Top critical review
Bad Opera (GREAT bad opera)
June 2, 2018
In 1984, my dad took me to see DUNE at a big theater in Washington, D.C. As we sat down, an usher passed out one-page "glossaries of terms" for the film's terminology. Though only twelve years old, I was already a veteran moviegoer (we probably saw 50 movies a year as a family when I was growing up, not including matinee rewatches) and remembered thinking, "Uh-oh...since when does a film need a glossary?" I'd never seen anything like that before. I never saw anything like that since. But that's David Lynch's take on DUNE. It's unique. And the "Extended Edition" in this pretty steel case is even more unique.
DUNE was an almost incredibly deep science-fiction work by Frank Herbert which developed a rabid cult following and finally became the best-selling sci-fi novel of all time. Eccentric director David Lynch was tapped to helm what its producers hoped would be another "Star Wars" - style mega-hit. He tackled the intimidating task of cramming an enormous and intricate universe into a single movie by making the most lavish, operatic film you've ever seen. It's bad opera, but it's SO lavish, and so curiously sincere, that it too has developed a rabid cult following. I don't know if I belong to the cult, but I respect those who do. The book DUNE sucked you in with the complexity of its creative surround; this movie does the same, but on a largely visual level. If I can use a different metaphor, it's like that scene in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" when our famished heroes sit down to the royal banquet and get served fried insects, live snakes, and monkey heads. The food is weird and disgusting, but it's served on silver platters and white linen, and all the cutlery is gold.
DUNE is set in the distant, distant future, when humanity spans the entire galaxy and is theoretically ruled by the corrupt and devious Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV and his terrifying legions of Sarduakar. Balancing the emperor's might are the Great Houses, the hereditary rulers of each individual planet in the imperium, each with its own army. The most valuable substance in the universe is the spice melange, a substance which extends life and gives prescient powers to those who take it in large quantities, but also allows spaceships to "fold space" and travel instantaneously anywhere in the galaxy, "traveling without moving." This substance is found on only one planet, Arrakis, known as Dune because its a giant desert. At the story's opening, the emperor schemes to destroy a particular house of which he has become jealous, House Atriedes, by throwing his weight behind the Atreides' worst enemy, House Harkonnen.
House Atreides is ruled by the virtuous Duke Leto, his witch-concubine the Lady Jessica, and their teenage son Paul. Although Paul does not know it, he is the end-product of a breeding program 90 generations old, designed by the witch sisterhood the Bene Gesserit, to produce a superhuman being. In the mean time, the Atreides have developed a new battle technique called "the weriding way" which uses sound as a weapon, but the technique is in its infancy when the Emperor orders the Atreides to take over spice-mining from the Harkonnens on Dune. The Atreides know it's a trap, but have no choice but to obey; in any case the Duke hopes to win over the local populace, the fierce desert warriors known as Fremen, to his cause. He suspects the Fremen are the key to holding Dune. Not long after the Atreides arrive, however, they are betrayed from within and largely wiped out in a sneak attack conducted by the Harkonnens and Sarduakar. Only Paul and his mother Jessica survive, and flee into the deep desert. They soon join the Fremen, who are awed by the fighting abilities Paul and his witch-mother possess, and accept them into their tribe. Paul, whose powers are growing due to his proximity to so much spice, becomes a religious figure among the Fremen, a warrior-prophet, and, after mastering the secret of "desert power" begins the long bloody process of trying to wrest Dune from Harkonnen control. This guerilla war prompts the exasperated Emperor to openly side with the Harkonnens, and he arrives at the film's climax with his entire army, ready for the showdown. Because, after all, he who controls the spice controls the universe!
If this seems a bit involved for a recap, just imagine everything I left out! DUNE, as a novel, was layered with all sorts of ideas, concepts, and unfamiliar terms. Mentats, sandworms, guild navigators, Bene Gesserit witches, Sarduakar, sword-masters, thumpers, body shields, Suk doctors, Great Houses, the Landsraad, CHOAM, the spice, etc., etc. What's more, much of the book is written via internal monologue, which is a very tricky thing to translate to film. David Lynch manfully attempted to drag as many of these concepts into the movie as possible, including many sequences in which we can hear the characters' thoughts, and probably did too good of a job; he overloaded the 127 minutes of the theatrical version to the point where it could barely move...hence the "glossary" I got as a twelve year-old. What's more, it's fairly evident that a great deal more time was spent on the costume and production design than on the script, which is horribly clunky and often falls out of the actors' mouths like wet wooden blocks. Though the movie is positively jam-packed with talent (Kyle Maclachlan, Juergen Prochnow, Jose Ferrer, Sean Young, Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell, Sting, Kenneth McMillan, Virginia Madsen, Freddie Jones, Brad Dourif, Max von Sydow, etc., etc.) one gets the sense some of the cast just didn't know what the hell they were doing or how to approach doing it. Some scenes are terribly over-acted, almost to the point of silent movie style emoting. The final theatrical product is a bold, brassy mess of a movie, visually often stunning, intellectually charismatic, but executed in such an eccentric, awkward style that it's just bizarre...too weird for most people to enjoy.
After DUNE bombed -- if it wasn't a bomb, it was certainly a disappointment critically and commercially -- many people voiced the opinion that a longer version with less choppy editing and a more fleshed-out story would have worked wonders. So a massive 176 minute version, incorporating many deleted sequences as well as a completely different opening with much more exposition and backstory, was put together and released on television. I watched this when it came out, and was very intrigued by the added sequences, some of which -- like the dining-room scene where Gurney Halleck plays his balliset, or where Feyd-Rautha stuffs the Atreides insignia into Dr. Yeuh's mouth, or the fight scene between Jamis and Paul -- would have helped the story flow more smoothly together had they been shown in the theater. Unfortunately, others, like some of the scenes where Paul is taught Fremen mysteries, are so badly written as to be embarrassing. Everett McGill was saddled with nearly all the film's worst lines, and one gets a sense that Lynch was aware of this, for he made sure to employ McGill (and Machlachan) in TWIN PEAKS. A few sequences, like the throne-room confrontation at the opening of the movie, both gain and lose by the changes: some of the takes used in the Extended Edition are worse than in the Theatrical, but they reveal more information. One thing that particularly annoyed me was that even though this version is 39 minutes longer, it has several cuts -- the Baron's infamous "heart plug" assault on one hapless Harkonnen minion is cut out, as is the sequence where he spits on Lady Jessica's face. So amidst all the addition there are some subtle subtractions meant to make the film more palatable to a TV audience.
It is well known that David Lynch wanted nothing to do with the Extended Addition and had his name taken off it, hence the "Alan Smithee" at the beginning. And truth be told, it's not an easy film to watch at one sitting. It's slow and heavy and sometimes quite incomprehensible, and while you can be visually seduced by the uniforms, gadgets, sets and props, it takes a better man than me to sit through some of it with a straight face (or open eyes). Having said that, if you watched the Theatrical version of DUNE and felt frustrated by what seemed to be missing, or are a hardcore fan of the film period, you pretty much have to own this version. It contains enough extra material to more than pay for itself and as I've said, some of the added stuff is well worth watching. This is one bad opera that will have you coming back for more.