I first watched David Lynch’s Dune almost 20 years ago, and could remember very little of it except the image of Sting with ridiculous punk orange hair wearing nothing but a loincloth, which is not the sort of memory you’d cherish. Since then I actually got around to reading Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel and its sequels, and decided to revisit this much-maligned movie adaptation. Its bad reputation is deserved in many respects, but as much of a mess it is, it’s also way too bizarre and singular to be dismissed outright.
Dune the novel, with its incredible world-building and uniquely imagined science, cultures, philosophies, societies and geography has the density of a supermassive black hole, and trying to pack all of that into a two hour-long movie is a doomed exercise to start with. It’s even hard to summarise the story without having to veer into all sorts of explanations, but in a nutshell, it’s about a bitter struggle between two future aristocratic families, Atreides (heroes) and Harkonnens (villains) over the control of Arrakis, a desert planet and the only source of melange, a spice which is the most valuable substance in the universe. Our hero, Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan), also may or may not be a powerful messianic figure who is bound to change the world, with the help of Fremen, the mysterious native race of Arrakis.
In terms of storytelling, the film is total and utter shambles. I can’t remember now if it made much sense to me on the initial viewing, but the sheer assault of information and weird terminology is pretty much guaranteed to leave someone unfamiliar with the books in a bewildered haze. The pacing is erratic: the first half of the film is quite leisurely, lingering on the individual scenes, then in the second half it gallops frantically through the rest of the story.
To be honest, I never thought that characters were Herbert’s strongest point, but I actually liked most of the casting (except for Patrick Stewart who acts so much like Picard in this movie it’s distracting – I kept waiting for him to order some Earl Grey tea). Unfortunately most of the characters suffer from the rushed execution; some get dropped unceremoniously soon after their introduction, many crucial relationships are woefully underdeveloped and some characters who were of importance in the book could have been cut for all the non-impact they have in the film. For instance, Princess Irulan’s narration opens the film and keeps reoccurring throughout, but she has no presence in the movie whatsoever, while Paul’s romance with Chani plays like a definition of an obligatory love story you roll your eyes at.
The fascinating culture of Fremen is barely touched upon and there is a major change to the ending which is frankly stupid and makes zero sense when you consider its impact. The movie also has a persistent habit of playing characters’ inner thoughts as a voiceover, which gets annoying very quickly.
Where the movie excels is in the visuals and vibe and the pure trippy Lynchian weirdness of it all. In a sense he was an excellent pick for bringing this cold, cruel, utterly alien world to the screen. The costume and set design merit nothing but the highest praise – the futuristic yet baroque look of the royal palace, the striking black robes and shaved heads of the Reverend Mothers, the interiors of the Harkonnen stronghold which seem to have depravity dripping off the screen.
Some of the special effects look pretty hilarious by today’s standards, but I’m willing to cut some slack, the film was made in the early 80s after all. While most of the score is nothing to write home about, the main theme is pretty damn epic and stirring. And while the story overall is not handled well, many of the individual scenes are powerfully executed, and it’s just exciting to see the memorable scenes from the book, such as Paul’s box test at the start, brought to life.
Dune is a very very very flawed movie for sure, but its good points are enough for me not to throw it into a total dud basket. And Sting is actually not as awful here as I remembered him to be.