In a series of reviews and blog posts filed under the heading "Auteur Theory," I have made it a project to revisit the career of cult director David Lynch, rewatch his entire feature filmography in sequential order, and chart the progression of this iconoclastic artist through both his highs and lows.
The movie review portion of the following article was originally written for and first published on my personal 'Dune' movie merchandise web site. It is being reprinted here with permission (from myself). Because I have a very deep, personal connection to this movie, I reserve the right to retain the copyright to that text. The remaining technical portions of the article are new and exclusive to High-Def Digest.
- Joshua Zyber
"Auteur Theory" Article Index
"The sleeper must awaken."
What is it about certain movies that can drive a person to obsession? When David Lynch's film adaptation of 'Dune' premiered back in 1984, it was released to almost universal scorn. Fans of the Frank Herbert novel upon which it was based despised it for daring to leave out a couple paragraphs of the author's verbose prose and changing a detail or two. (Oh no, the desert warriors now fight with guns rather than kung-fu. The heresy!) General moviegoers lured to the multiplex by ads that promoted it as the next 'Star Wars' couldn't make heads or tails of its complicated story, were bored by its lack of major action scenes, and had no idea how to interpret the filmmaker's stranger affectations. Roger Ebert declared it the worst movie of the year. Budgeted at over $40 million, it was one of the most expensive science fiction productions made up to that point. (For reference, the prior year's 'Return of the Jedi' cost only $32 million.) And it was a tremendous box office bomb. For years afterward, any mention of 'Dune' would invariably be in the context of biggest movie flops, categorized with the likes of 'Cleopatra' and 'Heaven's Gate'. Even to this day, the film is still considered by most movie-watchers a baffling failure. Its director has completely disowned it.
None of that matters a bit. I love 'Dune'. No, I adore 'Dune'. I've watched it dozens upon dozens of times, in 35mm and on every home video format that has ever existed. I know the film on a practically frame-by-frame basis. I can recite major portions of the dialogue verbatim. I've amassed a sizable collection of memorabilia and merchandise related to it. Of the thousands of movies I've watched in my life, I would never be foolish enough to call 'Dune' the best film I've ever seen, but it is my favorite. I have no shame about that, no matter how few people will ever understand it. The way some people are fixated on 'Star Wars' or 'Star Trek', I am utterly, rapturously, obsessed with 'Dune'.
And the movie continues to reward me.
The circumstances by which an eccentric cult filmmaker like David Lynch could ever be put in charge of a major science fiction production still seem impossibly unlikely. With only two features on his resumé at that time – the bizarro midnight-circuit oddity 'Eraserhead' and the stately black & white historical drama 'The Elephant Man' – the director found himself courted by no less than George Lucas to direct the then-titled 'Revenge of the Jedi'. Lynch turned that offer down because he didn't want to work on a sequel to someone else's original material. (I suspect he wasn't too keen on all the teddy bears either.) Finding him available, Dino De Laurentiis promptly scooped Lynch up for 'Dune', a book that had already been through several failed attempts at adaptation by the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott. Lynch had never even heard of the novel at the time, but promptly devoured it and found many opportunities to bring his own vision to the universe Herbert had created. He accepted the challenge. After a grueling four-year production, the resulting film is certainly one of the strangest big-budget extravaganzas ever made.
I'll be the first to admit that narrative coherency is not the picture's strongpoint. The Frank Herbert novel was quite long and very densely plotted, an epic tale of politics, religion, war, science, philosophy, environmentalism, and adventure. The movie attempts to cram all those elements into a 2 hr. 17 min. length and winds up greatly condensing many of the storylines. It drops the audience into the middle of Hebert's complex universe with insufficient introduction and little attempt to explain the reams of confusing alien terminology. Even the book needed a glossary to help readers navigate the likes of Mentats, Bene Gesserits, Gom Jabbars, ornithopters, crysknives, and the Kwizatz Haderach. The movie has no such handy reference that viewers can refer to. When the Fremen leader tells our hero to, "Take this Kiswa Maker Hook of our sietch," almost none of those words have been defined in proper context for the audience to understand.
As if that weren't perplexing enough, characters often go by multiple names. The lead Paul Atreides is known as either Usul or Muad'Dib at different points in the story, for reasons not sufficiently spelled out here. If you aren't already familiar with the book, it's easy to get hopelessly lost. Some storylines are so compressed that the movie has to bridge them with frustrating and clunky voiceover narration. The major romantic subplot is covered in its entirety by the single line, "Paul and Chani's love grew," as if that were all we'd need to know about why these two characters who just met are all of a sudden acting like they're married. And there's no avoiding the fact that the entire last act of the movie falls completely apart, from its indifferently-directed huge battle sequence to the absurdly anticlimactic final line.
In terms of storytelling, the film is clearly a mess. But what a wonderfully rich, elaborate, and fascinating mess it is. To be honest, plot clarity has never held much interest for David Lynch. He's a visual artist, more concerned with evoking moods and atmosphere than exposition. His best films (such as 'Blue Velvet' and 'Mulholland Drive') can be argued to have little narrative logic at all, but work instead based on emotional logic. Scenes connect and stories progress because Lynch makes you feel them bind together, even when the puzzle pieces don't fit together easily. He's a filmmaker obsessed with details and textures, and tells his stories more through their arresting images than their dialogue. The director has never been much concerned with the mechanics of staging an action scene, but he's called upon to wrangle a couple of big ones here. The results feel disappointingly perfunctory; you can tell that Lynch just wants to get them out of the way so that he can skip ahead to the juicier character moments to follow. As you can imagine, this creates something of a conflict with the needs of the Hollywood studio system, especially when it comes to adapting an existing literary property with a huge fan base.
Yet for all its failings of story clarity, Lynch's 'Dune' is nonetheless a faithful adaptation of Herbert's novel, sometimes too faithful. It retains most of the author's arch dialogue, much of which is not inherently cinematic in nature, and tries to keep as many of the major subplots as it can pack in. The picture would have been better served as a movie if Lynch had been less faithful to the book and had streamlined out some of the less crucial storylines, even at the expense of upsetting the most fervent 'Dune' fans. Lynch's attention to the nuances of character is a spot-on perfect replica of the book's. The movie's huge multi-national cast nails every role. The film may change some of the details of the plot, but it's always true to the spirit and intention of Frank Herbert's story and characters, a claim that cannot be made of the later cable TV remake/re-adaptation. (Some fans are under the deluded impression that the cheap-jack miniseries is more faithful to Herbert, even though it eviscerates the entire first 1/3 of the book and misinterprets all of the major characters. But that's an argument for another day.)
Like the best adaptations, Lynch's film attempts to be more than just an illustrated version of the novel. The director brings plenty of his own sensibilities to the production. This is unmistakably a David Lynch film through and through. The little touches, like the Baron Harkonnen's repugnant facial sores, Beast Rabban ripping the tongue out of a cow carcass to munch on, or the cat with a mouse sutured to its back, are pure David Lynch and some of the most memorable images in the movie.
For visual imagination alone, 'Dune' is wondrous to behold. Although the Frank Herbert novel was intricately detailed in story and character, the text was curiously lacking in visual descriptions. This allowed Lynch to step in and art-direct the hell out of the picture. The story spans four different planets, each with its own unique culture and history. As depicted here, each has been given an ornate and distinctive production design. The detailed sets and costumes borrow elements that span the centuries from classical Venetian architecture to contemporary industrial wastelands, fused together into a rich tapestry that imagines the future without looking gimmicky or "futuristic." The designs so perfectly fit the story that it's almost impossible to re-read the Herbert novel without picturing the Lynch film in your head. In discussing it, Frank Herbert himself said, "As far as I'm concerned, the film is a visual feast. I would love to have some of the scenes, as stills, to frame and have around me."
Unfortunately, some of the dated blue-screen visual effects haven't aged well, and frankly some weren't very good even by 1984 standards. However, the models and miniatures tend to hold up, as do the lovely matte paintings. The use of foreground miniatures to add depth and scope to wide shots is still impressively seamless in many scenes. Fresh off his 'E.T.' success, Carlo Rambaldi was brought in for creature effects; the Guild Navigator he built per Lynch's design – a sort of giant wrinkled brain that floats in a tank of orange gas, with deformed dwarf appendages, bulging eyes, and a suspiciously vaginal mouth – is one of the most freakily surreal monsters ever put to celluloid.
Even at their least photorealistic, the images Lynch was attempting to create with the special effects are always intriguing. Force fields surround the Atreides soldiers in a series of connected blocky cubes that refract light in curious ways, rather than the expected glowing bubbles. The Spacing Guild heighlighners, massive cylindrical transport ships, "fold space" by miraculously appearing in orbit around a planet, silently and with little visible disturbance. Even the controversial Weirding Modules, the gun weapons that Lynch substituted for the hand-to-hand combat in the novel, fire not the typical laser beams but sound energy blasts that cause a target's molecules to vibrate explosively. (This effect is the least consistently or convincingly applied in the movie, sadly). And of course there are the sandworms of planet Arrakis, gigantic beasts that crush and devour all around them, brought to life via animatronic devices that usually look good in individual shots but somehow never quite integrate properly with the rest of the live-action footage.
Despite some technical limitations, the intent of Lynch's imagery and the breathtakingly gorgeous photography by Freddie Francis make for a truly unique vision unlike any other science fiction movie before or since. It's a production of extraordinary scope and ambition, one of the few in the genre beyond '2001' or 'Blade Runner' to have genuine intellectual ideas on its mind. Lynch's 'Dune' is more art film than sci-fi action blockbuster, a fact that has only caused misunderstanding and disappointment for most viewers who've watched it under different expectations. General moviegoers wanted an action-packed 'Star Wars' clone, Frank Herbert fans wanted a word-for-word perfect illustration of the novel, and David Lynch fans wanted something completely off the wall with no concessions for mainstream acceptance or popularity. 'Dune' is not quite any of those things. It's a cinematic conundrum, and I find it absolutely beautiful and transfixing.
David Lynch had a terrible experience making 'Dune', one that changed his entire outlook on the filmmaking process. Since that time, he has divorced himself completely from the movie, considering it the studio's property to do with as it pleases without his further participation. He's also turned down directing assignments that he hasn't developed himself, and has insisted on the right of final cut in all of his subsequent contracts. Coming out from under 'Dune' inspired him to hone and perfect his next project, 'Blue Velvet', which would become his masterwork. If not for 'Dune', we wouldn't have 'Blue Velvet', or 'Twin Peaks', or 'Mulholland Drive' as we know them. Commercial failure or not, 'Dune' was an important step in the development of a filmmaking artist.
I love 'Dune'. I adore 'Dune'. I consider 'Dune' nothing less than a flawed, misunderstood masterpiece of the science fiction genre, one that's faced an unfair fight for recognition and respectability ever since its debut.
"Long live the fighters!"
Regarding the Different Versions of the Movie
After the film's disastrous box office performance, MCA (Universal's parent company at the time) attempted to add extra footage to the movie in order to sell it in TV syndication as a two-part miniseries that would air over two nights. Minus commercials, that Extended Edition of the film ran about three hours. Unfortunately, this version of the movie was created completely without the participation or approval of David Lynch, who was appalled by it and demanded that his name be removed. The MCA cut bears an "Alan Smithee" director credit. Lynch personally chose the pseudonym "Judas Booth" for the screenplay to reflect his feelings of betrayal.
Although it contains some interesting footage unused in the theatrical cut, the Alan Smithee edit was assembled with shocking incompetence by people who had apparently never seen a movie before and lacked even the most basic understanding of film structure or grammar. Its length was padded with cartoon drawings, innumerable repeated shots, and fake scenes cobbled together with random shots stolen from other scenes. It's an abomination.
When is an Extended Edition not really an Extended Edition?
Although it may have flopped in most of the world, 'Dune' is a surprisingly popular title in Germany, where the movie has been released on video numerous times from a host of distributors, often in collectible packaging. (My favorite is a faux-suede DVD box set with a sandworm statuette.) On Blu-ray alone, the movie has seen at least four previous editions in the country. Most of these are based on the same fundamental video transfer, simply licensed to different studios that have reissued it with different cover art or bonus contents.
The copy under review here comes from a studio called Intergroove Media, and is marketed as being the "Extended Edition" of the movie. Hilariously, it is no such thing. The disc contains only the 137-minute theatrical cut of 'Dune'. The extra footage from the Extended Edition is found in excerpted form on the supplement DVD.
The Intergroove Blu-ray actually does include two different versions of the movie, however: one in standard 2D video and one that has been converted to 3D. The latter is only available in anaglyph 3D format. Intergroove has not provided any anaglyph 3D glasses with the Blu-ray.
In its favor, the Intergroove Blu-ray is very inexpensive and region-free, despite a Region B logo on the case. Annoyingly, the disc begins playback of the movie immediately with a pop-up menu that automatically intrudes into the left side of the screen until you select either the 2D or 3D version of the movie, at which point the film will restart from the beginning.
This Blu-ray is an embarrassment.
When I previously reviewed the UK import edition, I provided a brief history of 'Dune' in high definition. To date, all European Blu-ray copies of the movie have stemmed from the same originating film scan, which first appeared on the format in France. The French transfer was too bright and appeared washed out, especially in darker scenes. To compensate for this, the first German studio to license that transfer, Marketing-Film, adjusted the brightness and contrast electronically. Unfortunately, this left the picture with serious crushing of details in darker scenes.
The Intergroove Blu-ray is based on that same French master, or the Marketing-Film variant. This is easily identified by a distracting stutter during the zoom-in to planet Kaitain in the "secret report within the Guild" scene. However, Intergroove has manipulated the contrast even further. What was already a serious black crush issue is now a catastrophic problem. The disc has no detail at all in dark parts of the picture. Even in brightly-lit scenes such as the Emperor's throne room, characters in dark clothing appear as completely undistinguished black blobs with no texture or definition at all. As if that weren't bad enough, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 image has also been heavily scrubbed with Digital Noise Reduction and then artificially sharpened. This is a very ugly picture with no resemblance to 35mm film. It reminds me of the notorious 'Predator: Ultimate Hunter Edition' Blu-ray, and deserves to rank with some of the worst examples on the format.
The 3D version of the movie on the same disc is laughable. First, let me be very clear that 'Dune' was never a 3D production. The video has been converted to 3D after-the-fact, presumably with no participation from anyone who was ever associated with the film before. Further, the disc is encoded in crummy anaglyph 3D, and suffers all the usual drawbacks normally associated with that format (a dark, murky picture and profoundly skewed colors). Intergroove didn't even bother to provide the appropriate anaglyph glasses in the case. I had to dig through my movie collection until I found a pair with compatible red and green colored lenses for this particular version of anaglyph. (The glasses that came with the original Blu-ray release of 'Monsters vs. Aliens' seemed to work, luckily.)
I find it difficult to judge the quality of the 3D conversion based on an anaglyph transfer, especially when I'm not certain that the glasses I scrounged up are precisely the right hue. I had to give up watching after a few minutes, but I will admit that the early scenes demonstrate some noticeable depth layering. That's something, I guess. Since the time that this disc was released in April of this year, another German studio has already issued yet another Blu-ray copy of 'Dune' – one that claims to be in genuine frame-packed Blu-ray 3D format. I'm such a sucker for this movie that I'll probably have to give that one a try too, even though I'm sure that the 3D conversion is probably terrible in its own respects. In the meantime, this Intergroove copy is pretty much useless.
Other than the recent UK release, which paired up the European video transfer with the older American Blu-ray's soundtrack, other Blu-ray releases of 'Dune' in Europe have come from a common, inferior audio master. This can be instantly identified by a glitch in the "secret report within the Guild" scene that causes the voiceover to say "a siscrit report within the Guild." The Intergroove disc has this same error.
Although encoded in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 format, the soundtrack generally sounds like a stereo source that's been upmixed to 5.1, rather than an organic 5.1 mix. It's listenable, even pleasant, but lacks much in the way of dynamics or surround activity. The American disc is more engaging and better captures subtle auditory details in the movie's fascinating sound design.
The first disc in the set (the Blu-ray) has no bonus content. All extra features are found on the DVD in the case, which is a direct copy (studio logos, menus and everything) of the supplement disc from an older German DVD release called the "Paradise Edition" (the one with the worm statuette). This same disc was also included with the previous German Blu-ray from Marketing-Film.
This is a PAL standard definition DVD in 4:3 aspect ratio. All of the menus and text features are in German, for obvious reasons. This may be somewhat confusing for an English speaker to navigate, and the text items will likely be of little interest, but I'll try to list out everything that I can identify. The menus on the disc segment the content into three categories.
Listed out in bullet points like this, the DVD may seem to hold a lot of content. However, other than the clips from the Extended Edition, most of these items are merely odds and ends that can easily be found on the web.
I'm probably the biggest fan of 'Dune' there is, and I don't regret buying even crummy copies of the movie like this one. I consider it an interesting curiosity. However, I could never recommend it for purchase to anyone less obsessed than myself.
This particular German import Blu-ray (several others exist in the country) claims to be the Extended Edition of the movie, but isn't. It also has lousy video and an even worse anaglyph 3D conversion for the movie. As if to rub salt in the wound, the studio couldn't be bothered to include the necessary anaglyph glasses with it. Even at its low purchase price, this Blu-ray a terrible disgrace.
To date, the American Blu-ray release from Universal Studios remains the standard-bearer for 'Dune' on the format.