Skip to main content

The Worm is the Spice! The Spice is the Worm!

Dune
(1984)

(SPOILERS) Dune was (still is?) one of those movies that seemed to be a fixture in student houses of “a certain disposition”, frequently played and part of the furniture, but not really absorbed. Easier to stare at rather than fully engage with. Unless, I presume, you were already an aficionado of Frank Herbert’s gargantuan novels. I’ve seen it said of the Harry Potter movieverse that you really need to have read the books to get all you can from them, but the only one where I really felt that was the case was The Prisoner of Azkaban, which seemed to have some whacking great narrative holes in need of filling. David Lynch’s Dune, the source material of which I also haven’t read, most certainly suffers from such a malaise, the measures taken to impart the dense plot overwhelming the challenge of making an engaging motion picture. It’s just too stuffed, too conscious of the need to move onto the next sequence or barely-defined character, such that it ends up simultaneously shallow and inaccessibly detailed. And yet, it definitely has something. This is no forgettable blockbuster bomb. It’s rich with striking imagery and moments, and occasionally performances (just occasionally); what’s indelible about it is definitely the Lynch factor, but that might also be what prevents it from being a digestible science fiction epic, one that appeals to more than the Herbert faithful.


Of course, the stodginess might simply be that Dune’s unadaptable as a movie. Certainly, Andrei Jodorowsky seemed to have had the right general idea in foreseeing the need for a 14-hour(!) film. And Ridley Scott, who was attached before moving on to Blade Runner, intended to split the book into two; while I don’t doubt his version would have been sumptuous in its own way (he was at the height of his world-building powers at the time), it’s debatable whether he would have had the mental aptitude for Herbert’s material.


Lynch may not have read the book, or had any interest in science fiction, but his sensibility seems to fit its quasi-spiritual, portent-infused universe like a glove. He envisaged a three-hour movie but was forced to cut it down for commercial purposes, and was even working on Dune Messiah, it is said, when the picture bombed (he did, of course, take his name off the Alan Smithee 186-minute longer cut that has surfaced on DVD and TV). Although, then we’d have a very different Lynch career (“I started selling out on Dune”; the implication being that it’s failure was a wake-up call that course-corrected the auteur, and with the subsequent high of Blue Velvet, it’s hard to argue with that analysis).


The Scott near-miss is indicative that this isn’t a book you can hand to any old handyman, whether or not they profess love for the original text. It needs, to a greater or lesser extent, a visionary nursing it to realisation. It’s that, as much as the unwieldy aspect, that has stymied subsequent attempts to adapt it; the 2000 mini-series seems to have generally gone down like a bag of wet sick among the faithful, and we should be grateful that nothing came of the attempts by Peter Berg (“Dune, from the director of Battleship and other assorted, knuckle-brained, jingoistic crap”) and Pierre Morel. Paramount lost its option five years ago, and Richard P Rubinstein (who has a producer credit on the Sci-Fi Channel series) is still the rights holder. He could do worse than tout it around at HBO. They could do with a big, broad, bulky epic when Game of Thrones expires in a few years, custom-fitted as it is for seven or eight seasons (including his son’s posthumously penned seventh and eighth instalments).


Although, not being a devotee, the question would be how much it can be spiced up (so to speak) to attract a wider audience. Probably, it’s merely a matter of sympathetic eyes and understanding approaches. You can see the influence of Dune on more populist fare, from Star Wars (the Jedi mind control of the Spice-altered Paul, desert planet Tatooine, the political machinations of the prequels) to Doctor Who (The Robots of Death, The Caves of Androzani). Lynch, of course, was considered for Return of the Jedi, which featured a carnivorous worm creature in the middle of a desert, and as baffling a prospect as Lynch helming that trilogy-capper is, the notion of how he might have swayed Lucas in whatever way during those all-important script conferences is tantalising. Of course, the chosen one narrative is essentially what Lucas (by way of Joseph Campbell) seized to help make Star Wars so alluring, so it isn’t as if there’s anything essentially off-putting about Dune other than its unwieldiness. How do you attack such an edifice? Lynch’s big problem is that he is never able to make the characters, and particularly the protagonists, relatable or even knowable; it’s where Lucas’ original trilogy counts an unqualified success.


There’s nothing essentially wrong with Kyle MacLachalan’s casting. Indeed, he makes the transition from tremulous youth to fortitudinous leader with conviction, but there’s no real depth to Paul Atreides, nothing to define him in the way that Luke Skywalker, for all his simple tropes and broad strokes, or because of them, is. Even his tests, such as the Box (he's an all-round better man than even the women folk), don't fire up the story. The suffocating internal monologues Lynch hits upon are actually quite appealing once one gets used to them, adding a layer of texture and tone, suggesting consciousness beneath, or above, the surface in any given scene. But often they end up merely underlining, or serving as footnotes, rather than offering anything vital or intrinsically germane. Lynch, being clued up as he is to sound design, ensures they’re a casually attractive feature of his overall composition, but fails to make them essential to the story he is telling.


There’s also a swathe of familiar faces littering the Dune-scape who are merely perfunctory in terms of presence, if that. The likes of Everett McGill, Patrick Stewart (showing us his stolid Patrick Stewart performance, the one he always gives), Richard Jordan, Jürgen Prochnow and Sean Young make little impression (the latter being one of those cases where you’d wonder if she hadn’t been purposefully excised, if it wasn’t that everyone suffers a similar fate; Virginia Madsen, whose princess delivers the introduction and then all but vanishes until her arranged marriage to Paul, might have been a better love interest).


Even Max von Sydow has difficulty leaving an imprint, outside of a scene where he shows the royals how to use their survival suits, and Lynch’s stalwart Jack Nance would barely register if not for his dye job. Francesca Annis makes more of a mark as Paul’s mother, but mostly Lynch is relying on interesting faces (Leonardo Cimino, Brad Dourif, José Ferrer, Linda Hunt, Freddie Jones) to make up for a lack of keen awareness of who they are, what they are doing and why.


There are exceptions. Sian Philips is entirely striking and also entirely imposing as the Reverend Mother, and her oracular insights into Paul’s potential are the closest the picture gets to that kind of stirring hero legend by which Lucas initiated the sci-fi boom that propelled Dune into production. Dean Stockwell is reliably eccentric in a role that is crucial to events but lacks impact, because we have no prior knowledge to bounce off his betrayal. Wee Alicia Witt, who would later show up in Twin Peaks (and appears in it again next year) makes an eerie impression as Paul’s prophetic sister.


Best of all are the unholy triumvirate of Harkonnens, from Kenneth McMillan’s floating, pustulating, predatory Baron, an unsavoury sort with a penchant for messily draining young men of their life force (charges of homophobia have been levelled in relation to the character’s depiction), to his nephews, Sting sporting an idiot grin, fright wig hair, all oiled up in vainglorious underpants (for all the flack Mr Sting gets as an actor, he’s a genius piece of unlikely casting here), and Paul L Smith as the huge moronic beast Rabban (Smith was at his best given roles suited to his cartoonish features, as Bluto in Robert Altman’s Popeye and exterminator Faron Crush in Sam Raimi’s little seen Crimewave).


The problem is, even in these cases, there just isn’t enough of anyone, and there isn’t enough shape or form to events (I’m not asking for a three-act structure, but there needs to be sufficient dramatic weight and trajectory that we want to see how this will unfold and so resolve itself). The objectives of the various parties, houses and factions, and accompanying political intrigues, lack urgency, and likewise the stakes of Paul’s rebellion. There’s precious little delineation, so while we are told about and see the Harkonnens strikes against House Atreides, we don’t really care, and there’s no sense of loss.


Jessica’s succession to the status of Reverend Mother and birth of Paul’s sister appears as almost “by the way” plot points, and there is little sense of time lapse or gradation in his jihad. And, while Kwisatz Haderach sounds cool, what it means and entails is lost in a prophetic murk.


When Lynch does spend time on something, such as Paul mastering worm-riding, it’s a bit of a damp squib masquerading as a crucial set piece. Likewise, with the climactic battle (in contrast, the early block armour fight between Paul and Stewart’s Halleck is just the kind of attention-grabbing sequence the picture is running short of). Lynch clearly isn’t engaged by the mere mechanics of action spectacle, and he’s unable to cohere the elements in a suitably visually evocative way (shots of model worms and close-ups of jubilant Paul et al holding worm reins isn’t really cutting it; the worms in Beetlejuice are more effective, and they’re played for laughs). It’s a relief when we get back to the immaculate throne rooms and oppressive chambers.


The Spice Melange comes across rather nebulously (it extends life, expands consciousness), which probably suits Lynch’s purposes, as he makes the supernatural and transcendental one of the picture’s most resonant qualities, but it falls short as an object of fascination (except perhaps in its most obviously deleterious effects). He’s also singular in the general sensibility he brings to the epic form, which is closer to that of grandiose ‘40s and ‘50s movies than post-Lucas slickness. Lynch gets the mystical element, and he gets the societal element, but he has no hold on how to make it dynamic, individual or personally compelling. Paul Atreides of Arabia never takes off.


The score, by rock band Toto and Brian Eno (the latter contributed the Prophecy Theme) is first rate, arresting and distinctive like many scores of the period, and willing to take risks few are these days. But, while Freddie Francis’ cinematography is every bit as encompassing as in The Elephant Man, Antony Gibbs editing fails to click. The overripe failure of Dune might have been expected, given the picture came courtesy of Dino De Laurentis (shepherded to screen by daughter Rafiella). His forays into blockbuster territory (King Kong, Flash Gordon, Conan the Barbarian) had met with reliably mixed results, so why should this have been any different? It was a $42m monster cost-wise (about $100m now) and made only about $30m.


Pauline Kael commented “Lynch treats the book so respectfully that he comes out with a big-budget version of Up in Smoke”, but I’m not sure even the consciousness expansion aspect really comes through with any real force (I wouldn’t have known the Space Guild Navigators were once human from the film itself). Certainly not the cautionary intent regarding heroic stature, with the film ending at the moment of Paul’s triumph.


I might compare Dune to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, another film that mixed huge scale with a ponderous, self-important bearing (2001 rather than Star Wars), where the plot rather got lost beneath all the spectacle. But the key difference there is that, even given its deficiencies, there were still the (familiar) central characters to identify with. Dune nurses a similar fatal flaw to a far less interesting movie of the same era that I revisited recently: Krull. Namely, that it’s unable to come up with an answer to the question, why should I be interested in any of this? What is there, and who is there to hook me amid the surrounding Impenetrability? Dune isn’t allowed to breathe. I disagree with comments by staunch advocates that it was too intelligent and challenging for the majority (and the superiority that implies); the problem is that it’s hamstrung by its own ambition; attempting to paint too much on too small a canvas, and making the wrong sacrifices in trying to get it all out there.






Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Romulan ale should be illegal.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
(SPOILERS) Out of the ST:NG movies, Star Trek: Nemesis seems to provoke the most outrage among fans, the reasons mostly appearing to boil down to continuity and character work. In the case of the former, while I can appreciate the beef, I’m not enough of an aficionado to get too worked up. In the case of the latter, well, the less of the strained inter-relationships between this bunch that make it to the screen, the better (director Stuart Baird reportedly cut more than fifty minutes from the picture, most of it relating to underscoring the crew, leading to a quip by Stewart that while an Actor’s Cut would include the excised footage, a Director’s one would probably be even shorter). Even being largely unswayed by such concerns, though, Nemesis isn’t very good. It wants to hit the same kind of dramatic high notes as The Wrath of Khan (naturally, it’s always bloody Khan) but repeatedly drifts into an out-of-tune dirge.

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

By Jove, the natives are restless tonight.

The Avengers 4.17: Small Game for Big Hunters
I wonder if Death at Bargain Prices’ camping scene, suggestive of an exotic clime but based in a department store, was an inspiration for Small Game For Big Hunters’ more protracted excursion to the African country of Kalaya… in Hertfordshire. Gerry O’Hara, in his second of two episodes for the show again delivers on the atmosphere, making the most of Philip Levene’s teleplay.

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

Cally. Help us, Cally. Help Auron.

Blake's 7 3.7: Children of Auron

Roger Parkes goes a considerable way towards redeeming himself for the slop that was Voice from the Past with his second script for the series, and newcomer Andrew Morgan shows promise as a director that never really fulfilled itself in his work on Doctor Who (but was evident in Knights of God, the 1987 TV series featuring Gareth Thomas).

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …