Brian Eno, made the soundtrack very different from conventional themes by John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith. And, finally, Lynch himself was less interested in making spectacular scenes or special effects attractions than to use Herbert's script for his own visual obsessions. So, the scenes of space travel or prophetic visions are more surreal than spectacular; the characters, especially the bad guys like Harkonnens, are repulsive, both by their image and by their actions. Nice example is character of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen; he is hideously fat man with gruesome swellings on his face, and the senseless and brutal violence is the only thing that could provide him orgasmic pleasure. The character of Baron, brilliantly played by late veteran actor Kenneth MacMillan, is one of trademarks of the entire picture.

Under the shadow of MacMillan is a small army of other, very respected and capable actors. Main lead, Kyle MacLachlan, was a great fan of the novel, and the role of Paul Atreides, his great movie debut, was a task he had hoped and prepared for throughout his entire adult life. Lynch's choice in casting was perfect, and both artists would later continue their co-operation in other, somewhat more successful projects. Francesca Annis also left strong impact as Paul's mother Jessica, with her stunning combination of mature sexuality and commanding presence. Sadly, almost nobody else had a real opportunity to shine, because their characters were underdeveloped or underused.

The reason for that lies in the problem I noted above. Originally, Lynch envisioned DUNE as four hours long epic and tried very hard to follow novel, using only minor changes to the story or characters. Unfortunately, the producers were too afraid to follow suit, considering any movie over two hours long unprofitable at the box office. Results is a movie sliced into two distinctive halfs. First half is very good because the plot is followed very meticulously, with very few omissions from the original material. Lynch worked very hard to stay loyal to the novel; even the inner thoughts of the characters, one of the novel's most valuable elements, are delivered to the viewer through voice-over, although some of them happen to be slightly annoying as the time passes by. However, that annoyance is nothing compared to the second half of DUNE, when the plot gets sacrificed for the sake of smaller length. Many events from the novel, some of them very important, are omitted, and the rest is simply narrated instead of being portrayed according to novel. Character of Chani and Fremen in general don't get the attention they deserved. The rhythm of events finally slows down at the end, but the timing is again wrong; the ending doesn't follow the novel, and the anti-climactic duel between Paul and Feyd-Rauta is there only to please Sting fans, who were expecting some more screen time for the character played by their idol.

Such flaws became evident at the movie's initial release, when it flopped at the box-office. Reasons were simple: the audience, who had expected conventional science-fiction entertainment, was confused both by complicated plot and Lynch's original style. Despite that, David Lynch's DUNE managed to developed its own cult following, mostly thanks to Frank Herbert fans, hungry to see their favourite novel on the screen, even in such less than perfect condition. The movie became almost obligatory for all those who enjoyed Herbert's fiction; and such audience was the only one able to understand the picture. The cult continued to grow, later inspired entire new sub-genre of computer games (real time strategies), and to this very day DUNE remains a strong impulse for many people to start reading Herbert's books.

Copyright 1998 Dragan Antulov

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