The Cinematic Flowering of Dune

Dune afficionados: What’s wrong with this picture? Besides Sting in a metal diaper? Composite created by the New York Post.

Denis Villenueve may have finally reached the mountain top. Solved the mysterious Poincaré conjecture, created the Philosopher’s Stone, discovered the ruins of Atlantis. That is, as a movie director, he may have finally made a version of Dune that doesn’t need to be remade.

Fourth time’s the charm? Or maybe it’s twelve, if you count all the games, sequels and such–there are apparently fourteen books. (I read five, back in college). Let’s stick just the cinematic versions here: the Bad one, the New one, the Forgettable one, and the Psychedelic one. My fellow Frank Herbert dorks, I promised a review in my last blog (about the Roots of Dune). Links will be attached. Shade will be thrown. Sleeves are being rolled. Let’s compare Dunes.

Whose Idea Was THAT? The Bad, the Forgettable, and the Psychedelic

Why did Dune need so many remakes? Well, there was this one:

Lynch’s 1984 Dune. So much promise. So much wasted.

Patrick Stewart has always been one of the greatest actors on the planet… (see I, Claudius, Episodes 5 & 6). But Gurney Halleck wielding a 20th century rifle, carrying a pug into interstellar battle? Just say no.

Then, there was this one…

Paul Atreides looking like the Karate Kid? Hmmmm… And this one…

Many believe that Frank Herbert was dropping acid while he wrote, and at least one director agreed!

The Bad: The 1984 David Lynch disaster/cult masterpiece. To some, the worst movie ever made and to others, a hidden gem. Geeks like me read everything available before it hit the theaters–this was pre-Internet, so you had to read actual magazines. But, as many critics point out, the essential problem was that Lynch never read the book and didn’t really like science fiction. It showed. Lynch was chosen after director Ridley Scott backed out. Scott made Alien and Blade Runner–wise choice, Ridley!

To be fair to Lynch, the book is a headache because of its epic scale and somewhat-jarring interior monologue that provides a complicated back story. Lynch’s decision was to turn all of that into science fiction hash, a gibberish of oddball place names and bizarre characters, with constant voice over narration by other unknown characters interrupting the action. To make matters worse, the studio then chopped up his planned three-hour version to fit two hours. Back then, mass market audiences wouldn’t sit for three hours; Lord of the Rings and the Marvel canon since solved for that. For the 1984 Dune, the edited result was a mess, excoriated by critics and a misery at the box office. Five subsequently re-edited versions didn’t improve it. Lynch washed his hands entirely of the project.

The Forgettable: The 2000 miniseries for Dune and the follow-up 2003 sequel were earnestly attempted. John Harrison’s version was the the highest rated program ever on the Syfy cable channel. I bought the DVD after seeing it. But upon re-watching, it’s quite tedious. The cast was unknown then, mostly unknown now. The art direction was mediocre; stuff in the fan wikis is better. Really, what’s with Paul’s karate headband? It worked mostly because the 1984 version was SO BAD, rabid fans like me were desperate. But, it doesn’t stand up. So forgettable, I didn’t even remember James McAvoy in the sequel:

Say it ain’t so, Mr. Tumnus!

The Psychedelic: The strangest and most fascinating version of Dune has to be Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version. Kicked off in 1974, the Chilean-French director planned big, a soundtrack by Pink Floyd and a cast including Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. His version of the script was 14 hours long. Somehow, studios were unwilling to fund that–go figure! The documentary about the project, Jodorowsky’s Dune, is fascinating and makes a great viewing companion.

How Do You Open a Long-Awaited Epic?

Jodorowsky’s Dune opens with a ship traveling to “the planet Kaitain at the centre of the galaxy, where it lands and Dog-Beings leave the ship, travel through a lifeless city, and enter the “Museum Of Man.” That explains a lot; completely irrelevant to the book. Lynch’s Dune opens with an unintelligible palace dialogue between the Emperor Padishah and the space guild about their travels from the planet Ix, while the Reverend Mother telepathically listens to their thoughts. Say what? Doesn’t really explain anything. Harrison’s Dune opens at the villainous Harkonnen lair, as the Baronargues with his nephews about how much to squeeze Arrakis. Oi!

So many characters, so many plot points, so many ways to start revealing and explaining. Do you focus on the story’s futuristic nature? On the argument between the Atreides and Harkonnens? On the villains? How do you set up the desert planet, where the most valuable commodity in this interstellar universe is plundered at the expense of the population?

Villenueve’s Dune opens with Chani, a young Fremen woman, describing what Arrakis is, what spice is, and why everyone wants it. (I feared that the 2021 version would focus on the Paul/Chani romance, but it doesn’t. Phew!) Instead, the focus of the film–as reflected by its opening–is on the indigenous people and their fight over their planet. That’s where it most likely belongs. After all, it’s called Dune.

I kept thinking while watching the 2021 version of how Peter Jackson fixed The Lord of the Rings. Another beloved trilogy, but with flawed pacing. Here, Villenueve fixes the flaws of the excessive interior monologue by providing a clearly explained back story, told by a logical narrator. Took a strange book and made it better rather than stranger.

The book itself starts with Paul:

In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.

The actual first sentence of Dune

The book is Paul’s story. The casting of Paul is an important choice. The casting of everybody makes for interesting choices.

Hire the Right People; Give them the Right Dialogue

Paul Atreides is supposed to be a skinny 15-year-old who everyone underestimates because he’s gawky and inexperienced. Except that he’s been trained to fight and trained to exert superior mental skills by his Bene Gesserit mother. He needs to be an unlikely candidate both to lead an interstellar jihad and gain the ability to see across time and space.

Even if I find Timothée Chalamet annoying for unexplained reasons, he was an exceptional Paul Atreides.

I am not a Timothée Chalamet fan, though I can’t really explain why. He was good in Little Women and hilarious poking fun of himself on SNL. It’s probably the pretentious way he spells his name: there I said it. Moving on. He’s PERFECTLY cast for this movie, and his performance hits all the right notes.

Casting is one reason that 2021 succeeds. Kyle MacLachlan’s 1984 Paul Atreides was meh, hampered partly by stupid dialogue and partly by MacLachlan’s wooden acting. Alec Newman in 2000 was okay, but there’s a reason he’s worked little since. Chalamet’s version is closest to the character in the book, a teenager who must become a fighter.

Some have complained that this New version stops before it getsreally going, with Paul killing a Fremen as a weak climax. But if you know where it’s going for Paul, trust me, that’s a straightforward end. You think Luke Skywalker’s family is messed up? Try becoming a god who destroys civilization, whose son turns into a giant worm and rules the universe for a millennium. Yeah, let’s just end Part One with a nice little fight since, but where no one’s in a banana hammock.

The 1984 cast had several good choices, with Francesca Annis and Sian Phillips especially inspired. Unfortunately, the casting of Sting–while interesting–dominated the conversation. And when Lynch had him dance about in that metal diaper, yelling I will keel him! the movie went from confusing to laughable. It nearly took out Sting’s career. Villenueve smartly excised the character entirely from the Part One version.

By the way, the problem with that composite picture above is at the bottom-left. Dean Stockwell is pictured opposite Oscar Isaac, presumably because the person composing the image thought Stockwell in uniform was Duke Leto. However, Stockwell played the traitor, Dr. Yueh. Such a goof is sloppy, especially to the geeks for whom the piece is aimed.

The 2021 cast also uses its veterans and award-winners well, with international names like Charlotte Rampling and Chang Chen. Stilgar is a major character and should be an important actor, but previous versions used B-movie names who gave predictable uninspired performances. In 2021, it’s Oscar winner Javier Bardem–genius. Stilgar is the essence of the Fremen: the ignored threat, the discounted warrior, the one you shouldn’t turn your back on. We’ll likely see more of him in Part Two.

Moreover, Jason Momoa in 2021 is so much more butch than Richard Jordan was in 1984. C’mon! And I liked the way Stellan Skarsgard was CGI-enhanced to be grossly fat, instead of casting a fat person. Though wouldn’t it have been fun to see Orson Welles, as the 1974 cast had envisioned? Allegedly, Jodorowsky convinced Welles to do it by promising to fund all his meals. The 1974 director also persuaded Dali to it by promising to pay him $100,000 a minute. He then figuring out how to use only five minutes of Dali’s work. Oh, and I would have loved to see Gloria Swanson as the Reverend Mother… I’m ready for my close-up, Emperor Padishah…

Fun fact about Charlotte Rampling, who plays the excellently creepy head of the Bene Gesserit in 2021. Jodorowsky cast her as Lady Jessica 50 years ago–which has interesting implications for Jessica’s character, doesn’t it? But Rampling wouldn’t take the role then when the script had a scene where the Harkonnen army, 2000 strong, were simultaneously defecating in the Atreides palace. Who the hell is going to see this movie? she wailed and turned down the role. But Villenueve brought her back.

1984: blurry and dark with cheesy special effects

Out of this World

Dune ought to look different. The artistic vision in 1984 wasn’t entirely wrong. The costumes, spaceships, and buildings should all look like something that hasn’t been seen. Stillsuits, Bene Gesserit, shield walls, personal body force fields, and sandworms the size of aircraft carriers (or “space frigates” as Paul says). There’s a lot to play with.

Some good background looks in 1984.

The Bad Version gets right a lot of the costumes, the pageantry, and the ships. The art direction is weird and wonderful. But Lynch’s Dune is dark; not just thematically, but visually, you often can’t see anything. The special effects–eccch. Water skiing on the sandworms? It looks ridiculous. Of course it’s fake–they’re giant sandworms. But it has to look better and, if it can’t, Lynch shouldn’t have tried it. Star Wars had been made; so had 2001. There were people who could have done this well.

Jodorowsky: Pink and yellow ships? Mick Jagger? Dog-Beings? Still, he did seem to be on to something with his sketches, like this one of the Baron’s stronghold on Giedi Prime:

The Harkonnen stronghold a la Jodorowsky, late 1970s

The documentary claims that Jodorowsky’s drawings, widely circulated in Hollywood, influenced Alien, Blade Runner, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. In that sense, the pre-production ideas by the one-time cartoonist turned director were probably a better legacy than the never-made film.

After all, here’s the Harkonnen lair in 2021, reminiscent of Jodorowsky:

The Harkonnen stronghold, 2021, image from Warner Brothers.

2021 had the advantage of better CGI technology than 1984, better funded than in 2000. From the spice harvesters to the watery Caladan; from the crysknives to the body shields; it looks right.

It sounds right, too. Pink Floyd was a bold idea back in 1974. Toto and Brian Eno might have elevated 1984, but crashing guitar music set to ludicrous dialogue and cheesy special effects just sounds like more ludicrous cheese. Hans Zimmer in 2021? Mic drop. He mixes middle Eastern themes, strange percussion, choirs, guitars, violins. For him, Dune was all-of-the-above.

For me, too. The debacle of 1984 has finally been purged.

Don’t we all feel better now?

2 Replies to “The Cinematic Flowering of Dune”

  1. I wasn’t thrilled with the new “Dune” incarnation. But that said, it is undoubtedly the best of a sad lot of previous efforts to bring “Dune” to the big screen (or in my case, to my 65” HDTV on HBO Max).

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