A few months ago, as you may or may not remember, I took part in the Clarion West Write-a-Thon. Donors could purchase a movie review, should they opt to do so, and a man named Tom did.
Here is everything you need to know about Tom:
1. Tom is an assistant nurse manager of the ICU, one of the departments I work in.
2. Tom is a gigantic movie buff, like, he’s seen way, WAY, more movies than I have.
3. Tom’s movie opinions are completely wrong roughly 90% of the time.
Tom immediately jumped on the chance to purchase a review, and then, fiendishly, spent the next two months going back and forth on what he wanted to make me watch. Would he give me something he thought I’d genuinely enjoy, despite my fairly minimal interest? Would he give me something so ridiculously terrible that it would totally redefine the so-bad-it’s-AWFUL genre? These were hard considerations, and Tom delighted in proposing different alternatives every day, but in the end, the knowledge that I had never seen David Lynch’s Dune proved too much for him.
And so, good people, let us begin our journey into the world of Dune, a place of spice, Chosen Ones, gigantic worms, and winged underoos.
Yeah, there will be SPOILERS all over the place for this one. In my defense, this movie is (slightly) older than I am, so. You’ve had time.
Okay. There are four
lights planets: Desert World, Ocean World, Bad Guy World, and Emperor World. (The Emperor is also a bad guy, but just go with it.) Spice, the most important magic ingredient in the universe, is mined on Desert World. The Emperor sends House Atreides of Ocean World over to Desert World to take over spice mining, but secretly, the Emperor is in cahoots with House Harkonnen from Bad Guy World and plans to wipe out House Atreides, especially the Duke’s son, Paul (Kyle MacLachlan), who could very well be the prophesied Space Jesus. Spoilers: Paul IS Space Jesus, and this plot to kill him goes about as well as any other plan to preemptively murder a prophesied king or savior.
1. First, let’s be clear: I watched the theatrical version of Dune, which runs about two hours and fifteen minutes long. I have not read the book, nor seen the miniseries, and Mek and I only knew a few things about the story going in:
A. Kyle MacLachlan was in it.
B. Patrick Stewart was in it.
C. Spice was super important somehow.
D. There would be dunes, presumably.
I prepared myself for a confusing mess of a movie, as I’d been told repeatedly that the theatrical version of this movie made very little sense. Ultimately, I felt like I understood the basic story okay, but there were certainly elements that I didn’t quite understand or would have liked to have seen clarified. Dune is something of an exposition nightmare, and the first, say, ten minutes are much to blame for this.
Our story begins with Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen), who is obviously the Childlike Empress from The NeverEnding Story grown up. Princess Irulan will be narrating this movie for god knows what reason, as she is quite possibly the least important character in the whole thing; in fact, I’m struggling to remember if she even has lines outside of narration. (She probably does, but if so, they certainly don’t stand out.) I was sure she’d end up marrying Paul by the film’s end, stopping the rebellion, bringing peace to the universe, and giving her character some minor significance . . . but no, she mostly just stands there by her evil daddy. Okay, then.
Princess Irulan gives us a bunch of exposition face-to-face. (Occasionally, her face fades in and out, though, because of Reasons?) She also provides us with a helpful chart of the four planets I mentioned earlier, and continues to narrate here and there throughout the film. It’s probably not quite as bad as the exposition in Alone in the Dark (which has both voiceover narration and the longest opening crawl I’ve ever seen), but that’s honestly what I was thinking of while watching this. Which, if you weren’t sure, is bad. Sometimes you need to set up the world a little for your audience to understand the story, and that’s fine, but if you have to front load this much exposition? Yeah, you have problems.
2. Dune does something sort of interesting here, though, which movies seldom do: we hear the thoughts of multiple characters (and not just one protagonist) throughout the story. Considering how easily the medium lends itself to multiple perspectives, you’d actually think more movies would do this . . . but then again, there are challenges too, challenges that I can’t say Dune entirely succeeds in defeating.
For one thing, hearing the thoughts of multiple characters in a single scene can be a bit confusing, especially if you’re looking at one character but hearing someone else. And if you are looking at the person who’s narrating, that’s cool . . . but it can also sometimes feel like you’re watching the actor count the seconds until they’re allowed to do something other than stand there thinking. These aren’t insurmountable problems by any means, but the execution can be a little tricky.
My biggest problem with the narration here is that we regularly don’t need it. A dude doesn’t need to think she looks shifty or I wonder what she’s doing here before asking, “So, what exactly are you doing here?” You know, it’s called acting. If we hear a thought, it should inform the spoken line in some meaningful way; otherwise, it just tends to feel repetitive, and a lot of the time, the thoughts felt repetitive here. (Repetition, in general, was a problem with this movie. That could be useful at times, given the sheer amount of exposition to remember, but often it was unnecessary, like at one point I was just like, “Yes, yes, you’re the chosen one, I GET IT.”)
I’d really like to see multiple narration successfully executed in a film. I’m having a hard time thinking of an example, myself, though I’d love to hear one from you guys if you have a movie in mind. At the moment, all I’ve got is Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which worked great but really was just the one scene. (For my money, Dune probably did the best with voiceover work in the “attempted assassination on Paul” scene. Even then, I’m not entirely sure it was necessary . . . but it didn’t feel totally unnatural, either.)
3. On the upside, Dune is very visually interesting.
As if that was some shock with David Lynch at the helm, I know. Still, it’s worth being said: the movie looks entirely alien and original, and I mean, from right off the bat. The Guild Navigator in his weird, like, train car thing really emphasizes immediately how different this world is going to be. (Although I think the film could have done a better job explaining him and the Council in general, not to mention how the whole interstellar travel thing really works. Yes, yes, spice, I know. But I wouldn’t have minded a touch more detail because when I watched the travel scene itself, I mostly just had the impression of a giant wrinkled space worm farting out a wormhole. It somewhat loses the gravitas.)
4. I’m also all about the costuming/makeup/hair of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood.
These ladies are interesting: they’re kind of awesome, but they’re also giving me pretty strong Rand flashbacks. Okay, not that strong–I barely remember the few Wheel of Time books I actually read–but strong enough. In general, I’m not a huge fan of stories that seem to present women with All The Power but then pick one super special snowflake dude as The Real Hero and/or The One With The Mostest Power Ever. Not to mention, if I understand it correctly, the whole purpose of the Order is to successfully breed the All-Powerful Messiah Dude, like, that’s what these women’s lives are all about? Having a boy superbaby? Er, yay? (This reminds me of a good article on Tor.com called “Writing Women Characters As Human Beings” by Kate Elliott; for those who don’t feel like looking at this article just yet, let me highlight a particularly salient passage: “Be cautious with the popular Mother Figure, for as I once described the film Immortals: Men can aspire to be divine. Women can aspire to have sons who can grow up to be men who can aspire to be divine.”)
Some of this could probably be offset if the individual female characters were more interesting or complex. Unfortunately, that’s not really the case here: Princess Irulan is, as previously mentioned, completely insignificant to the plot and has no personality to speak of. Chani (Sean Young) is Paul’s love interest, and not much else. She’s mostly just around to look becoming in Paul’s prophetic dreams; otherwise, she is almost as inconsequential as Princess Irulan. And Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, has one pretty badass moment where she psychically influences one of her captors to kill the other . . . but that’s about the extent of it. Otherwise, she has very little personality herself and spends what feels like a significant amount of time trailing after Paul, crying, and otherwise being useless in the desert. (According to IMDb trivia, Glenn Close turned down the role of Lady Jessica because she didn’t want to play “the girl who is always running down and falling behind men,” which feels like a pretty fair criticism.) Lady Jessica does get to level-up in power, but she doesn’t actually do anything interesting with that power, like, it has zero bearing on the plot.
Or wait, that’s not true! Leveling up means she has a baby, specifically, a premie girl who is born with an adult mind, grows impossibly fast, and has ready-made spiritual spice powers!
Alia is pretty cool but also feels deeply inconsequential, despite the fact that she kills the primary villain (well, with a giant worm assist). Her whole character just feels thrown-in, like, she has zero development, and can’t have more than five minutes screentime, and I have no idea why she is the one, of all people, who kills Harkonnen. On the plus side, she’s kind of a creepy little delight, particularly when she speaks with Evil Spice Voice, and I was totally amused to find out that she was played by Baby Alicia Witt. It’s also nice to see that, for once, the Magically Rapid-Aging Baby didn’t end up a 20-something evil sexpot, which is something of a minor trope that I just can’t stand.
So, that leaves us with one last female character of significance: the Reverend Mother Mohiam (Siân Phillips).
The Reverend Mother is probably the most interesting of all the female characters, but I also found her motivations and goals a little bit confusing, at least on a first viewing. We meet her straightaway, working with/for the Evil Emperor, and I figured, “Okay, so here’s our Villain Lady, check.”
But then the Reverend Mother goes to visit Lady Jessica and young Paul Atreides; significantly, she does not try to murder young Paul even a little, despite the fact that killing him is totally a big deal on the Bad Guys’ To-Do List. I mean, okay, she does give him a test to see if he has the potential to be Space Jesus, and if he fails, yeah, she gets to kill him. I mean, it’s a pretty harsh system; I’m not gonna lie. I’m pretty relieved that’s not how first interviews for job applications generally go. Still, nobody would have to know that he passed the test. How hard would it have been for the Reverend Mother to be like “Oh no, he totally failed, and I was forced to stab him in the neck. Condolences all around?”
Instead, she pretty much just lets him live, so it really feels to me like the Reverend Mother was basically the Hagrid of this story, you know, telling our protagonist, “You’re a wizard, Harry!” and putting him on the path to eventual heroism. As this seemed like a weird thing for a bad guy to do, I automatically assumed she was secretly working with the good guys and kept assuming that for a really long time, until it become apparent that, nope, she’s just evil. (I guess she wanted him to be Space Jesus after all, but, like, maybe submissive to her? Or maybe she couldn’t bring herself to kill him but hoped he would die anyway? I don’t know, it’s weird.)
5. Should I try to get back to actually recapping the story, or is it a little too late for that? Fuck it, let’s try it anyway, right? Right, okay, so, to their credit, House Atreides correctly and immediately suspects that they’re being played, but they go along to Desert World, anyway, thinking they have this shit under control. They do not have this shit under control, however, because they don’t suspect a traitor in their own midst: Doctor Yueh (Dean Stockwell).
It turns out that the bad guys have kidnapped the doctor’s wife and are coercing him into helping their whole secret invasion deal. This is a little confusing because they apparently had to break his “conditioning” to do so, as I guess the doc was literally incapable of causing physical harm to anyone before? Which, I mean, that’s sort of random, right? It felt really random to me, especially since I initially misunderstood Lady Jessica’s line; I had correctly assumed that the bad guys were leveraging the doc’s wife, but when Lady Jess talked about conditioning, I thought she meant that the bad guys had actually brainwashed the Doc into helping them. And sure, that’s my error, but my point is this: why even bring the do-no-harm conditioning into the movie in the first place? You know? That’s just an extra detail that you totally don’t need and actually ends up feeling underdeveloped because so little time is spent on it.
It’s hard to say without reading the novel, of course, but sometimes I get the impression that Dune might have been a more successful movie, all in all, if it had been a bit more divergent from its source material. (Cue book fans screaming about how divergent the movie already is. I get you, guys. I’ve been there.)
Anyway. Yueh seems to know that his wife is already doomed, yet either can’t bring himself to abandon her or is just super, super determined to get revenge on Baron H. Admittedly, both of these motivations are obviously understandable, but, like, Yueh gets a lot of people killed for the meager chance to see his wife again and the slightly higher chance of avenging her. It’s actually pretty callous, when you think about it. I sort of like that, actually, the incredibly high cost of his revenge–and he doesn’t even try to get the revenge personally; he totally sacrifices Duke Atreides to do it! Which is also an interesting and callous, if clearly flawed, choice, because the problem with getting actively dying men to do your dirty work is that they are, you know, actively dying, and can be so preoccupied with that unfortunate business that they spit their toxic poison goo shit into the wrong face, accidentally killing Minor Villain Brad Dourif instead of the real Big Bad.
Goodbye, Brad Dourif, you perennially creepy weirdo, you.
6. This seems as good of a time as any to express how much I hated this movie’s Big Bad.
I don’t just mean because he was super obnoxious and annoying, although he was and that didn’t exactly endear me to this movie, either, like, I really didn’t like this guy. But no, it’s also that Baron Harkonnen is problematic as fuck. For one thing, he is the epitome of the Stereotypical Fat Villain; woe that I did not watch this movie before I wrote my Trope Anatomy 101 column on pervasive fat tropes across pop culture. He’s actually referred to as that “floating fat man” (although the fat-phobia is apparently far worse in the books, which I’ll get to in a second). For another, he has serious shades of the Depraved Homosexual; of course, it’s totally possible to have non-problematic gay villains (although it’s always a little eyebrow raising when the only gay characters in the story are also the bad guys) but the way he leers at men, especially this one servant boy . . it seems pretty clear to me that his attraction to dudes is supposed to be disgusting, something to make him seem even more evil, and that’s just totally gross and not okay.
And according to my research on Wikipedia, both of these things are even worse in the books: Baron Harkonnen is described as “grossly and immensely fat,” so fat, in fact, that he requires these anti-gravity devices called suspensors to support himself. (He floats around in these suspensors during the movie, too, but I didn’t actually realize that this had anything to do with his weight. I just figured he was getting his villainous M. Bison groove on.) Worse, in Prelude to Dune, apparently this crazy gross bullshit happens: the Reverend Mother Mohiam needs to collect some Baron spunk for the Space Jesus Breeding Program, so she blackmails a young, handsome, and fit Baron H into having sex with her; otherwise, she’ll tell everyone about his gay sex life. He goes through with it, but Mohiam isn’t happy with how the first baby turns out, so she kills the child and goes back to Baron H for a do-over. Baron H is like “nope” and drugs and horrifically rapes the Reverend Mother, who later curses him with some incurable diseases that causes him to get so “immensely” fat. Oh, and this is all how Lady Jessica is born, BTW.
. . . and I can now safely say I have no interest in ever reading these books, or at the very least, not Prelude to Dune. Jesus H. Christ.
7. Another underwhelming villain: Feyd (Sting) of the Winged Underroos.
Like, okay, Sting is kind of a fun villain. It’s just that he could have been such an amazingly iconic villain, like, think about it: he’s got a British accent, an incredibly signature look, a decent evil smirk, etc. But his character is ultimately kind of dull because there’s nothing to him; there’s all this buildup for the Big Fight between him and Paul, right, but not only is the fight over so fast, like, why are they even fighting at all? I mean, why does Sting have such a big hard-on for killing Paul in the first place? What’s the history there? Who is this guy? He’s such a frustrating non-character, like so many of the characters in this story. He’s an important villain in the sense that he’s the final villain to be taken down, but he’s also not much more than a glorified henchman; I’m not even sure he counts as a Super Second Banana.
8. Crap, I lost the plot again, didn’t I? Well, honestly, there’s not a whole lot of plot left anyway. The Evil Emperor’s plan works, and House Atreides is almost entirely wiped out. Shockingly, Gurney (Patrick Stewart) lives, along with Paul and Jessica, of course. The latter two escape and live with the Magic Desert People. (Gurney shows up a little later.) This is promptly when Dune loses any small amount of momentum or tension it had going for it because at least until this point there’s the question of if the Evil Plan will succeed or, more likely, how many people will die when it does (not so much who will die, though, since we’re basically flat out told that Paul’s dad isn’t going to make it, and Duncan Idaho might as well have worn a shirt that said Dead Meat on it). Not to mention Paul is still very much at the beginning of his Hero’s Journey shit, so there seems to be all this stuff he needs to learn and do before he can become Space Jesus.
Except that’s not exactly the case here because once Paul joins up with the Magical Desert People, it’s like we’ve jumped very quickly from the beginning of A New Hope and “I want to learn the ways of the force” to the near-end of Mortal Kombat and “I have nothing further to teach you, Liu Kang” with not a lot of journey in between and way too much time left in the film. In fact, it’s up to Paul now to teach everyone The Weirding Way–more on that in a bit–otherwise, he has nothing else to do. Seriously, we have like 80 minutes left in this movie, but Paul is pretty much done facing any real challenges, like, sure, he has to capture a giant sandworm, but he basically just hops on it, and boom, sandworm captured. And he has to take the Water of Life, too, which oughta be tense since no man has ever survived the ritual, but one, we all know he’s going to survive because the movie has basically told us, like, 87 times that he will, and two, the scene itself is mostly just some miscellaneous images, a bunch of lines we’ve already heard, and a whole lot of random, insignificant bleeding. It’s not engaging, just vaguely artsy.
And even storming the castle (so to speak) seems incredibly easy; the plan works perfectly, with no real complications, defeats, or losses. And the Final Battle itself between Paul and Feyd is almost a Flawless Victory.
In a way, it almost feels like the story should end about an hour before the movie actually does. This doesn’t appear to bother the people who love this film, but to me, it’s a significant problem.
9. Dune is apparently the only movie that David Lynch considers a failure, primarily because he sold out and chopped it the way the studio wanted. And there are obviously things that have been left out, like at one point Paul seems to callback to an earlier scene that I’m pretty sure didn’t actually take place. There are definitely moments where more detail would help.
Still, it’s issues like the film’s entirely disengaging second half that make me think that adding all the deleted material in the world wouldn’t make me think this movie was a masterpiece. Ambitious, yes. Influential, absolutely. Dune is already both of these things. But great as its own work, one that stands on its own two feet? Nope, not for me. Although in full disclosure, I should probably point out that I’m not entirely inclined to trust David Lynch’s opinion on much of anything, much less studio interference, since I’m still unreasonably pissed at him for the fact that he never planned to solve Laura Palmer’s murder on Twin Peaks and only did so under studio pressure. Seriously, I’m so angry about that, I’m still not sure I want to watch the new Twin Peaks when it finally airs. (Although I probably will cave because, like, cliffhangers and how’s Annie? Still. I’m gonna be grumpy about it.)
10. Is it time for the ABC’s of Random yet? I think it is.
10A. Details I would have appreciated more elaboration on: how, exactly, is the worm the spice/the spice the worm? Like, are the worms so massive that the people are actually mining into them and thinking they’re mining into rock instead? Or do they actually know what they’re doing and just don’t care? Or are they not mining into living creatures but massive dead worms, like, are we talking worm corpse and graveyard desecration here? Or am I being too literal: are the spice and the worms only somehow metaphorically the same thing? Is life spice, you guys? Is spice the worm of life?
Also, more importantly, is THIS where the giant worms from Tremors came from? Man, I should go back and watch that movie again with a whole new appreciation.
10B. This movie has quite the impressive cast. I know I’ve already mentioned many of them, but seriously: Kyle MacLachlan, Brad Dourif, José Ferrer, Linda Hunt, Richard Jordan, Virgina Madsen, Patrick Stewart, Sting, Dean Stockwell, Max Van Sydow, Alicia Witt, Sean Young, etc. It’s a lot.
Despite the talent of this cast, though, I’m at something of a loss to pick an MVP. The characters are given so little to do that no one’s acting really stands out to me, and the only people who I really feel sorry for are probably Max von Sydow and Linda Hunt, both with minor roles who are quickly bumped off. (Especially Linda Hunt, who is very possibly a contender for Worst Waste of An Actor’s Considerable Talent. I was so bummed when she was killed off so unceremoniously.) Meanwhile, Kyle MacLachlan easily has the most to do, but this isn’t exactly what I’d call his best role, either. He’s not terrible, certainly, but he’s not always the easiest to take seriously.)
10C. Between Paul’s Fluffy Savior Hair, Gurney’s Terrible Desert Hair, Brad Douriff’s Insane Eyebrows, and Sting’s . . . er . . . Noticeable Undies, I’m pretty sure Dune is winning for something when it comes to my superlatives later this year. This is the kind of prestige movies look for, I know.
10D. Dune has an interesting soundtrack. Not one that I loved or hated, exactly, certainly nothing that I’m rushing to go out and buy–but it did stand out. Mek and I may or may not have started air guitaring at some points.
10E. Also: nothing made Mekaela and I giggle so much as the fight scenes with the body shields. I mean, in a way, they’re actually kind of cool, like I like the idea of them. But this movie was also made in 1984, so they’re also pretty hilarious. I need one of my own immediately.
10F. I also kind of want to lie down on some random floor in a public place (mall, sidewalk, whatever) and then dramatically sit up and scream at passing people, “THE SLEEPER HAS AWAKENED!” I won’t do it, of course . . . but I’ll continue to daydream about it. (This almost got the title quote, BTW, but the whole ‘he who controls spice controls the universe’ reminded me of Dr. Crusher’s hilarious line from TNG: “If there’s nothing wrong with me, maybe there’s something wrong with the universe!” That particular line has always cracked me up, so, there you go.)
10G. You know what else I’m not totally sure I got in this movie? Concubines. Like, okay, Lady Jessica is a concubine, right, and shortly before he bites the big one, Paul’s father laments not actually marrying her. Which I’d totally get if she was treated poorly or wasn’t in a position of power or whatever, but everyone seems to treat Lady Jessica like a totally respectable duchess, like, I often forgot she actually wasn’t his wife by law, so . . . I feel like I’m missing something here.
10H. For more artsy scenes that didn’t really work for me: Lady Jessica’s delivery of Premature Alia, possibly because it looks like the baby is slowly emerging not from the womb, but from a small crater in Hell.
1oI. Finally, I almost forgot to go back to the Weirding Way! But I’m also eager to finally wrap this up, so very quickly: the Weirding Way is like this whole secret fighting method where the good guys somehow shape certain thoughts in their mind and use the sound of those thoughts as a sonic weapon, or something. It’s actually a pretty interesting concept, but feels underused and underdeveloped; I suspect I nearly forgot about it because it feels like the movie forgets about it too for a good chunk of the story.
Also, some of the actors are a bit more successful than others at using the Weirding Way without looking and sounding totally ridiculous. Kyle MacLachlan generally works for me in this regard. Sean Young, on the other hand, isn’t one of the more successful ones, I’m afraid.
Princess Irulan: “A beginning is a very delicate time.”
Paul: “Shield practice? Gurney, we had practice this morning. I’m not in the mood.”
Gurney: “Not in the mood? Moods are a thing for cattle and love play, not fighting.”
Duke Atreides: “I’ll miss the sea, but a person needs new experiences. They jar something deep inside, allowing him to grow. Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.”
Paul: “They tried and failed?”
Reverend Mother Mohiam: “They tried and died.”
Like, I didn’t hate it. I don’t have any particular need to ever see it again, but it wasn’t totally awful; it has an original look, and it’s clearly an influential film, and I got a decent sense of how ambitious of a project it really was. Still, the characters are thin, the bad guy is hugely problematic, the pacing is all off, and the more I think about it, the more that the story itself just doesn’t do all that much for me. Some ideas are cool, but some also feel kind of trite. It’s not a bad story, but I don’t think it’s a hugely interesting one, either.
Max von Sydow. Because the hell with it, I liked him. He made the most of his limited screen time.
Men can do anything women can do better. (Or at least Special Snowflake Men, anyway.)
Try new things, even if new things have the potential of getting you and your whole family killed someday, cause, like, you don’t want to be stagnant and not grow and stuff. Waking up emotionally is, like, super important.
Kill your enemy directly whenever you have the chance. Seriously, don’t try to be sneaky or prolong this shit: if you get other people to do your dirty work for you, it won’t get done, and if you’re the bad guy of this story, that means the dude you want dead will inevitably be coming for your ass, with or without weird blue eyes, mystical powers, and a giant sandworm at his disposal.