Saturday, March 3, 2012

Signal Watch Re-Watches: DUNE (1984)

A few years back I finally read Frank Herbert's Dune, and then watched the David Lynch film adaptation that's a bit of a cult movie, but which showed up DOA in 1984.

The Alamo Ritz had a late night screening of the movie, starting at 11:30 PM on Friday in glorious 35mm which Jason recruited me for (the man likes his Dune).

Whether you're a fan of the book or not, when seen on the big screen, you have to admire the sheer audacity of the movie, of trying to bring the insanely detailed world of Herbert's Arrakis to a 2.5 hour movie.

It's a bit telling they try to start explaining themselves starting on the poster

What's amazing is the post-Star Wars level of detail that went into making Dune (1984) in a pre-CGI world.  The sets, costumes, etc... are all completely imagined in the way that's the hallmark of 1980's fantasy films and which CGI has somewhat diminished in vision and creativity (see:  Green Lantern - 2011).  Fans of the book no doubt thought the movie would be a slam dunk*, and the success of movies like Conan the Barbarian no doubt sold the De Laurentiis company on immersive worlds for fantasy and science fiction movies.

And then they hired David Lynch.

Look, I don't know that hiring Lynch was wrong.  I don't think it was, exactly (but it pretty clearly demonstrates that they'd misunderstood where the dude was headed with his prior work).  And I really don't know how you could possibly write a script to bring the intensely dense book of Dune to the screen without compromising at every turn.  Really, I think to make it work, Dune has to be a multi-part series, which was the idea embraced by the SciFi channel in 2000 with their low-rent budget, or you'd have to go Peter Jackson and start working toward more than one feature film for adaptation.

Basically, if you haven't read the book, I don't know how much you're getting out of the movie, and if you have read read the book, large parts of the movie play like a checklist of "here's the stuff in Dune in something like chronological order.  And for some reason we've completely changed everything about weirding.  Don't judge us."  While it clearly presents an alien universe and worldview, the full realization of that universe which is so easy to embrace in the novel becomes throw-away bits in the movie, unless, of course, you know what devices, practices, etc...  they're describing.  All of which might be in the 4-hour director's cut, but I'll never know.

On my previous viewing of the movie, I more or less dismissed this as a non-Lynchian movie in which he was trying to make a blockbuster film and had checked himself at the door in order to try to make this thing... (but, honestly, didn't think too much about this topic).  But last night, watching the Harkkonens deliberating on their homeworld, and...  what about that scene doesn't feel lifted from any other Lynch movie with their debauched villains who the bourgeois heroes can't comprehend?  Jessica feels a bit like other Lynchian female protagonists, and even the featuring of a young Virginia Madsen as the princess of the universe feels like one of Lynch's lovely but ethereal and untouchable women.  And Kyle MacLachlan is Kyle MacLachlan.

And then, of course, there's stuff that you just aren't going to find anywhere but Dune with grown adults in black form-fitting suits riding behind Space Jesus on Giant Worms to claim the throne of the galaxy.  Seriously, people, what's not to like?

Its hard to qualify the movie as good, exactly, but its amazingly watchable...  from a certain point of view.  It was just never going to be as accessible as Star Wars or even Conan, mostly because you shouldn't have to have read the book to enjoy a movie.

Also, it features Sean Young before she went completely batshit and started getting into fights at the Academy Awards.**

Honestly, I really don't know how to talk about this movie in a way that makes sense for someone who hasn't read the book or watched the film.  Its...  complicated, and I'm not sure it should be, or that there's anyway around the complication, and that's part of what makes the film, the book, the whole package so interesting.

*oh, sci-fi fans.  You poor, overly optimistic bastards.
**I'm on your side, Ms. Young!  I'll never quit you!

1 comment:

J.S. said...

I really enjoyed watching the film again. Maybe it was because they were showing clips from other David Lynch movies at the Alamo right before they showed Dune, but this time I definitely picked up a bit more on some of the Lynchian characteristics that you mentioned. Anyway, it was the perfect movie to watch downtown at a screening that lasted until amost 2:00 a.m.. If you're going to be watching that late, you might as well go for the surreal, and spilling out into the Sixth Street crowds near closing time just sort of kept the weirdness going...