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David Lynch's Dune has three things in common with Fritz Lang's Metropolis. It has an unwieldy script that, no matter how it's filmed, leaves one with the impression that big pieces of the story are missing. The marvelous designs for its fantastic settings, costumes and creatures evoke worlds and visions previously unseen in movies. And both films were largely rejected by the public. Dune came out as Universal's Christmas release in 1984 and was met mostly with indifference, as if it were yet another copycat Star Wars picture like the Japanese Message from Space. It was also called "a two-hour trailer for a twelve-hour movie." The Frank Herbert literary faithful resented omissions and changes to the original book.
Just the same, Dune sets the imagination in motion with its feudal struggle that makes one crucial planet the battleground for galactic domination. Better still, David Lynch's superb casting for at least twenty unique characters is some of the best ever done for a fantasy. And his director's "vision" is as exciting here as it is in his more celebrated films.
Universal released a flat-letterboxed disc of the basic theatrical version of the movie in 1998, sending many Dune fans back to their pricey ($225) Japanese laserdiscs. That also included the extended television syndication version of the film, which added a little less than an hour of new material. Now the entire package is together in one impressively-styled tin keep case. Much more on this below.
Dune sprawls as only a novel with dozens of characters can; the original books included glossaries for names, phrases, definitions and organizations within a galactic empire, and people who attended the original release of Dune tell me that they were handed a 'cheat sheet' mini-glossary defining twenty or thirty of the film's colorful terms, like Gom Jabbar, Mentat and Bene-Gesserit. (Some or all of this list is included as a paper insert in this disc.) Unfortunately for David Lynch, although his worship of the source material seems complete he felt it necessary to include all of this terminology in his movie, along with exact explanations for all of the exotic characters and their relationships to one other. There is also an entire backstory cosmology that has to be explained, how a dominant sisterhood of telepathic witches have been struggling to breed a super-being over the course of 90 generations, yadda yadda. And don't forget the present political conflict between two clans (we're told there are many more), in which a galactic emperor and the Harkonnen clan hatch a conspiracy is to crush the Atreides clan. But wait, there's still the over-arching power represented by the Spacing Guild and its mutated navigator creatures (giant Eraserheads in forty-foot aquariums), who need the spice of Arrakis just to enable intergalactic commuting.
All that information and much more to dispense means that at least 50% of Dune is a lecture, whether it comes from a narrator (traditionally ignored by theatergoers as they settle in with their popcorn) or out of the mouths of every character who comes along. David Lynch had shown excellent judgment when he moved up from Eraserhead to the more conventionally challenging The Elephant Man, but the sheer size of Dune perhaps got the better of him. The film has too much, and also not enough, exposition. Viewers get tired of listening to characters explain things that they don't want to remember. The who, how, and where of the basic setup (in the theatrical cut) is declaimed over and over again, while the "why" is often buried in a half-heard sentence somewhere. We don't discover the story, it's explained to us.
Not being a reader of the books, I remember seeing Dune new and understanding practically nothing of what I was seeing. Lynch insists on leaping ahead with his story so quickly that we can't tell which planet is which. Almost everything in the film is so visually dazzling, we have no time to consider the dense storyline. A giant space navigator with an obscene gash for a melange-sniffing nose has the right idea: "I see plots within plots."
The irony is that Lynch's excellent cast handles much of this constant exposition extremely well, especially when engaged in relevant activity we can see for ourselves, like spice mining. But the rest of the story is doomed. When we can't tell who the teams or the players are, Lynch's eerie "prophecy" montages become an annoying redundancy.1
That said, after one's third or fourth viewing Dune starts to look like a much better movie. Characters still talk as if reading from the Bible but we at least know who they are. And they begin to show uncommon richness. Jürgen Prochnow's doomed Leto seems less powerful. Kenneth McMillan's Baron Harkonnen is a perfectly-realized vision of nastiness, a memorably foul villain who pulls heart-plugs from shivering flower boys and keeps a doctor specifically to cultivate hideous facial blemishes ("My diseases") to help keep him in a foul temper. Max von Sydow's Dr. Kynes has quiet wisdom and authority, and each of three royal tutors (Patrick Stewart, Freddie Jones, Dean Stockwell) has sharply defined characters. Sting and Paul Smith are perverse meanies under Kenneth McMillan. Smaller functionaries are unforgettable, like Jack Nance's tremulous Harkonnnen captain and Brad Dourif's eccentric mentat assassin. Dourif's gestures are so stylized, they're brilliant: "It is by will alone that I set my mind in motion."
There's design, and then there's design, and this show has settings, props and costumes that inflame the imagination. Little things like back-collar epaulets, and extravagant halls with rich tile work and carved wall decorations made from exotic materials. Francesca Annis' hairstyle is an erotic wonderment that looks 100 years old and wonderfully new at the same time. Objects and spacecraft are an intriguing blend of various technologies and cultures. The space navigator's Rendezvous with Rama-like pillboxes serve as mass-transport cannisters from one end of the galaxy to another. The little Arrakis hovercraft looks like a boxy DIY kit, similar to vehicles seen in ancient Sci Fi like 1929's High Treason.
I remember my friend Mark Sullivan once dismissing Dune because (in 1987) he was "sick of idiotic Luke Skywalker movies about Princes inheriting their rightful kingdoms." I understood exactly what he meant, as George Lucas' franchise hit was based on a commercial fantasy guaranteed to appeal to under-achieving teenaged boys: The idea of a glorious galactic Entitlement Program. Sure, you're failing in school / lazy / ignorant and proud of it ... but you're a dreamer and the universe really is about YOU and nobody else. If the rest of the *&%@! world would just get its act together, it would recognize that YOU are the fabulous furry frog prince. In Star Wars ol' Luke does very little except have a good attitude and a healthy ego. He doesn't listen to his mentors, or study anything ... all he does is invoke his magical heritage and he's an instant Master of the Universe. We used to have jokes about tests in school, where "the force" really doesn't help one's grade one bit. Instead of idly dreaming of grand opportunities to come (and we know they come when one prepares, even if one doesn't know why), today's aggressive kids Demand Unearned Rewards.
Besides, the entire 'world' of Star Wars is a borrowing from Frank Herbert anyway, and simplified into a highly entertaining (at least the first two installments or so) fantasy machine. Beyond that, the mystique of Jedi Baloney gets pretty deep.
Dune has suspicious fairy tale qualities of its own. But Paul Atreides (19 year-old Kyle McLachlan) is a worker, a dedicated student who has earned the right to stand and fight next to his teachers, and has the makings of a potential great leader. I don't know if Dune the book gives forth with the same ideas, but Dune the movie now looks like a metaphor for war in the Middle East with giant outside civilizations fighting to control a crucial resource. All the verbal imagery is Arabian, with the struggle of the Fremen referred to as a Jihad, so this is a familiar observation doubtless debated better elsewhere.
Dune's feudal setup, with medieval cultures commanding futuristic technology, has an equally primitive misogynistic streak. Female perfidy is at the center of the political struggle, with the Bene-Gesserit sisterhood conspiring to overthrow the natural order of things by creating and controlling a super-being. Unfortunately, true love intercedes to create a male messiah in the form of Paul, after being transformed by training, conditioning, and drug-induced mental implosions. His attitude toward empowered women is that they need to be silent and stay that way. Those uppity dames with no eyebrows will no doubt be sent back to the kitchens where they belong. In one cut scene Paul screams out masculine disapproval at his mother, invoking some kind of sexual right to put even the woman who created him in her place. It's a strange image of male-dominated noble bloodlines.
Every so often a rumor starts that Dune will be rebuilt and re-edited by David Lynch, an outcome devoutly to be wish'd. The original 137 minute movie confused many fans who had seen other scenes in promo teasers or in a promo book (that I wished I'd bought). Dune should have been split into two 2.5-hour movies, as the Salkinds had done with Superman or The Three Musketeers, a ploy that recently turned into a fabulous success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.2
An unwieldy compromise version turned up syndicated on TV stations in 1987 or 1988, "A Alan Smithee Film" (sic) that added much new material, albeit pan-scanned. Apparently (Savant's guess, no need to start rumors) Universal wanted to maximize its return from the costly movie, and Lynch was unavailable or uninterested in tinkering with his picture. It's not likely that the studio offered much money for the privilege. "Alan Smithee" greatly expanded the storyline, restoring dialogue to scenes that had been mercilessly cut to a minimum -- like the two opening scenes with José Ferrer's Emperor -- and smoothing out material that was too rushed to make a proper impact. "Smithee"s editors also reinstated several scenes deleted in full, including one with Patrick Stewart's warrior-balladeer playing a stringed musical instrument. There's more needed detail in everything, and several performances are now much more satisfying. Richard Jordan's Duncan Idaho is no longer a passing blip, and Linda Hunt's Shadout Mapes gets to do more than deliver a couple of expositional telegrams. Underground with the Fremen, we see plenty of vital material: an extra knife fight and a burial. Best of all is the milking of "The Water of Life" from a baby Sandworm. It's a serendipitous blend of Sci-fi and Lynchian imagery.
Unfortunately, the Extended Cut also flattens out a lot of David Lynch's poetry by plastering in more redundant voiceover exposition. Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) had provided a hopelessly confusing expository monologue-prologue for the Theatrical Cut, but Universal couldn't/didn't rehire her services, so a male voice takes us on a mind-numbing rehash of Dune politics that adds eight minutes to the running time. It's still followed by a redundant lesson that Paul watches on his laptop. The new male voice pops in throughout the Extended Cut, adding and restating information over introductory scenes of new planets, thus dulling the impact of Lynch's visual transitions.
The Extended cut also expands every time some character travels from one world to another. Since there aren't enough shots of spaceships landing or traversing starfields to go around, they're repeated ad infinitum. Some arrivals are highly suspicious, as if the wrong planet were being pictured. Is this the Emperor's home orb, or planet Caladan? Worse, the editors just plain cheat. When the Reverend Mother Mohiam (Siân Phillips) arrives on Caladan, a cockpit view is stolen from a later scene of Paul and Jessica being taken out to the desert to die ... we can plainly see mother and son tied and gagged at the bottom of the frame! Toward the end, various effects shots unfinished in the film proper are replaced with bad flat artwork place holders. It's quite a mish-mosh.
It's almost too bad that Universal released this DVD, if they could have interested Lynch in revisiting the movie as a theatrical event. A three-hour Lynch cut might have been a practical possibility after the success of Lord of the Rings. And with twenty years to think about the problem, Lynch might have figured out an editorial solution to the puzzle. Heck, I'd happily put up with a completely obscure 'impressionist' version of Dune, if it were Lynch'es doing.
Universal's DVD of Dune Extended Edition is a great way to catch up with this ambitious, densely plotted and richly visual David Lynch epic. With the miracle of DVD, which gives us the ability to stop the movie while our friends explain relationships and back story we missed, the narrative weaknesses of Dune become a minor problem.
Both versions of the show are present, and both are 16:9 enhanced at 2.35:1. Lynch's theatrical cut flows better visually and has a much better sound mix, starting with the fact that music cues are heard only once, where they were meant to be heard.
The Extended Cut has been retransferred in its full Panavision width. In earlier discussions I theorized that the editors had padded scenes in the final battle by using shots twice. Pan-scanning the frame to the left yielded one shot, and to the right another, etc. That eccentricity was either Savant fooling himself, or the editors have since straightened it out. But plenty of other TV version anomalies are left intact, including the choppy titles, a blackout or two, and several annoying censor cuts that should have been restored. Baron Harkonnen doesn't kill the flower boy by pulling his heart plug out, or spit on Lady Jessica (although Piter de Vries still wipes the spittle away). Rabban doesn't crush a little creature in a hand-juicer and then suck its fluid through a straw.3
Several new and unattributed docus make welcome additions to the show. A roundup of international designers and modelmakers display the wonderful designs and effects, with a good explanation of foreground miniatures provided by the Spanish art director Benjamín Fernández. The impressive location and production footage seems to have been repurposed from older featurettes. As the new shows have no input from cast or main production crew (and no bites from Lynch or Freddie Francis) we wonder just what the relationship between Lynch, Universal and the de Laurentiis people is. There is also a selection of stills (favoring producer Raffaella, hmmm...) but no trailer.
Compensating is a "deleted scenes" extra. Rafaella de Laurentiis introduces it with a suspicious speech omitting any mention of efforts to involve David Lynch, and stressing the fact that a super-duper long Lynch cut did not exist, that the film went straight from a 4.5 hour rough assembly interrupted by many "scene missing" place holders for never-completed effects (that Universal probably never seriously considered paying for). Raffaella shows us a nice selection of workprint material, some of which is just dailies of characters staring and spouting more mind-numbing exposition. But there are also wonderful unseen bits, like Paul's final wedding plans and the fate of Thufur Hawat (Freddie Jones). I didn't realize until now that Thufur disappears right in the middle of the final throne room confrontation.
One last parting question for the literary Dune fans. The glossary says that Sandworms drown in water. What liquid is the baby worm immersed in when they're milking it? Are they distressing it with threatened drowning as part of the process? And when Paul and the Fremen make rain on Arrakis at the finale, are they just providing a demonstration of Paul's new super-powers? They don't intend to turn Arrakis into a water-planet, do they? They still intend to keep and control the production of the spice Melange ... don't they?4
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dune Extended Edition rates:
1. Walt Disney had the obvious solution to this: Two weeks before the premiere, have a Dune Christmas TV special, with a specially-shot half-hour adventure just about a back-story issue from the film, something that was shot but can't possibly fit into the movie itself ... like Duncan Idaho searching for Fremen desert people and seeing a worm from afar. The rest of the hour can be David Lynch standing in front of artist's renderings, explaining Frank Herbert's world of imagination and drilling the basics of the Dune "set-up" into the public consciousness. Follow this with liberal sprinkles of exciting film clips, and voila!, instant public awareness!
2. Metropolis was similarly the victim of film-length trends in the 1920s. Fritz Lang had pioneered vast, multi-part films like Die Niebelungen and Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler. But when Metropolis came along, UFA was in such bad shape that American investors Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer moved in and exerted their influence. They were uninterested in four-hour serialized epics. Metropolis had a bungled, aborted brief first run at full length (but projected very fast) and then was mercilessly hacked into incoherence, a job that makes the sectioning of Dune (by Lynch himself, dutifully doing his best for the de Laurentiis group) look benign.
3. Although it already has its detractors, perhaps a 'new compromise version' would be indicated, akin to the job done on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: Just take the theatrical version and add as much meaningful new material as possible, without disturbing Lynch's rhythms. He'd surely still disown it, but it would be a lot better than this 'made for TV' mess. Just the same, I'm glad to have the Extended Version.
4. Friendly, helpful note from Thomas Jacobi, 2/12/06: I read your review of Dune Extended Edition, and in answer to your parting questions I can offer this: "The glossary says that Sandworms drown in water. What liquid is the baby worm immersed in when they're milking it? Are they distressing it with threatened drowning as part of the process?" The Water of Life is produced by killing a baby worm by immersing it in water. Just before it dies it spurts out the Water of Life. The scene in the extended cut is pretty much as it is in the book. "And when Paul and the Fremen make rain on Arrakis at the finale, are they just providing a demonstration of Paul's new super-powers? They don't intend to turn Arrakis into a water-planet, do they? They still intend to keep and control the production of the spice Melange ... don't they?" You've stumbled upon the biggest difference between the book and the film. The ending with rain on Arrakis is a complete David Lynch fabrication. Indeed rain would kill the worms thus ending spice production. It was also the biggest complaint from Frank Herbert about the movie. -- Thomas Jacobi