Friday, November 25, 2011

Academy of the Underrated: Dune (1984)

Dune cover and Amazon link

Over four years ago, when I reached my one hundredth post, I introduced the Academy of the Underrated, dedicated to defending the disliked, the disregarded, and the despised. Since then, one entry has been inevitable, but I've been waiting for the right time. Four hundred posts later, the proper moment has arrived.

Dune is, in my most humble of opinions, the most underrated film of all time. David Lynch's controversial film version of Frank Hebert's classic sci-fi novel is a movie even the director has distanced himself from, and one of filmdom's most legendary flops.  It's also a picture decades ahead of its time, a work of science fiction as visual art as distinctive as Kubrick's 2001. Though burdened by the need to explain a complex plot, and hobbled by studio-mandated editing, Dune is a unique experience, profoundly atmospheric and possessed of a grace and majesty that no other film in the genre has quite managed.

In the far future of the year 10,191, the universe is ruled by a feudal hierarchy and fueled by the rare spice melange, a substance which extends life and expands the mind, enabling, among other things, the complex calculations that the Spacing Guild uses to navigate the stars. The noble House Atreides, headed by Duke Leto (Jurgen Prochnow), has been assigned to mine the spice from the one planet on which it is found- the desert world Arrakis, also known as Dune. However, the move is a plot by the Emperor (Jose Ferrer) to enrage the maverick Duke's rival, the grotesquely decadent Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan), and the House Harkonnen is planning a sneak attack on their hated enemies. Caught in these intrigues is the Duke's son, Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) and his mother, the royal Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis), both of whom end up seeking help from the planet's natives, the mysterious Fremen, who see Paul as their prophesied messiah, destined to lead them to freedom from imperial rule.

In plain terms the story is fairly simple. But there's a lot of detail, most of which Lynch doesn't sacrifice, and unprepared viewers may find themselves submerged in references to the Bene Gesserit (basically psychic nuns), the Kwisatz Haderach, and all sorts of esoterica. Though audiences and critics of the time were famously baffled, to the point where Universal actually distributed explanatory pamphlets before screenings, if anything the film's problem is it tries too hard to explain itself. Major plot points are repeated multiple times, through dialogue, through narration (mostly supplied by the ever-lovely Virginia Madsen as the Emperor's daughter Irulan), and through the spoken inner voices of many characters, a device which takes some getting used to but captures some of the novel's use of multiple limited perspectives. As such the dialogue is a little clunky, and if you've already figured everything out the constant restating is obtrusive.

If you haven't read the book beforehand, it's still possible to understand the story, but it's probably best to let it just wash over you. Atmosphere is the hardest part of a film to quantify or explain in a review context, but it can be instrumental to its quality. The ability of a motion picture to truly take us elsewhere, into its world, can excuse a multitude of sins, and between the details of production design, production value, cinematography, music, sound, visual effects, and the specifics of a story, there's an alchemy that is as important to a good movie as plot or characterization. This is where Dune excels. Lynch's own penchant for surrealism, mixed with the details of Frank Herbert's meticulously constructed universe, results in a series of amazing sights and mythic scenes. Backed by a gorgeous gothic design sense, amazing visuals, and a stirring score by rock group Toto, even subtle moments such as Paul contemplating his future in the deep desert take on a gravity suited to a clash of civilizations.

There may never be another version of this story backed by this much pure talent. Though MacLachlan is older than the character as written, he delivers a wonderfully versatile performance, showing clear maturation as his character is put through his trials. McMillan's Baron Harkonnen is one of the all-time great screen villains, a bloated and pustulant embodiment of the worst excesses of imperialism. A broad cast of characters is brought to life by such luminaries as Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell, Sian Philips, Max Von Sydow, Sean Young, Silvia Mangano, Brad Dourif, and Linda Hunt, just to name a few.

Faithful fans of the novel will have their objections. At two hours and seventeen minutes, the film has to take some shortcuts, and Lynch adds a few inventions that seem to go against the spirit of the original. Now, I don't actually care about this, having decided a long time ago that fidelity to the source material is strictly optional for an adaptation, but some inventions are actually kind of clever. In the novel, the Atreides are building an army using elite fighting techniques, and Lynch simplifies those techniques into the Weirding Module, a device capable of converting sound to destructive force. It would be a simple technological gimmick, but for how it's explained- "Some thoughts have a certain sound, that being akin to a form." It actually ends up being used as an extension of the Bene Gesserits' persuasive Voice, a thematic elaboration on the concept of human potential being extended rather than supplanted by technology. Again, in a strict aesthetic sense, none of this matters, but I feel compelled to address it nonetheless, because somebody's gonna bring it up.

The version of Dune we have is not really the version Lynch intended for us to see. The studio compelled him to deliver a picture that wasn't too long, and though an extended version played on television and later found its way to DVD, the producers did not see fit to involve the film's writer and director in said extension. It has more footage than the theatrical film, but it's pretty much a mess, overcompensating with too much backstory and redundant scenes cobbled together by repeating various special effects shots. (The score is also ruined, with tracks often layered on top of each other as though not a single second could be allowed to pass without musical accompaniment.) Lynch was displeased with the experience as a whole, and apparently would have no interest in assembling a proper "director's cut" even if asked (and so far nobody has done so.) To be sure, the theatrical cut is an abbreviated one, often rushing through character elements such as the romance between Paul and the Fremen girl Chani (Sean Young), and the birth of Paul's hyperintelligent sister Alia (Alicia Witt.) A number of deleted scenes are on the most recent DVD release, but we may never know how Dune was really supposed to play out.

And yet, what we have is still something remarkable. At a time when most science fiction films were attempting to recreate the nostalgic thrills evoked by Star Wars, Dune gives us outright majesty, a solemn respect reminiscent more of David Lean than Flash Gordon. It's a flawed classic, beautiful and moving and layered with complex metaphorical imagery. Even if David Lynch himself has reason to disavow the final cut, he has nothing to be ashamed of; Dune is a timeless work of art, offering an experience that no other film can. Though the picture has acquired a cult following over time, it has yet to truly receive the respect it deserves, and so it has a place of honor here at the Academy. Criterion Collection, you know what you have to do.

Based on the novel by Frank Hebert
Written for the screen and directed by David Lynch
Grade: A-

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