Dune was an impossible assignment to begin with. Frank Herbert's novel is over five hundred pages long, crammed with plot, characters, and atmosphere. There are some splendid visual opportunities, but there is just too much stuff to fit into a conventional Hollywood movie, and the expense required to bring off the story precluded anything but a major hollywood film. In fact, the visual possibilities seemed to be what drew filmmakers to Dune. Several of those who previously made serious efforts to get a film made included Jadorewsky (almost certainly misspelled in the absence of my film reference books; he directed El Topo) and Ridley Scott. Not surprisingly, none of those involved were especially strong as storytellers; they were all visualists.
Dune defeats Lynch utterly at the story level. Lynch's screenplay visits all of the major incidents in the first half of the book, and most of those in the second, but the overall feeling is like nothing so much as one of those ten day, twelve countries tours of Europe. It all flies by too fast, losing all nuances in the process. Lynch includes the major plot elements, but leaves out all that made Dune a fascinating book: the ecology of the planet, the historical background of the empire, the culture of the Fremen (natives of the planet Dune, for the uninitiated out there), motivations of the characters, and the philosophical point of the whole thing. Some elements which Lynch chose to add to the story run from irrelevant to harmful, and are at best a waste of time. Welcome to the Reader's Digest condensed version of Dune.
I will leave out the usual plot summary, as the plot of Dune is extremely complicated. Anything I said would either spoil or confuse the newcomers, and would bore those familiar with the novel. Suffice it to say that there are many twists and turns which David Lynch tries to navigate with almost every hoary story device known to filmmakers, including narration, voice overs of people thinking (a particularly annoying device in this film, which Lynch beats into the ground ), obvious expository dialog, and that science fiction chestnut, the book that tells you all about your brand new planet. These devices are very poorly integrated.
Along with a byzantine plot comes a large and varied cast of characters. Lynch has unwisely chosen to include almost all of them in the film version, even if it means giving them only one or two meaningless scenes and then dropping them. He seems to believe, rather naively, that if he puts well known actors in these roles, we will understand that they are important characters, even though they have nothing to do in the film.
in fact, the cast as a whole has so little to do in this film that it is almost meaningless to speak of the quality of their performances. No one has the time or scenes to distinguish themselves, except for newcomer Kyle McLachlan. He, alas, is not up to the opportunity, and is little more than handsome in the role of Paul. Jurgen Prochnow has some impact as Duke Leto and Sting and Kenneth McMillan are OK as the principle villains. All of the other actors are so much set decoration.
And with that, on to happier topics, such as the set decoration. Lynch has produced a visually stunning film. The sets and costumes are bizarre and brilliant. The effects, by a team including Kit West (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Carlos Rimbaldi (the creator of E. T.) and Albert Whitlock, matte painter extraordinaire, are first rate. Many of them are even new. What more could one ask from special effects? Well, perhaps a better integration into the story. The only effects that can be considered a failure are the scenes of people riding sandworms. The worms themselves are fine, but it looks like the shots of people on them didn't work out, so the effects team fell back on the old trick of implying the effect rather than showing it. David Lynch has imagined a weird universe that is an awful lot of fun to look at. This would have been sufficient if he were making the Dune calendar, but it is insufficient for a film.
So the bottom line is looks 10, story 3. The film would have been better off the other way around, but that would have been nearly impossible, given the problems Dune presents to filmmakers. Unlike most bad science fiction movies, Dune is not a failure due to slavish imitation, lack of imagination, or indifference. The makers of Dune obviously cared, came up with something original, and failed. Too bad, but how many of you who are familiar with the book are honestly surprised? Regrettably, I can't recommend Dune unless you are willing to settle for visual impact alone, which few of us are.
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