“Where are my feelings? I feel for no one.”
This may sound strange coming from a guy who embraces Eraserhead, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive as resonant and meaningful, but I just have to ask: In Dune, what the hell was happening? And to whom? And why?
Any appreciation of David Lynch’s film adaptation of Dune requires some familiarity with the source material. I have not yet read Frank Herbert’s novels. What brought me to the film was my fondness for all things Lynch. His films are wacked-out, sure, but so resonant that you can’t help but be drawn into his weird little universe. But Dune speaks in a language that is intended for viewers well versed in the specifics of Herbert’s saga. Dune is Herbert’s weird little universe as filtered through Lynch’s wierd little mind. The two add up to a whole lotta’ wierd with very little sense. In fact, the two cancel each other out! Sometimes, the blending of weirdness works perfectly, as in David Cronenberg‘s adaptation of William Burrough’s Naked Lunch. Burroughs and Cronenberg compliment each other with sympatico sensibilities; Lynch and Herbert, not so much.
There is some vague and muddled political allegory to found here, but it’s so deeply mired in a confusing mess that you’ll never find it. There are fueding families, a spice that alters consciousness and makes possible the folding of space, an ancient prophecy, a messianic hero, an epic battle, monster worms under the sand! The story is built upon a large mythology—planets, families, rivalries—that can only be absorbed and understood when introduced slowly, with detailed storytelling. Dune requires a mini-series format to even begin to make it comprehensible for a viewer unfamiliar with the books. (A mini-series did come later.) The film employs an irritating amount of voice-over narration in an attempt to fill us in, but it’s not at all helpful. Neither is the internal dialogue. Accompanying almost any important moment are the whispered thoughts of the characters. If you are simply going to tell your audience what a character is going through, what is the point of making a film, which relies on nuanced performance, image and sound.
But they did make a film. And here are my impressions: something about a spice, some planets, feuding families, a duke and his ring, a rebellion, turning voices into a weapon, people with red stains on their lips, people with eyes that glow blue, people with crazy-ass eyebrows, a bad baron with boils on his face who can float. Why is all the architecture baroque? Why are the military characters dressed like they walked out from the battle of Gettysberg? Some online research has revealed that David Lynch added a bunch of superfluous absurdist touches that have little to do with the original story, but function as artistic branding. Now, I am a fan of Lynch and his wacked-out vision, but it seems incongruous here.
There were, however, two scenes that were captivating because of their pure visceral impact. The first is a scene where Paul Atreides is tested by the Reverend Mother. He is instructed to place his hand in a box, where he is subjected to intense pain. It is a moment I remember seeing on television when I was very young—one of those resonant moments that stick without context—a stylized visual of burning, bleeding flesh and Paul’s (Kyle MacLachlan’s) anguished but determined face. It is a brief and simple, but truly powerful, illustration of will triumphing over instinct. Watching the scene, I wondered if it inspired the “hitting rock bottom” sequence in Fight Club.
The second is a truly repulsive scene where the boil-faced Baron Harkonnen reveals some nasty plans while a doctor pokes and prods at his diseased face. The scene is painfully grotesque, but strangely resonant. There is the hint of some strange sexual fetish—Baron Harkonnen gets a strange erotic satisfaction from forcing the unpleasant reality of his diseased flesh on others. It makes for very uncomfortable, but undeniably intense, viewing.
David Lynch is known for a colourful and campy aesthetic bursting with rich blues, reds and greens. While there is much camp in Dune, it isn’t any fun. And the colour palette is drab—full of dark earth tones, muted browns and greys. It is hard to appreciate the grand vistas when all of the imagery blends together in murky sameness.
There is no urgency to any of the action scenes because the mechanics of the shots are so apparent. When our heroes climb atop the sandworms, there is absolutely no excitement or tension. There is no struggle in the actors faces, no simulated wind in their hair, and it is clear that the actors are comfortable on a soundstage in front of a blue screen. To criticize a film for outdated specials effects is a cheap shot. Technologies progress, and as they do, we are going to become aware of the flaws in pervious efforts, but if the artists involved have crafted with intelligence and insight—regardless of the available technologies—the end result will still be somewhat effective. The Neverending Story, released that same year, uses much of the same technologies, but creates a far more convincing illusion, and with almost half the budget! Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, released almost a decade earlier, and with significantly smaller budgets, showcase vastly superior effects. So, it isn’t money or technology that determine greatness; it is artistry!
So, what did Dune mean to me? I really don’t know. I could barely follow what was happening, let alone meditate on its themes. The film was almost completely incomprehensible to me. After reading some wonderfully geeky rants, I have some slight idea of what was happening and why, but the film is still inaccessible as an experience in and of itself. The film does give me the impression that the books might be more satisfying, but it doesn’t go so far as to suggest that I would like them.
Lynch is best at intimate, earth-bound subject matter. The epic scope of space—with its explosions, vast alien landscapes, and spaceships—doesn’t suit his sensibilities. Perhaps the experience would be different on the big screen, as Lynch intended. But I’m not intrigued enough to seek it out again, no matter how large the screen.
Director: David Lynch
Writer: David Lynch (screenplay), Frank Herbert (novel)
Stars: Kyle MacLachlan, Virginia Madsen, Francesca Annis