David Lynch’s Dune: An Unintelligible Chaos of Names, Faces, Stilted Dialogue

Bruce Crouchet deems "Dune" a debacle, criticizing its pacing, adaptation, and score, resulting in a film that fails to capture the novel's essence.

Bruce Crouchet’s scathing review of the movie adaptation of Dune in Cinefantastique (July 1985) portrays it as a monumental failure, unable to translate the complexity of Frank Herbert’s novel to the screen. Crouchet criticizes producer Dino De Laurentiis for turning a potential sci-fi masterpiece into a $40 million debacle, highlighting the film’s inability to accommodate its source material’s depth within its runtime. The review notes the disjointed pace, inadequately developed characters, and an intrusive musical score by Toto as key downfalls. Despite acknowledging director David Lynch’s ambition, Crouchet faults his inappropriate handling of the material, leading to a film lacking in emotional resonance and coherent storytelling. Even with a strong cast, their performances are overshadowed by the movie’s overall inadequacies, making Dune an example of how not to adapt a beloved novel.

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by Bruce Crouchet

The name Dino De Laurentiis is synonymous with big-hype pictures that sport little or no intellectual content. In the past, De Laurentiis has sodomized such worthies as King Kong, Flash Gordon, and Conan the Barbarian, but he has topped even his own perverted record with Dune, the movie adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic novel. In conjunction with his daughter, producer Raffaella De Laurentiis. and director David Lynch, he has turned what could have been science fiction’s Gone with the Wind into a debacle that will make Dune fans weep openly and everyone else laugh out loud. This movie, a $40 million travesty comparable to Heaven’s Gate or Cleopatra, may not be the decade’s worst picture, but one is hard-pressed to recall another one that can top it for sheer badness.

Dune’s primary flaw stands out clearly enough: the movie’s length cannot accomodate its complex subject matter. Frank Herbert’s labyrinth-like epic, one which gives equal attention to character development as well as spectacle, proves itself too layered, too sprawling to be cramped by the limitations inherent in a modern commercial film. The most gifted director-writer, working with a bottomless budget, would find it challenging to fit the novel’s every nuance and shading into five hours, never mind a mere two hours and twenty minutes. Denied much needed length (and consequent explication), the film degenerates into space opera nonsense that plays more like a Monty Python spoof than the cosmic Greek tragedy it was meant to be.

Because so much has been left out, the film possesses a disjointed, uneven pace not unlike the jerky walk of a re-animated corpse. Scenes are so severely edited they take on the appearance of disconnected vignettes strung together in random order and permeated by clumsy voice-overs (including an uninspired narration by Virginia Madsen) that do nothing to advance the plot. Even readers intimately familiar with the Dune Chronicles and the recently published Dune Encyclopedia will find this movie almost impossible to decipher. For those unfamiliar with Herbert’s work, the task might very well border on the nightmarish.

Dune’s musical score hangs over the film like a noxious cloud. Composed by the rock group Toto and performed by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Vienna Choir, the arrangement presents itself as a study in noise: omnipresent, repetitive and, like so many scores in today’s big budget movies, annoyingly intrusive. It assaults the ears with criminal relentlessness, all the while adding nothing to the film’s mood or flow. Indeed, the piece played over the opening credits sounds as if the composers meant to poke satiric fun at all ’’spectacle’’ film soundtracks, adding to the unintentional hilarity that scars the movie throughout.

Fairness demands that director David Lynch be commended for even attempting to adapt Dune to the screen. One can only imagine how many sleepless nights he must have spent re-working Herbert’s material into what he believed was a viable cinematic form and Lynch’s courage should not be slighted just because he fails in the endeavor. Screenplay aside, the man who directed such outre fare as Eraserhead and The Elephant Man seems hardly the choice to helm a film that cries out for a more traditional hand. Like so many before him, Lynch’s unfamiliarity with the genre and his lack of respect for it show up in the finished work. He apparently saw the story’ as a chance to advance his own twisted sense of the grotesque, mistaking, it seems, SF tradition for mere outrageousness.

Nowhere is this more tellingly revealed than in Lynch’s interpretation of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) and his nephews Feyd-Rautha (Sting) and Glossu “Beast” Rabban (Paul Smith). Lynch’s screenplay turns his Baron into a floating pustule of a man attended by mad doctors who look as if they might have been extras in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Frank Herbert’s obese but brilliantly subtle madman has been replaced by a scenery-chewing McMillan, who pushes the Baron’s villainy past the cartoonish and into the surreal. The film gives us evil antagonists who are loud, leaky, and posturing, yet so lacking in danger that they become laughable.

Dune’s most poignant horror lies in what the De Laurentiis-Lynch triumvirate does to the novel’s characters and to the actors charged with bringing them to life. Along with crucial plot points, it simply jettisons them as so much useless deadweight. Accordingly, the film lacks any emotional resonance whatsoever, its human aspects reduced to mere names, faces, and stilted dialogue floating aimlessly through unintelligible chaos. The film’s protagonists leave no impression on the mind or heart.

In the book, Lady Jessica, mother-teacher to Paul Atreides, takes shape as SF’s strongest heroine, providing a rich center around which the story’s maelstrom of events can revolve. In the movie, however, her appearance amounts to little more than a cameo. As portrayed by actress Francesca Annis, the character retains the requisite dignity, grace, and maternal eroticism that so distinguishes her in the novel. Annis, an outstanding British performer, might have given us the definitive screen Jessica if she had not been so ignominiously betrayed by a weak script. Equally short-changed is actor Kyle MacLachlan. radiating a leader’s charisma as Paul Atreides, the long-awaited Fremen messiah. Even straight-jacketed into a lousy film, MacLachlan manages to shine, giving something like real motivation to his Kwisatz Haderach. Also deserving honorable mention are Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck, Freddie Jones as Thufir Hawat, and Richard Jordan as Duncan Idaho. Good actors all, one can only speculate as to what heights they might have carried this Christmas turkey if given their heads. As it is, the actors are easy enough to miss—all we need do is blink.

Even with its multi-million dollar budget Dune’s special effects are, at best, merely adequate, and many look downright cheesy. Scenes involving the giant sand worms, especially, have a shoddy feel reminiscent of, say, Rodan or Godzilla. Clumsiness also rears its head in the Bene Gesserit “voice,” a major plot device that now sounds like a poor man’s Exorcist rip-off rather than the powerful, manipulative tool described in the book. Only Tony Masters’ production design, as rich in atmosphere and intricacy as the movie is poor in character and story, can weather a critical attack un-scorched. Here, in Masters’ Castle Caladan and Arrakeen palace, do we meet the obsessive physical care so necessary in bringing science fiction to life. What sadness to realize that Masters’ carefully wrought backgrounds completely outshine the film itself.

For all its drawbacks, Dune displays one unassailable virtue: it is so bad that audiences can safely ignore it and hope for a day when skilled craftsmen will bring Herbert’s legendary opus to a life it so richly deserves. In the meantime, mercy dictates that we accept the present film for what it really is, a desperate cry for help from Dino De Laurentiis, asking moviegoers everywhere to please stop him before he films again.

Cinefantastique, July 1985


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