The new Dune movie landed this weekend and my wife and I are both considering seeing it in the theater. We’re not James Bond worked up about it, like we were for No Time to Die, but going to the theater was still in contention.
And, of course, we decided we might like to do a bit of build-up for it, so we decided to watch the first attempt at a Dune movie, the David Lynch film from 1984, which we happened to have on DVD right there on our shelf in the family room.
Two things right off the bat.
First, I have/had very strong positive memories of that version of Dune. It had actors I liked, an extremely strong visual style, and I had read the book not too soon before it came out… though later, in digging through my memories, I might have read the book after it came out. It is kind of a blur.
Second, I am not sure if I have watched the movie since I saw it in the theater when it came out. Yes, we have the DVD, but who among us hasn’t bought a DVD then never watched it. I know I considered it back when the SciFi channel, now SyFy, made their own mini-series… which I also only vaguely remember and which wasn’t available anywhere to watch or we might have given it a go as well… but I think I bought the DVD from the CompUSA that used to be down the street from us when they were fail cascading, whenever that was. They went hard into DVDs one month, then were getting rid of them the next.
So, with that I booted up the PlayStation 3 once more, inserted the DVD, and off we went.
And… wow, that movie is a mess.
I mean, it is still visually stunning, and my having seen it in the theater back when it was new meant that those visuals left a lasting impression on me. It was, and remains, unique in that regard.
Also the fact that I had not read the book before I saw the movie, something I am prone to at times, no doubt helped me some. It is often easier to let the visuals wash over you as the dialog tries to keep up and not have to worry about whether or not it is actually getting the story right. The movie version of a book is a work that has to stand on its own, should stand on its own, and while you can compare the translation from one medium to another and debate as to whether or not the essence of the story was captured, they will always different experiences.
Still, I am a bit surprised how positive my impression of the movie was going into this view was. Sure, the visuals had a lasting impression and there is the whole passage of time to account for.
It suffers from what many movie adaptations stumble over, which is the need to condense a 400+ page science fiction novel… and one that eschews many of the easy tropes of the genre… into a movie experience that needs to be well under three hours from coming attractions to the end of the credits.
In order to catch viewers up the first hour of the movie is filled with exposition. And when characters aren’t just filling us in by telling somebody else something they likely already knew in more detail than would be required in a conversation between anybody besides complete strangers, we’re hearing their thoughts, once again running through details that probably wouldn’t bear consideration if they were really part of the universe in which they are projected. It would be rather like a fish being constantly concerned about the fact that it lives in water and going over all the details of that existence for the first 20 minutes or so of Finding Nemo.
Though, to be fair, the book does the same damn thing. You can pick up a copy and find that the film grabbed the internal monologues almost verbatim from what Frank Herbert wrote. The movie even tries to play the whole thing as being a history to explain the fact that it isn’t being seen through any one person’s eyes, once again, as the book does, though it doesn’t give you a lot to hang onto in that regard. (I was ruined by a high school lit teacher and now my brain demands to know who is telling any story, whose perspective I am viewing, something that the entire Dune series, and the Brian Herbert prequels especially, are not very concerned with.)
Anyway, once you get past the “tell the story by voice overs of people’s thoughts” section of the movie… which I am sure I didn’t mind back in 1984 because I didn’t mind them in the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner either… the film hits one of the other problems of the translation to another media, the fact that it has spent a huge chunk of its run time setting up the story such that it doesn’t have a lot to waste on the middle of the tale and the build up for the finale. And so we enter the “greatest hits” potion of the show, which even includes a montage of scenes meant to convey the rise of the Fremen under the leadership of Paul and how they are disrupting the flow of the spice. You could splice in film clips of the French resistance or Russian partisans and they would fit.
And then everything comes to a head and everybody is on Arrakis including the emperor, who we at one point see sitting at a four seat periscope viewer device that I swear was a left over prop from the 1966 Batman film, spiffed up a bit and spray painted gold, and there is a little girl with a strange voice who later is Zelda in Orange is the New Black, and Kyle MacLachlan fights Sting, and then the emperor’s daughter is telling us about what happened and we’re in the credits and the whole thing is over.
A bit of a wild ride, though in hindsight I think my biggest problem with the whole thing was the plan from the book itself. Was putting House Atreides on Arrakis to replace House Harkonnen only to have the Harkonnen’s come back almost immediately really the best plan they could come up with? Seems a bit dodgy.
Overall, it is very much a piece of its time. It is stylistically unique in a David Lynch sort of way… Patrick Stewart charging into battle shouting and carrying a pug cradled in his arm springs to mind… with a very talented cast tasked to carry too much story in too little time. Our DVD is the original theatrical release, though there are other cuts available, some of which have David Lynch’s name removed as director by his request. I am not sure the different cuts make a difference. I doubt this is like Brazil, where the studio cut has a dramatically different ending from the Terry Gilliam cut.
I am a bit torn as to whether it is better to watch the movie having read the book and have it not translate into what your mind’s eye pictured, or whether it is best to go in blind and let its bizarre nature overwhelm.
Basically, it probably isn’t as bad as you’ve been told nor as good as you might remember.
And with that groundwork in place we’re keen to the new Dune. I am already aware, in part through the wailing I have seen online, that it is a two part series and that we’re only getting the first part now. The marketing has been very low key on that, which reminds me a bit of the Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings animated film that hit theaters back in 1978, which omitted the fact that it was only part of the story. (Excellent review of that fiasco here.) If you’re not up front about the fact that people are not getting the full story they will be angry.
Be more like Mel Brooks with History of the World: Part I. You can then get to the second part whenever.
Addendum: There are a bunch of re-reviews of this version of Dune out there, but my wife just pointed me to this one over at Ars Technica that might be the best ever.