Tonight’s Viewing – Dune (1984)

Despite its many flaws, I should preface this by saying that I prefer this to any Star Wars film ever made. Director David Lynch’s struggles over this project are well documented elsewhere and I won’t attempt to better what other, more well-informed, people have already written on the subject. What lies at the heart of my preference is the plot and its darker tones. Lynch’s film ultimately settles for a far more positive slant on things with a heroic ending that glosses over the bloody jihad that follows Paul Atreides’ actions. Once you separate Herbert’s story from the version that was shoehorned into the required two hour run time, you can begin to enjoy this film as something that encompasses much of the book’s greatness and gravitas.

Frank Herbert’s Dune is my favourite book. I’ve read it and its sequels many times and know them inside out. Whilst I hold great hopes that Denis Villeneuve will produce a superior version of the story of the novel, this film will always hold a place in my heart and it will be very difficult for Timothee Chalamet, Oscar Issac and their fellow actors to replace the images that play in my head of Kyle Maclachlan, Jurgen Prochnow and the others when I read the book.

From Virginia Madsen’s introduction, through the powerful title music and the opening scenes, there is a great seriousness to the film that marks it as much more than a simple space adventure.

The set design of the film is wonderful with so many lovely touches to pick up on upon repeated viewing. The industrial hell of Geidi Prime, the opulent throne room of the emperor and the forbidding, lived-in quality of Castle Caladan are all beautifully realised.

In addition to this, the costumes are wonderfully made in a deliciously over the top fashion, as if a whole load of ideas were thrown together to show the differences that would exist across a galaxy of planets. Everything is represented here from hazmat suits to the French Foreign Legion.

The casting is perhaps the strongest part of the film in my opinion. Despite being a bit too old for the role, Kyle Maclachlan makes a great Paul, regal and commanding. Jurgen Prochnow plays the doomed Duke Leto very well, giving a great sense of the tragedy of Herbert’s version. Francesca Annis is wonderful though criminally underused, never getting the chance to show the Lady Jessica’s powers as she should. She has so many great scenes in the book and its such a shame that none of them are here. Rebecca Ferguson, who is taking on the role in next year’s version, has already said that that film’s portrayal of Jessica is much closer to Herbert’s. Freddie Jones makes a great Hawat, Patrick Stewart a suitably stern Halleck and Sting (underpants scene aside) brings an undeniable menace and venom to Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen. There are so many others I could mention. I can’t think of a dud casting in the entire picture.

Cutting down the sprawling story to two hours had a massive impact on what could be included. The two most controversial changes were the ‘weirding modules’ used by the Atreides forces and the rain scene at the film’s conclusion. The weirding modules were an odd choice as they took away from the fact that the Fremen were just really good fighters bred in a harsh environment. As for the rain, it completely rewrites what Herbert created and you can see why that annoys people rightly to this day

These issues, as troubling as they are, do not necessarily have to take away from the film itself, even running alongside the book. Many of the scenes are incredibly faithful to Herbert’s vision and work very well. Paul’s encounter with the hunter-seeker being one in particular. When you add to these the touches of Lynch’s own style, it makes for a very interesting film. Milking cats may not be in the book but it’s a marvellous image.

Is it perfect? Far from it. I can’t stand the design of the ornithopters and the final battle  lacks any of the excitement that it should have. Duncan Idaho never gets the glorious death that he deserves. Many of the themes of the book are completely absent and it loses so much because of this. That’s what you get when you squeeze a story like this into two hours.

So why do I like it so much? For me, it exists as a great companion piece to the book. It gives you some of your favourite bits of the book and you can superimpose your own knowledge of the complete story over the top to give you the whole picture. The mini-series that was produced in 2000, though it had so much more time to go into the story in a faithful manner, never really captured the feeling of Lynch’s. There are plot holes galore but then the book is not without those (why does Thufir have no idea about Jessica’s powers in the book when Gurney knows them well enough to command her to keep her voice to a monotone when he confronts her later on?).

In conclusion, there is so much to love about this film. It’s not the book but I don’t think it has to be in order to enjoy it for what it is. I’m very excited (as you can probably guess from my myriad posts) for next year’s remake and I hope it manages to be a more complete vision of the actual story with its themes of religion, ecology and the danger of messiahs.

Thanks for reading,

Richard

You can see some of my other film-related posts and my thoughts on casting for the new film by clicking the links below. If you’re interested, subscribe to this site to see more, including poetry and my attempts to stop biting my nails and drinking too much Coke.

Tonight’s Viewing – The Postman (1997)

Tonight’s Reading – The War of the Worlds

Tonight’s viewing – The Missing Pieces

Tonight’s Viewing – The King

Ultraviolet – A Very British Vampire Show

Casting Dune – More names announced

 

 

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