ill LYTeracy: Revisiting David Lynch's Dune

By Luke Y. Thompson in DVDs
Monday, January 7, 2013 at 6:45 am

I think, and hope, we have room on this site for longer think-pieces that aren't necessarily tied to breaking news. I'm sure you'll all let me know.

Is this what it feels like to sit through Dune?

Prior to last week, I had watched the 1984 movie Dune exactly once - in a theater, when it came out. At the time, all I knew about it was that it looked amazing and epic, and I was excited to visit new worlds. I also had the idea that it was pretty cool for some dude to name himself "Sting" and play the bad guy. Needless to say, I had no idea who Jose Ferrer or Jurgen Prochnow were, let alone Virgina Madsen or then-unknown Kyle MacLachlan (I think I knew Linda Hunt as one of the voices from The Last Unicorn, which I had hated, and may perhaps need to revisit someday).

I came out thoroughly disappointed. Had I been able to write an articulate review back then, it might have gone something like this:

"This is terrible! The good guy just kills all the bad guys with no problem, he has a voice that can make them do anything, he falls in love with this one girl just so they can have some kissing in it, and it's trying to be like a Bible story or something, except Jesus didn't kill like that." That said, certain things stuck with me - floating, pus-faced Baron Harkonnen made for a memorable image, as did that Third-Stage Guild Navigator mutant in the beginning. The sandworms had been hyped as one of the movie's big surprises, but honestly, they looked like giant worms; so what? Later, I tried to read the book; finding it too similar to the movie in the early chapters, I gave up, though I did end up reading all of the considerably shorter parody, National Lampoon's Doon, in which spice and sandworms were replaced with beer and pretzels.

The back cover had hamburgers as flying saucers

Now I'm older. And I revere the movie's director, an at-the-time obscure auteur by the name of David Lynch. If somebody told me nowadays that David Lynch was about to make an epic sci-fi movie about a Messiah fable, I'd be all over it. Since he already did, however, I decided that there might be a chance of redemption. So when Dune showed on HBO recently, I DVR'ed it, ready for a revisit. Because I don't always love Lynch, but I usually respect him. Likewise, Kyle MacLachlan had long since won a place in my heart as Agent Cooper, and that little-known English thespian Patrick Stewart had made something of himself as well. As for Sting...let me just try and remember the days when he really was cool.

So I watched. And like the preteen version of myself, I was initially hooked. And then...

Honestly, I'm convinced this movie would be much more of a hardcore cult hit today if it would just shut the fuck up for a second every now and then. Critics at the time labeled it "confusing"; I don't see how, considering that you hear what everyone is thinking, all the time, and they repeat their key thoughts constantly so that their actual acting never has to do the job of telling the story. On top of that, we get additional narration by Princess Irulan (Madsen), a character who is not privy to any of the events actually happening (the books tell us she married MacLachlan's character Paul and wrote many volumes about him; the movie neglects this key detail).

"Hold it. Before you go further, remember me in Twin Peaks..."

With that aside - and it really is nigh-impossible to put that aside - Dune actually isn't a bad movie. Its allegory factor is interesting today; nobody at the time could have known this fully, but a movie about a desert rich in resources that's owned by an emperor named Shaddam who hates the local tribes - and wants to pit the super-power empires against each other - seems timelier than ever. Of course, for that allegory to carry through, George W. Bush would have had to gay-marry Uday or Qusay at the end, so it only goes so far.

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