We live in a time when seemingly unfilmable novels of mammoth size and complexity have finally been wrestled down to manageable length for our voracious “long-form” appetites. The obvious culprit is HBO’s Game Of Thrones, a lavish (and visceral) retelling of George R.R. Martin’s A Story Of Fire And Ice (or at least the parts that were written – am I right, folks?) but over the years we’ve also seen the likes of Stephen King’s gargantuan It and Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings conquered by intelligent filmmakers and studios willing to take a risk and play the long game.
Of course, this wasn’t always the case and one of the most notorious examples was the repeated attempts to bring Frank Herbert’s Dune to the screen that, while failing to do the brick-sized novel justice, managed to give us amazing fails for us to pore over until hell freezes over or rain finally falls on the planet of Arrakis.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s budget burning, unfilmed swing at Herbert’s prose is a legendary story in of itself, but in 1984 the unflappable producer Dino DeLaurentiis teamed with arch cinematic surrealist David Lynch to give us two hours and seventeen minutes of crazily hallucinogenic science fiction that mercilessly bastardized it’s source material in an unfocused attempt to somehow become the new Star Wars.
It was both a crashing failure – yet compellingly memorable….
It was David Lynch’s Dune.
The hefty-ass narrative concerns the desert planet of Arrakis (aka Dune), a sandy wasteland that holds the universe’s sole supply of the spice Mélange, a natural forming drug that allows long distance space travel to be possible by doing some crazy, trippy shit that I dont have the space to describe in detail here. In a brazen attempt to stir up some Jerry Springer style shit on an intergalactic level, the Spacing Guild leans on the Emperor of the Known Universe (nifty title, that) to remove the mining contract on Dune from the warlike House Harkonnen and gives it to their bitter enemies in House Atreides instead in order to control the fates of all involved. Duke Leto Artreides, his wife Lady Jessica and heavy coiffed son Paul head to Dune with their sizable entourage and attempt to conduct business knowing full well that their foes, lead by the grotesque, obese Baron, won’t likely take this slight sitting down. As deception and war brews among the huge cast, Paul becomes fascinated by The Fremen, a nomadic race that call Arrakis home and hold all the secrets of not only the spice Mélange, but the huge Mothra-sized sandworms that produce it. But when the inevitable dominoes of treachery, war and murder finally begin to fall, it’s to the Fremen the survivors flee to, where one day they hope to strike back and avenge their losses thanks to a prophecy that speaks of a new messiah.
To be fair, any film that starts with a heated political debate between a dude titled the Emperor of the Known Universe and what looks to me to be a giant mutant tadpole fetus is gonna grab my attention and hold it like a vice, but because of it’s massively flawed attempt of Lynch to cram everything he can into the ludicrously tight running time, the story is an absolute mess. The cons of this predictably means that whole plot threads and character arcs tumble screaming into the void and the director resorts to an endless array of story telling short cuts to try and cram as much of the backstory in as he can, expecting us to negotiate random bouts of narration, wild dream sequences, whispered voice-overs dropped in mid-scene to indicate characters thoughts and jarring jumps of time in order to race to the juicy bits before the credits roll. As a result, anyone who hasn’t read the novel may find making a connection with what’s transpiring on screen virtually impossible; almost like trying to crack nuclear fission through an impenetrable haze of bong smoke; and many of the novel’s extraordinarily modern concepts are largely left unexplored by the sketchy dumpster fire that is the final third – a destructive struggle between first world powers to strip mine an environment populated by a nomadic, religious, indigenous population? When has that NOT been relevant?
However, where Dune truly falls down is thanks to an utter lack of cohesion. But against all odds, a thanks to David Lynch’s stirringly original style and the movie’s resplendent set and costume design, the movie becomes a parade of unforgettable scenes and images that stubbornly bore themselves into your brain and flat out refuses to leave like a meth addicted squatter. Lynch, who at that time had only directed the cult nightmare fuel known as Eraserhead and the poignant and gentle Elephant Man, unleashes memorable moment after memorable moment, each sci-fi trope dripping with the director’s highly strange sensibilities, almost like George Lucas trying to craft a Star Wars movie while tripping balls on peyote.
Obviously number one on my Arrakis hit list is cinema’s premiere example of sandworm (sorry Tremors, you’re a VERY close second), monstrous sized invertebrates that swallow mining carriers whole and whose rather phallic-shaped action figure (unbelievably, Dune somehow got a toy deal) was a favorite of mine during my extraordinarily naive childhood – the bit where Paul triumphantly learns to conquer the worm and ride it majestically (steady now…) even earns a bitchin’ electric guitar riff from the score by Toto (yes, THAT Toto).
Then there are the Harkonnens led by a boil covered, scenery chewing Kenneth McMillan as the Baron who, when not floating around on his flying harness, screaming incoherently and sexually assaulting/murdering young men on his staff (I’ll state it again – they made TOYS for this film) is a truly nightmarish presence. It’s also “helped” that he’s flanked by Lynch regulars Jack Nance, Brad Douriff and, for some reason, an utterly ripped, carrot-topped Sting posing in a pair of rubber pants…
And still the bizarre imagery continues, a coven of bald, mind controlling space nuns, ALL the Harkonnen sporting the same dye job as Chucky from Child’s Play, repeated mantras from the characters earworm their way into you consciousness (“I must not fear…” being the most famous) and I defy anyone to not recoil at the the truly nightmarish sight of a very young Alicia Witt as Paul’s legitimately creepy baby sister that is so genuinely alarming it would cause any sleeper to awaken…
The cast, despite all steering their performances directly into dreamy melodrama to fit the dreamlike imagery, is nothing short of stellar. A debuting Kyle Maclachlan (aged 24 while playing a teenager who looks the same age as him mother) is joined by such colourful names as Jürgan Prochnow, Francesca Adams, Max Von Sydow, Sean Young, Patrick Stewart, Freddie Jones, Everet Mcgill and nany more who pop in and out of the film at random, mostly sacrifices to appease the ravenous gods of the final cut.
Confusing, patchy and utterly out of it’s gourd, Dune may have been too big a project to handle for it’s still relatively new director, but it still contains enough of the auteur’s signature themes to somehow still fit neatly into his filmography despite simultaneously sticking out like a sore thumb – and yet after all these years it endures, an decidedly odd curiosity that lingers like a persistent reoccurring dream you can’t quite get your head around.
I have no doubt that Denis Villeneuve version will finally crack Dune for the big screen (assuming it gets an It-style sequel) and manages tell the story the way it needs to be told but I bet it won’t have a scene where Agent Cooper splits open the rib cage of the man who sung “Roxanne” with naught but the power of his voice – and that’s the true legacy of David Lynch’s most disliked film, it may be malformed, imperfect and sometimes downright unintentionally hilarious, but it’s surprisingly tough to forget.
Against all odds, Dune defies the sands of time and sandworms it’s way into the realms of the glorious failure.