Dark, alien, and stuck in development hell for a period that would make even Terry Gilliam shudder, David Lynch’s 1984 film DUNE endured many false starts before making it to theaters.
Though DUNE premiered in 1984, attempts to film started in 1971. Arthur Jacobs, who produced PLANET OF THE APES and PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM, first took on the project. He asked David Lean to direct. Lean said no. Jacobs searched for a director and worked on other projects. He died in 1973. Jean-Paul Gibon’s company took over after buying the rights from Jacobs’ estate. They hired Alejandro Jodorowsky, who brought in the dream team of Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Dan O’Bannon, Mick Jagger, H.R. Giger, Moebius, Pink Floyd, and Shirley Temple Black. All right, not Black; I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. Costs abounded, and the producers, afraid of what would have been a 10-14 hour film, wrestled the script from Jodorowsky’s hands.
Producer Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights and asked the author of DUNE, Frank Herbert, to write a screenplay. He then hired Ridley Scott to direct. The film was to be made in two parts and last (a more manageable) 4 hours. However, the sudden death of Scott’s brother Frank caused him to reassess his life and career. He left the production to make BLADE RUNNER.
De Laurentiis scrambled to secure the rights again, and his daughter, producer Rafaella De Laurentiis, hired David Lynch to direct DUNE. Fresh off the critical success of THE ELEPHANT MAN, Lynch began writing a screenplay, despite lacking any science fiction background or knowledge of the DUNE series. Then he wrote another screenplay. And another. Lynch wrote a whole bunch of screenplays; then he made the film we know and love (Well, some of us love it). Some lump DUNE in the same category as Cimino’s 1980 film HEAVEN’S GATE: an expensive, rudderless epic. I don’t. For some of us, DUNE has everything a good science fiction film needs.
The film tells the story of two warring factions: House Atreides and House Harkonnen. House Atreides (Jurgen Prochnow, Kyle MacLachlan, Francesca Annis) rule the beautiful ocean planet Caladan. They’re attractive, intelligent, and noble. House Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan, Paul Smith, Sting) dominate the desert planet Arrakis. They’re ugly, barbaric, and cruel. OK, Sting’s not ugly, but he’s so nasty you think he is. DUNE is an ambitious film, loaded with political intrigue, spirituality, and even allusions to the oil trade. It aims high, and while it doesn’t hit all of its targets, it manages to provide a bizarre and entertaining experience.
First, it has space exploration. The two feuding houses don’t live on opposite sides of the Adige in Verona, they live on different planets! No matter, it’s the year 10,192 and space travel is a snap. This is especially true if you’re in the Spacing Guild. Guild members travel the same way Carlos Castaneda did: They drop a little spice and fold space. Beats walking!
Second, it has cool futuristic weapons. House Atreides invents these awesome weirding modules that can kill a guy with the right wavelength. Patrick Stewart and Richard Jordan, clad in transparent armor, train Kyle MacLachlan in hand-to-hand knife fighting. They discuss atomic weapons, and remote-controlled hunter seekers float from room to room, armed with poison darts.
It has nomadic desert troops waging jihad against their Harkonnen oppressors, and the allusions to Arabic culture don’t end there. Herbert made comparisons to the Middle East oil crisis and environmental issues throughout his DUNE series. The character name Thufir means victory in Arabic and Kyle MacLachlan’s tribal name, Mu’adib, translates to teacher.
Next, it has worms and spice. Is there a connection between the two? Well, the worms are rather large and have accompanying lightning. People fear and worship them. The spice mélange expands consciousness, changes eye color, and helps with that space folding thing.
Last, it has an aura unlike any other film, it is almost extraterrestrial. DUNE looks like a post-apocalyptic steampunk S&M club’s interpretation of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Vast deserts, steam-powered weaponry, red mohawks, burqas, goggles, leather Speedos, and dimly lit rooms contribute to the overall atmosphere aesthetic of Victorian future space Bedouin chic. The sweeping score by Brian Eno and Toto reinforces DUNE’s epic tone. With a supporting cast that includes the Lynch repertory company of Dean Stockwell, Brad Dourif, and Jack Nance, DUNE is well acted and fun to watch. I even like Alan Smithee’s two-part televised version even if David Lynch doesn’t. I’m not alone either. Quite a few of us find the strangeness of Lynch’s vision appealing. Recently, the topic of guilty pleasure films came up on Twitter and I named DUNE as one of mine. Immediately, people came out of the woodwork expressing their love for the much maligned film. The praise for Lynch’s odd science fiction gem surprised and delighted me. I guess I’m not the only fan of worms.