Dune (1984)


Dino DeLaurentiis foots the bill for this gravely ambitious film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel about the messianic rise of an off-lander who rallies a reclusive desert civilization in a fight against galactic takeover. Hot off The Elephant Man, David Lynch was chosen as director — a bold but inspired choice. And in the end, it’s Lynch’s style and aesthetic taste that triumph over an otherwise clunky, turgid screenplay.

Lynch’s script is burdened with ponderous exposition and off-putting internal monologues. Anyone who hasn’t read the book is sure to be at least a little confused, especially in the film’s final hour, which compresses too much story into too little time, losing its narrative thread and discombobulating audiences in the process. Yet Dune is so imbued with David Lynch’s fine art sensibilities, that its style alone transports me to another time and place. Warts and all, it’s a film I can watch (and have) over and over again.

The sets are exquisite. I especially love the opulence of the Caladan stairways and the intricate tile work on Arrakis. Bob Ringwood’s costumes, the several thousands of them representing myriad cultures and social statuses, are the best I’ve ever seen for fantasy or science-fiction. There’s a richness and history to these sets and costumes that tells a story all on their own. Sealing the deal for me is the score by Toto, a highly unconventional choice, but a stroke of genius. Their low and slow approach, augmented with inventive percussion and a dash of rock guitar is at turns epic, mystical, forlorn, and ecclesiastic — a truly original soundtrack. There are very few movies I would rate this highly for purely aesthetic reasons, but that’s how superlative I think the work is.

The casting of Dune feels like a random lottery that reeks of international financing obligations. Many of them, including handsome leading man Kyle McLachlan and beautiful Francesca Annis, embrace a suitable operatic approach to the material. Big names like Sting, Max von Sydow, and Oscar-winner Linda Hunt have relatively little to do. Kenneth McMillan gives the film’s most indelible performance as the vile Baron Harkonnen. Brad Dourif is memorable as his major domo, and Sian Phillips makes for a great witch. Among the other notable players are Jose Ferrer, Virginia Madsen, Freddie Jones, Patrick Stewart, Robert Jordan, Alicia Witt, Jurgen Prochnow, Sean Young, Everett McGill, and Dean Stockwell.

Side Note: There is an extended version of the film, which only aired on television. It is horrendously edited and the new material doesn’t do much in the way of deepening the story or one’s engagement of the movie. Stick with the more polished theatrical cut.

Oscar Nomination: Best Sound

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