Sunday, January 25, 2015

Retro Analysis and Review of Dune (1984)

Normally, I only dedicate single-film posts to new releases or films on the "Before I Die" list that I work from. The 1984 adaptation of Dune, however, has earned the right for all the wrong reasons.

Background

If you're wondering why I would be watching a film often mentioned among film history's all-time flops, I'm happy to explain. Recently, the very highly-acclaimed documentary Jodorowsky's Dune hit theaters. I knew I wanted to see it. However, I have also long wanted to re-read the original novel, and even re-watch the 1984 David Lynch adaptation. I figured that this would further enhance the viewing of the recent documentary. Hence...

The source novel: Dune by Frank Herbert

This is my longer review of it on Goodreads.

This 1965 novel is considered one of the all-time greats in the genre of science fiction. I read it first around fifteen years ago, but couldn't remember much of it. So I decided to give it another go. Having finished it a few weeks ago, it is now clear that I simply wasn't paying attention to what I was reading that first time. The book, though not without some very obvious weaknesses, is fantastic. There are tremendous ideas and creative speculative fiction within, and it was a great read.

Enjoying the book so much, I was anticipating my re-viewing of the 1984 film version...

Dune (1984) [Where Nearly All Goes Horribly Wrong]

I bop over to my local video store (yes, they do still exist, and yes, I'm lucky enough to live very close to one - Viva Video in Ardmore, Pennsylvania), and I ask for the movie. The eminently affable cinephile owner/manager Miguel hands me the case, telling me "Yeah, this movie's a mess. But I still love it!"
The poster was just artful enough to
make one hope for an intelligent,
engaging movie. If only...

That should have been a massive hint. Foolishly optimistic, though, I thought, "How bad could it really be?"

The answer? Really bad.

Not wanting to half-ass it, I took the full plunge and opted for the 3-hour extended cut of the film. The 176 minutes within are an exhibit of just how many cinematic missteps can be made in one movie.

First off, I should explain that I understand and respect director David Lynch. He's been a skilled and unique voice in world cinema for decades now. As strange and puzzling as his movies can be, they show singular vision and can be highly engaging to the discriminating viewer.

That being said, his missteps and some serious meddling from the producers resulted in a simply bad film.

Almost every wrong choice that could have been made was made. One need look no further than the opening ten minutes of the extended cut (which, it should be pointed out, Lynch had little to do with). The story is set in a tremendously rich and complex universe, one which would require deft and creative film storytelling to lay out for a new viewer. Instead, the movie starts with a slow close-up of the cover of the book!!! Following this was the choice to simply have rather poorly drawn illustrations and narration by what sounds like McGruff the Crime Dog explain the entire political landscape to us. For over ten minutes. It's almost unwatchable. But I soldiered on.

Once the astoundingly clunky opening sequences are through, we get to feast our eyes on the live action. Immediately, it is clear that the aesthetic is drawn from every over-stylized, dated fashion of 1970s science fiction (think Flash Gordon, with a better budget). The actors, many of whom are classically trained and prestigious, go full-on operatic with the performances. This would be fine, except that the script is so insanely heavy with exposition that things crawl at a maddening pace. My wife, who has never read the book or seen the movie but was willing to give it a shot, threw her hands up and left the room after fifteen minutes. And I didn't blame her for a second.

Things only get more muddled as the film goes forward. All sort of interesting elements from the book are thrown into the film, but without any innovative ways to explain them, Lynch simply opted for endless voice-over narration to convey the characters' inner thoughts. While voice-over can occasionally enhance a film, it is generally considered a massive crutch in what should be a visual medium. And it's not just one or two characters' heads that we are in, but nearly every one with more than two minutes of screen time gets their little musings voiced over. It was a pretty lazy cop-out.

The story itself, while not exactly getting butchered, is pared down and modified in odd ways. The movie introduces a "sound weapon" used by the Atreides family that is not in the book. I can only presume that this was the script writer's attempt to create a "cool" device that might be the "light saber" of this movie. Well, it's not. In fact, it's rather ridiculous. The warriors who use them have to wear a restrictive-looking choker around their necks, with a cumbersome microphone sticking in front of their mouths. I'm no soldier, but I'd probably not want to go charging into battle with something that would, should I stumble and fall, crush my windpipe. Then there are the bizarre "heart plugs" that the Harkonnens use, which seem some strange insertion of Lynch's hallmark body horror movies.

Brad Dourif as Piter de Vries (right) is the most obvious
example of misplaced camp in the movie. He and everyone in
House Harkonnen is laughably over the top.
The characters themselves are mostly one- or two-dimensional archetypes that never give the impression of being real humans at all. Admittedly, this was one of the main weaknesses of the novel, but a good screen writer could have imbued them with a little more depth and complexity. Instead, everyone is either purely noble or purely evil. As with all such stories, the result is a big fat bore.

The music. My god, the music. I'm amazed that anyone would have honestly tried to emulate the anthemic hard rock soundtrack of the campy 1980 Flash Gordon (again?), but try it they did. It's bad enough on its own, but it's rendered even more ridiculous when cast against just how pretentious the film is in most other areas. At least the Queen soundtrack went along with the self-aware, silly tone of Flash Gordon. Dune can make no such claims.

The overall effect of the acting, visuals, and music is what one would expect from the campy TV mini-series which were in their heyday just before Dune was released. This is fine when you sit down to watch The Thornbirds or Shogun, but it's simply laughable when you try to tell an intelligent and rich, epic tale of speculative fiction. As it was, they might as well have cast Richard Chamberlain as Paul Atreides. At least then, viewers wouldn't have been blindsided.

I will say that I found two things of merit, though they are relatively small ones. One is the way Lynch portrays the Spice Guild Navigators. This is something that is not described until later novels in the series, the Guild being highly reclusive. The film, though, gives us grotesque and fascinating creatures that, though once presumably human, have been warped and twisted by long-term use of "the spice," melange, which is what allows the Navigators to bend time and space. In addition to the Navigators are the still-suits worn by the Fremen on Arrakis, which do actually look quite cool. So cool, in fact, that I had to wonder whether the movie blew its budget on designing and making the still suits, leaving it far less money to dedicate to other aspects of the film which came off as rather cheap.

If David Lynch's Dune has any value today, it is mostly as fodder for a Mystery Science Theater 3000 working over. I was actually doing this myself, and by myself, during the last hour of the movie. The film would actually be great fun in this way, if you were watching with a few friends. Hardly what David Lynch had in mind, I'm sure.

Dune, the TV series (2000)

In 2000, the Sci-Fi channel put together a 3-part adaptation of Dune for TV. I watched it for the first time, and it's not bad. There are certainly issues with it, some rather serious, but it's a far cry better than Lynch's misguided visions in the 1984 version.

The more limited budget resulted in cheaper-looking sets,
background effects, and costumes; however, the TV series did
a far better job cutting to the heart of the novel's themes.
This more recent TV adaptation is able to include a bit more of the source material, including more development with and between the many characters. With a full running time of nearly 4-and-a-half hours, the grander themes of Frank Herbert's story could receive much more attention, as well. We get to see the slow, painful realization of Paul that his powers, training, and breeding have led him to the inexorable and almost pitiable position of becoming a messiah. The acting is solid all around, and the script is fairly strong in many places.

There are some misfires in the series, though. The Harkonnens, while clearly evil in the novel, are made laughably one-dimensionally evil in this series. The Baron Harkonnen even spews his expositions in rhyme, which is a oddly theatrical choice. The costumes are a mixed bag. The designers clearly went for high-end, progressive flash, and it actually works in some cases. In others, the styles are hilariously bad oversights of functionality, while simply being flat-out ugly. I assume we can chalk much of this up to budget constraints.

Hard-core, purist fans of the novel will, of course, find plenty to criticize in this version. However, this is still the more faithful and better-executed adapation, compared with the 1984 job.

Jodorowsky's Dune (The Agony of Unfulfilled Potential)

If only. As if the 1984 version of Dune weren't enough to make you wish for a more competent version of the titanic novel, the knowledge of the adaptation that almost happened is crushing. This past year, the documnetary Jodorowsky's Dune was released. It traces the birth, incubation, and near-life of what might be one of the "greatest films never made."

Back in the 1970s, renegade filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky was making serious waves in the cinema world. He had directed several challenging and mind-bending films like El Topo and Holy Mountain, which had set off protests and resulted in many critics hailing this strange, powerful new voice in film. Jodorowsky was approached by a young film producer to take on the project of adapting Dune. Not even having read the book, Jodorowsky accepted it, based solely on a brief summary of the story.

The character & costume design sketches done by
Moebius. They're vibrance gives some indication of
just how trippy Jodorowsky's adaptation would have been.
Over the next few years, Jodorowsky used charm, fear, shame, and a lot of artistic honesty and zealotry to assemble a mind-blowing crew of talent. By the late 70s, he had agreements from Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, and Udo Kier to act in the film. He had artistic contributions from H.R. Giger (yes, this was years before Alien) and Moebius. He got Pink Floyd to agree to do the soundtrack. And there were others. This group had put together a massive storybook of Jodorowsky's entire strange and hallucinatory vision, from the first to the last shot. They even had much of the money they would need to do it all.

The rest of the money they needed - a relatively small amount of five million dollars - never materialized. The project had to be abandoned, never to be taken up again, mostly due to the controversial themes explored in the movie - a movie that Jodorowsky himself said wanted to be "like taking LSD, without actually taking LSD." It really was a shame because, even though the storybook and descriptions would suggest the potential for horrible failure, there was also the potential for a wondrously interesting film.

Again?

The concept of "the great Dune adaptation" is still a dragon that some are chasing. A quick search online for the terms brings up various rumors about studios and directors who may, or may not, be working on a new adaptation. Until it happens, these tales will never vanish.

But is it possible? In a post-Lord of the Rings trilogy film universe, my hunch is that it is possible. Main Line Films and Peter Jackson showed that, with some massive financial support and a dedicated, passionate, and talented creative team, a massive fantasy tale can be brought to stunning life on film. Of course, Tolkien's seminal work lent itself to commercial success, featuring family-friendly themes and characters. The most fascinating concepts in Dune would never garner such broad interest to make it a financially viable enterprise for a movie studio.

And so my personal guess is that I will never see a high-quality, highly-faithful adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic book. It's a shame, but perhaps the tale is best left where it began - as a purely literary work.