Second Union

Second Union

REVIEW: Dune (1984)

“He tells us that a single obscure decision of prophecy, perhaps the choice of one word over another, could change the entire aspect of the future. He tells us ‘The vision of time is broad, but when you pass through it, time becomes a narrow door.’ And always, he fought the temptation to choose a clear, safe course, warning ‘That path leads ever down into stagnation.'”

“The sleeper has awakened!”

Dune, 1984 (Kyle MacLachlan) Dino De Laurentiis Corporation/Universal Pictures

They said it couldn’t be done! They were partially right. A motion picture adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic book, Dune, had been gestating for 20 years; the most prominent filmmaker at the time being Alejandro Jodorowsky (of El Topo fame) who had some radical ideas about how he wanted to tell the story. His story is the genesis of the documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune, which I urge all of you to see. Jodorowsky was a lunatic and a wild man, quite possibly the first “punk” film director. Next, the idea fell into Ridley Scott’s lap, but he abandoned pre-production shortly after his brother, Frank, died.

Oddly, even after the success of his second film, The Elephant Man, David Lynch (described by Mel Brooks as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars”) had a hard time finding work. George Lucas had offered him a chance to direct the third installment in the Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi. Just, for a moment, picture Lynch directing a bunch of Ewoks. It does make you wonder. Okay. Let’s continue. Dino de Laurentiis purchased the rights to Herbert’s novel and asked Lynch to direct the film adaptation, for which Lynch also wrote the script. Lynch’s rough cut ran five hours. Distributor Universal Pictures demanded a two-hour movie. It’s almost like they didn’t read the original source material.

Lynch cut the movie down to a little over two hours and, most significantly, he kept the most important plot points. Duke Leto Atreides (Jurgen Prochnow) takes his concubine, Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis), and his son, Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) to Arrakis to oversee Spice mining operation after the departure of House Harkonnen, led by the evil Baron (Kenneth McMillan). After Leto is betrayed by Doctor Yueh (Dean Stockwell), Paul and his mother escape and make contact with the fabled Fremen, a group of desert warriors. Lynch’s theatrical cut moves along at a brisk pace until a narrative bottleneck 30 minutes before the end of the movie wherein the script depends a little too much on voice-over in a hasty effort to tie together the more ambiguous threads.

This is where, I’m guessing, most of the cuts were made. Characters, such as Paul’s baby sister, Alia (Alicia Witt), Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen), and Feyd (a memorable Sting) are introduced and then disappear for long stretches. A three-hour-and-six-minute television version of Dune was broadcast in 1988, comprised of additional scenes and storyboard art to bridge the added scenes to Lynch’s cut. Lynch removed his name from the credits. The TV version credits “Judas Booth” for the script, and Alan Smithee for the direction. It’s quite possibly Smithee’s greatest movie, other than Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home, of course.

The movie (like the 2021 remake) boasts an incredible cast including Max Von Sydow, Patrick Stewart, Richard Jordan, Brad Dourif, Freddie Jones, Sean Young, and Linda Hunt. Yes, they said it couldn’t be done; that the book was unfilmable. This is something I’ve never understood. The book follows a traditional story sequence. It’s not cut-up poetry or the work of Thomas Pynchon, or possibly Vonnegut, Jr. If I were to place blame, it would probably be at the feet of Dino de Laurentiis, the best of the great money-mad producers of the latter half of the last century.

He threw money at production problems and believed in the “big show” aspect of Hollywood movie-making. He believed in beautiful damsels like Jessica Lange and Melody Anderson, and brave action heroes like Sam Jones and Jeff Bridges. He believed in extravagant production design. He made old-school Hollywood movies at a time when minimalism was celebrated. Dune, with all of its flaws, is a fun ’80s movie, through and through, and it should be shown in a triple feature with Dino’s two other big science fiction movies, Barbarella and Flash Gordon.

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