Thursday, October 15, 2009

Guilty Pleasure 8: Dune

When "Dune" was released at Christmas 1984 I avoided it like the plague. It looked creepy... and it had that new rating, PG-13. I wasn't sure what to make of that. The film was not well received when it was released, in fact Siskel & Ebert declared it the worst film of 1984 on one of their end of the year episodes. I finally checked the film out as an adult, while I agree the film has some major problems, I keep finding myself returning for another look every year or so.

The film is based on Frank Herbert's 1965 sci-fi novel. The book is challenging to say the least. It's a complicated mix of sci-fi, religion and politics that leaves many readers scratching their heads while just as many others cheer it's greatness.

In the director's chair was David Lynch. Yes that David Lynch, the man behind such strange creations as "Blue Velvet," and the TV series "Twin Peaks." But "Dune" was only his third film, following his bizarre debut "Eraserhead" and the more mainstream "The Elephant Man." It was certainly his most ambitious project to date. Lynch took on writing the screenplay as well, anyone who has read the book knows that many would prefer the Chinese water torture over such an assignment. Much of the screenplay works well, while other parts, especially the overuse of our being able to hear the characters thoughts, do not.

My suspicions in 1984 were true, the film is is creepy. Imagine that, a creepy David Lynch film (that's sarcasm by the way). In fact, Lynch takes the creepiest elements of Herbert's book and cranks the creep-factor up to 11. For example, the book's main villain, Barron Harkonnen is one of the most vicious and vile villains I've ever encountered in print. In the film he's much worse, played by Kenneth McMillan as a cackling, slobbering mad man covered in disgusting sores.

Certain elements of the film do work really well. I love the opening of the movie in which Virginia Madsen as Princess Irulan gives us the back story. It echoes the tone of the book in which each chapter begins with a quote from one of Irulan's many writings on the events depicted. Kyle MacLachlin (a Lynch favorite in his first film) is well cast as Paul Atreides, as is future Law & Order girl Alicia Witt as the scariest 8 year old in the universe, Alia. Best of all is the unique costumes and set design which contribute to setting a distinct tone for each of the three "houses" that figure prominently in the story.

Several different versions of the film have popped up over the years. An "extended edition" clocks in at 40 minutes longer than the theatrical cut and thoroughly complicates the already complicated story. Lynch disowned this version of the film which lists "Alan Smithee" as it's director and "Judas Booth" as screenwriter. For that matter, Lynch has pretty much disowned the theatrical version as well. He rarely speaks of the movie and according to Wikipedia he is quoted as having said that he "probably shouldn't have done that picture."

"Dune" is intriguing but flawed and is certainly far from being the worst film of 1984.

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