Review: Dune (the 1984 movie)

Not many people admire this movie, and even writer-director David Lynch reportedly finds it too painful to talk about. I don’t recall what convinced me to watch it on Blu-ray recently, but I don’t regret it, though neither do I particularly recommend it.

Most characters are pretty one-dimensional. Baron Harkonnen’s corruption is literal, his face so full of erupting pustules that he keeps a full-time dermatologist on staff just to poke at them with dental instruments. He’s so fat there could be an entire separate category of he’s-so-fat jokes about him. He’s so fat he wears a (literal) flying suit so he can zip around everywhere without needing to walk. (I want one!) He’s so fat the only exercise he gets is exercising his Evil Villain Laugh, which like his skin is infectious: When he laughs evilly, so do his chief henchmen.

And they’re pretty bad boys in their own right. One, known (probably from grade school) as The Beast Raban, could be the baron’s baby brother. At one point he rips the tongue out of a cow and walks around snacking on it. At least I think that’s what I saw. I was not about to run it back to make sure. The other henchman, played by Sting, does one scene wearing nothing but a Speedo with a gigantic winged hood ornament on the front, the whole while cackling uproariously, as if he’d just seen himself in a mirror. Not to be outdone, the baron derives an apparent erotic thrill from murdering a frightened delivery boy from the florists’. After a while, you start to wonder about these people.

It’s often said that the film is hard to follow if you haven’t read Frank Herbert’s novel. Well, I haven’t read it in decades and barely remember it, but I still had no trouble figuring out what was going on in the movie. True, some key pieces of exposition are tossed out so quickly in passing that you might miss them, so you do need to pay attention. Then again, other details are practically pounded into your skull. For example, I guarantee that you won’t miss the fact that the young hero, Kyle MacLachlan, thinks there might be a connection between the giant sandworms and Old Spice.

Right at the start, Princess Virginia Madsen’s floating head gives the audience an orientation briefing (though reception is bad and the picture keeps fading in and out), and moments later Emperor Jose Ferrer gets into a conversation with the giant fetal Richard Nixon, which travels around in a classy parade float aquarium, and the two of them efficiently summarize what you’re going to see in the first half of the movie.

Of course, that’s not really Nixon’s fetus, that’s a third degree black belt Navigator of the Spacer’s Guild (affiliated with the Teamsters), a highly mutated human/sea-monkey hybrid able to warp space by snorting Old Spice and blowing it out what might be an atrophied nose seen in close-up and might be something else I don’t want to think about. The importance of the planet Dune, as Princess Virginia Madsen’s floating head nearly forgot to tell us earlier (she actually says, “I almost forgot”), is that it’s the only place in the whole known Universe where you can get Old Spice, without which space travel is impossible. (I gather it’s also useful for a lot of other things, from extending lifespans to cleaning the silverware.) But hang on, if space travel requires Old Spice you can only get from Dune, how did people get to Dune in the first place? That Princess Virginia Madsen’s floating head did forget to tell us.

This isn’t the only mystery. There’s no apparent vegetation or other photosynthetic food source on Dune, and the only resident species we see are sandworms and humans, so how does that ecology even begin to work? No idea. Maybe Kyle MacLachlan is right and it’s all Old Spice.

If you overlook the really lousy blue-screen effects (which are indefensible given the budget and the fact that Dune was released after the first three Star Wars films), the visuals are quite striking. David Lynch and other talented people worked on the production design literally for years before filming began, creating memorable alien architectures, costumes, and props. Given other things I've seen by Lynch, I'm inclined to blame the studio rather than Lynch for a lot of the film's problems, especially the poor quality of the photographic effects. Note, incidentally, that Lynch had nothing to do with the the extended edits you might have run across.

Also adding to the visual richness is actress Francesca Annis as Duke Leto’s live-in girlfriend Jessica Rabbit, who is described as his “bound concubine,” though we only get to see her tied up once. She’s Kyle MacLachlan’s mother and a member of the Bunny Gesserit sisterhood that controls all manner of things behind the scenes because they just like to meddle. (The Supreme Reverend Mother of the Known Universe is Mary Worth if you're old enough to get that reference.) They have the highly useful ability to make people do their bidding, Jedi style, simply by imitating the voice of jazz great Louis Armstrong.

In brief: Uneven. An interesting disappointment.

(Updated 2015-05-13 to correct some minor typos and wording problems.)

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