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Before the new version, let’s revisit 1984’s Dune—the greatest movie ever made

Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel Dune gets a new film adaptation—this one helmed by Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049)—later this month. But before Ars Technica reviews the movie, there’s the matter of its predecessor: 1984’s Dune, made by a then up-and-coming filmmaker named David Lynch.

Detractors call Lynch’s saga—a tale of two noble space families 8,000 years in the future, fighting over the most valuable resource in the universe amidst sandworms the size of aircraft carriers—incomprehensible, stilted, and ridiculous. It lost piles of money. Yet fans, especially in recent years, have reclaimed Lynch’s film as a magnificent folly, a work of holy, glorious madness.

So which group am I in? Both. Am I about to describe Dune as “so bad it’s good”? No, that’s a loser take for cowards.

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I once half-heard a radio interview with someone speculating that the then-current artistic moment was not “so bad it’s good,” and it wasn’t “ironic” either—it was actually “awesome.” (I didn’t catch who he was, so if any of this sounds familiar, hit me up in the comments.) Art can speak to you while at the same time being absurd. The relatable can sometimes be reached only by going through the ridiculous. The two can be inseparable, like the gravitational pull between a gas giant and its moon—or Riggs and Murtaugh.

The example the radio interviewee gave was of Evel Knievel, the ’70s daredevil who wore a cape and jumped dirt bikes over rows of buses. Absurd? Heavens, yes. A feat of motorcycling and physicality? Absolutely. But beyond that, we can relate to Knievel’s need to achieve transcendence at such a, shall we say, niche skill. We might also marvel at our own ability to be impressed by something which should be objectively useless but is instead actually awesome.

A more contemporary example might be Tenet. It’s a relentless international thriller about fate and climate change and the need for good people to hold evil at bay. But it’s also a “dudes rock!” bromance between Two Cool Guys in Suits spouting sci-fi mumbo-jumbo. It can’t be one without the other.

Travel without moving

I love Dune because it feels just as alien as something set 80 centuries in the future should. (To put that span of time in context, remember that 8,000 years in the past would still be 3,500 years before the Great Pyramids were built.) To create this feeling, Lynch blurs the novel’s plot and characters into a Spaceballs “ludicrous speed” lightshow.

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Dune is the dream you have after reading a book about the distant future while listening to a 90-minute prog-rock album. Also, you may have done a pile of blow before falling asleep, because Sting is strutting around in Batman’s speedo.

Characters drift in and out, and their identities and relationships are unclear. A bear-sized scrotal mutant can move spaceships with drug-induced mind-magic. Soldiers bring drums to a knife fight. Plot threads are left untied. Brad Dourif has breathtaking eyebrows. Cast members deliver their inner thoughts via whispered, close-to-the-mic voiceovers worthy of an ASMR YouTube channel. The pacing is leisurely, almost hypnotic. You’re here for the wild sights, the rococo spaceships, the high-collared uniforms, and conversations so formal they border on liturgical. Just sit back and let them wash over you.

In other words, this not exactly how Universal Studios intended to spend $40 million in 1980s money.

“Know then that it is the year 10,191”

The number of different cuts of Dune shown in movie theaters and on TV, both in the US and abroad, is baffling, and only some of them bear Lynch’s imprimatur. Go to IMDb if you want to have your brain liquefied for use in a stillsuit. For this piece, I watched the 137-minute theatrical release because I heard it was the most confounding. In it, two households, both alike in dignity, are vying for control of the desert planet Dune. Why? Because Dune is the only place where you can mine Spice, the only substance in the universe that can fold space and allow your baroquely ornate spaceship to travel anywhere in the cosmos instantly. No Spice, no space empire.

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The film opens with the “good” family (the Atreides) and its entourage on their totally-opposite-of-Dune water planet, preparing to trek off to Dune to take over running the place. The Atreides patriarch is played by craggy-faced German Jürgen Prochnow of Das Boot fame. At the time, Prochnow had just finished making… let me look this up… Michael Mann’s The Keep?! Prochnow is a legend.

But the real hero is Atreides heir Paul. He’s played by the forever-innocent Kyle MacLachlan, who went on to collaborate with Lynch in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Unfortunately for the Atreides, the Emperor of the Known Universe (Jose Ferrer) has made a deal with the “bad” family (the Harkonnen, a pack of nasty-ass perverts plus Sting). Also, there’s something about space nuns with shaved heads and Paul being The Chosen One. Because this is David Lynch, the hum and hiss of unseen machinery pervades most scenes.

“The slow blade”

Much hoopla surrounds a fellow named Duncan Idaho (the always-reliable Richard Jordan) reuniting with the Atreides, probably because the name “Duncan Idaho” slaps. He gets a knife to the face about five minutes later when the Harkonnen attack. Someone has betrayed the Atreides in order to get revenge on “a man.” Do we ever find out who that man is? I’m not sure. The important thing is that we get multiple close-ups of the traitor’s mouth saying, “The tooth, the tooth,” which is rad because the traitor is Admiral Al Calavicci rocking a perv-stache.

Many Atreides warriors go into battle wearing glowing energy suits, but the suits’ weakness is that “the slow blade pierces the shield.” (Even though a third of Dune‘s dialogue is Homestar-level gibberish, the movie is still a quote factory.) The movie also features Captain Picard, whose weapon of a choice is a pug and who later grows out a wicked skullet.

After fleeing into the desert with his mom (Francesca Annis, on the verge of shaving her head and eyebrows), Paul teams up with the indigenous population of Dune. Their eyes glow blue from so much contact with the Spice. Speaking of Twin Peaks, Big Ed from Twin Peaks (Everett McGill) is the indigenous leader. Paul’s love interest (Sean Young, fresh from Blade Runner) emerges from the ether. Together, they lead a labor strike to stop production of the Spice (raised-fist emoji). But first, they must ride giant sandworms because—well, because it’s awesome.

The Spice strike brings the universe to its knees. Paul teaches his army to use voice guns. And—I can’t stress this enough—hard men with glowing blue eyes spontaneously pound drums during a vaguely erotic knife fight between Paul and Sting. The victor is the one who randomly remembers a Bible quote. Also, Paul now has a rapidly aging baby sister who might be pure evil, played by 8-year-old Alicia Witt. The score by Toto—synths and strings and horns and guitars cranked to 11—is why God gave us ears.

At the end, my wife turned to me and said, “It was less confusing than Tenet.”

Not a normal movie for normal people

I have faith in Denis Villeneuve and his new version of Dune starring Timothée Chalamet. But it will probably be a normal movie for normal people, in which characters with recognizable emotions talk in a recognizable way and move through a plot we understand to achieve clearly defined goals. Which is all fine and good, but how likely is it to inspire sick beats for ’90s kids doing ecstasy?

Listing image by Universal Pictures

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