9 April 2007 | mstomaso
Dune's Devil in David's Details
My review covers both versions of Dune, the 2 hour release and the extended 3 hour "Smithee" version aired on television. The first cut of the film was over four hours long, but there was never any intention to release this, and Lynch himself shot scenes which consolidated the final product into a more manageable length.
Allen Smithee, a protest pseudonym adopted by Lynch when he disassociated himself with the 3 hour version of this film, is also alluded to in Lynch's latest film - Inland Empire. A portion of a film studio in Inland Empire is "Smithee's Room" - a metaphorical insight into Lynch's feelings about Dune, and studio-controlled film-making in general.
Given the tremendous investment made by the studio, Lynch's general distaste for the final product, the repetitive cliché soundtrack, and the occasionally bizarre use of voice-over narrative in the TV version, it seems more a DeLaurentis film than a Lynch film. Although I am very interested in Lynch's films and other projects, I am evaluating this solely from my own perspective. Despite the great director's poor opinion of this film, I enjoyed it and it is one of my favorite sci-fi films.
Frank Herbert, author of the novel upon which it is based, approved the theatrical version, but he had the benefit of knowing what he was going to see. If you haven't read the book, these films can be somewhat difficult to understand. And if you come to the experience expecting something like Star Wars, you should probably find something else to do.
The soundtrack is repetitive and only interesting the first time you hear the film's major theme (the Eno composition). The use of rock orchestration simply does not work in this film. Happily, Lynch learned from the experience and used rock instrumentation beautifully in later films (especially Wild at Heart and Lost Highway). The camera work is generally less inspired than the rest of Lynch's portfolio. There are occasional visually striking scenes which will remind you of the film's origin, but there are too many static shots - especially during the action scenes. The soundtrack is easy to explain - like the inclusion of Sting in the cast - this is a marketing move by the production company, not a creative choice of the director. The camera work is much less easily explained. Perhaps Lynch was asked to avoid doing anything surreal or bizarre with this film (sort of like asking Groucho Marx to avoid being funny), or the studio was trying to appeal to fans of Star Wars by simplifying and sterilizing its story.
The recently released special edition DVD reveals some very interesting aspects of the production. Lynch's influence, not surprisingly, is best explored in the short documentary concerning the film's design. As an artist, Lynch spent a great deal of time and energy envisioning the material culture both historical and modern of each culture depicted in the film, helping to create a consistent and unique characterization for each. This spilled over quite naturally into costume design. The sets and costumes used in this film are really spectacular. The special effects, often derided by contemporary viewers, required a great deal more effort that the synthetic art of today's computerized extravaganzas and, the documentary concerning their production on the DVD is also appropriately respectful.
What you will see is an intense visualization of several, fully realized alien cultures whose art, architecture and general heritage are as well realized, if not more so, than in Herbert's epic novel. To fully appreciate this, don't just check out the extras on the DVD, turn down the sound and just watch the sets, costumes, and effects move through each scenes. There is, as with Lynch's entire portfolio, a great deal to be seen. And the acting and direction are fine throughout the film.
The longer version fleshes out the stories, themes and intricate subplots of Herbert's book more thoroughly, and maintains a much steadier pace than the cinematic release. Even so, both films, to some extent, suffer from too much story, overwhelming visualization, and a un-Lynchian frenetic pace. The later TV mini-series by the sci fi channel does a better job of telling the story in its entirety, but runs about 246 minutes and does not compare to the original in terms of design. Lynch's cinematic release, by contrast, rushes through components of the book and often feels inconsistent in pace.
PLOT: Dune is the story of Paul "Muad'ib" Atreides, the son of Duke Leto Atreides the Just and his Bene Jesserat concubine Lady Jessica. Combining aspects of fantasy, sci-fi and anthropology, the story follows young Paul through a series of tragedies which find him seeking redemption for an entire galaxy by leading an adoptive tribal culture to a revolutionary cleansing of the malignant imperial system from which he sprung. The plot is exceedingly complex in both Lynch versions of the film much is left out of Herbert's original work. Subplots abound, but, true to form, Lynch avoids short-cuts as much as possible and attempts to show his audience what is going on rather than resorting to a great deal of voice-over narrative in the theatrical release. The TV version, however, attempts to provide even more detail, and uses voice-over to patch up the areas glossed over by Lynch's script.
SUMMARY: If you're a Lynch fan and not a big Herbert fan or you don't have a great deal of patience, see the cinematic release. It is the class of the lot.
If you haven't read the book, or you are a Herbert purist who will accept only what was written, choose the Sci-Fi Channel version (review forthcoming soon) - but be forewarned - it is very long.
If you want something that compromises between story and cinematic artistry, go for the TV version. The weakest link, but still OK.