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DUNE The Review

Human Rating: 3 / 5 Alien Rating: Crop Circle

The spice must flow!

Dune's biggest problem is that it is simply too ambitious for its own good. It tries to condense Frank Herbert's Byzantine (as the critics always refer to it) novel into a movie with a mere two hours and twenty minutes of running time. A big, epic work, just the first novel in Herbert's series actually warrants it being made into a mini-series for TV, which probably explains why it is being re-filmed as just such a series for the Sci-Fi Channel. Director David Lynch (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet) had it right when he described his movie as "a garbage compactor. Things are supposed to be mysterious, not confusing."

Later on, a 190-minute version of the movie was prepared from scratch for TV airings. Apparently it added much new narration and footage that weren't used in the theatrical version. However, Lynch protested about this version and the TV version credits "Allen Smithee" as director (the pseudonym used when no director wants to be associated with a particular project - usually a sign that is bad, VERY bad).

I've never seen the extended version (however critics still maintain that it remains a "bloated mess"), but the point remains that while over ambitious, the movie version of Dune actually manages to fit most of the novel's main events into its inadequate running time.

Along the way it will however confuse newcomers who haven't read Herbert's (deservedly) classic sci-fi novel and will likely disappoint those who have read it because it does omit some of the novel's key events. For example, you would never have guessed it from the movie, but the young Messiah figure (played by Kyle Mclachlan) actually marries the Emperor's daughter, who supplies the film's voice-over narration, to become Emperor of the Known Universe himself!

Lynch resorts to several techniques to cram the novel's contents into the film's running time. First, there is the voice-over narrator who also happens to [be] a minor character in the movie (said Emperor's daughter). This narrator supplies the opening narration that serves as exposition which some critics have labeled "completely incomprehensible!"

Second, there is that old hoary chestnut of a narration technique that can possibly be best described as the audience listening in on the characters' thoughts. That's right: cue some close-ups of character's frowned expressions as their thoughts are expressed verbally on the soundtrack.

To be honest I found this technique most off-putting and the last I ever saw this technique actually applied was probably an old Twilight Zone episode or something. Sure, we in the audience don't want to be bewildered by onscreen events, but most of the time these "mental notes" are superfluous and merely add what some other character has already stated or what the audience has already deduced. Not resorting to this technique would have probably meant a longer running time to explain events - but, like I said, this is what the movie is most in need of.

Dune is packed with a horde of characters and various subplots. Ultimately, no time is spent on any of these characters as to develop them or turn them into anything resembling characters we know or care about. When the movie has ground to its halt, the lasting effect is that of emotional uninvolvement with the story.

Good sci-fi is about creating universes and imagining what life living in them would be like (Blade Runner (1982) for example did this right to a degree). When it rains at the end this leaves no impression on the viewer because the movie, unlike the novel, doesn't spend as much time on the scarcity of water and its necessity and why it is important that it should rain on the desert world.

Then there's the special effects and photography. I received a copy of Dune on video as a birthday present from my kid brother. He has never seen the movie before (nor read the book and only knows Dune from the strategy games that came out a few years back) and after viewing it [he] thought the film was made sometime in the 1970s before Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)!

That's because the special effects have aged so badly (if they ever were that good to start off with). In fact most of the effects involve thick matte lines around models against patently fake backgrounds. That most of the spaceships in the movie look like something from old 1930s Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon serials doesn't help either. Then there are the cardboard rocks, substandard (even by its own time) computer graphics and obvious models of buildings and cities!

Surprisingly, the photography is also bad - everything looks murky and dark because of the washed out brownish colours. I can't remember the photography being this bad when I first saw it and don't know whether it has anything to do with the conversion to video. Maybe old used film stock had been used. (Anyone with the movie on DVD out there? E-mail me and let me know whether the images are crispier and clearer in the DVD version.)

Taken on its own terms - i.e. not as an adaptation of the Herbert novels or as part of Lynch's filmic output - Dune does offer the sci-fi fan (and casual fan) some highly original viewing material. Dune is one of a sort. Some of the sets are well done, the imagery is suitably surreal and the evil Duke ("the floating fat man," as one character refers to him) is a memorable villain indeed. In fact, the more pure Lynch-ian moments involve the evil Harkonnens and their predilection for leaking black fluid (like oil) from various orifices and facial boils.

Once you get past the film's myriad of mistakes it is easy to see why a small cult following has emerged around the movie. It didn't help the film's producers though - it cost a lot ($40 million back then) and it lost a lot...

(While doing research for this article I came across the interesting piece of info that director David Lynch was asked to direct Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983)! The man behind Lost Highway, Wild at Heart, the Twin Peaks TV show and so forth turned it down, but imagine what he would have done with the material!)

Review by James O'Ehley from The Sci-Fi Movie Page.

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