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In Defence Of...

Wild Sting: In Defence Of Dune
Andrew Stimpson , January 30th, 2012 11:26

In the game of folly versus lolly David Lynch's version of the Frank Herbert science fiction novel Dune played and lost. Now revived as part of a BFI Southbank retrospective on the director, it is often regarded as a patchy, incomprehensible failure. Andrew Stimpson challenges this consensus

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In a strange case of synchronicity, the Quietus asked me to say something about the sci-fi opus Dune - screening twice this month as part of the BFI season David Lynch: A Reputation Precedes... (full preview here) - on the very day I ordered the Blu-ray from the USA. I've been waiting a long time for a high quality release and, sadly, I'll be waiting a lot longer for a super-duper director's cut, packed with documentaries explaining the numerous mysteries surrounding the first complete production based upon Frank Herbert's densely plotted masterpiece. Veering from grandly beautiful to plain bloody ugly, sporting some genuinely crappy (and in some places unfinished) special effects and featuring a weird cross section of acting (and hamming) talent, Dune stands unique among the pantheon of godlike cinematic science fiction presences.

In a strictly monotheistic environment where Star Wars rules there is no place for a film like Dune, a distinct irony considering that Frank Herbert, upon seeing George Lucas's smorgasbord, claimed to have identified no fewer than 37 points of direct comparison between the blockbuster and his, as yet unfilmed novel. Thanks in part to Lucas - before he had curled out a number of gigantic turds over his own doorstep - the appetite for the genre was rapacious: the likes of Alien, Blade Runner, Metalstorm: The Destruction Of Jared-Syn and, by 1984, Dune were all getting made. The daunting, outlandish and challenging scope of Frank Herbert's brick of a book takes on an added dimension when the previous attempts to adapt it are considered. The first substantial effort was undertaken by Alejandro Jodorowsky, the man behind El Topo and The Holy Mountain. The maverick Chilean engaged the unique artistic talents of H.R. Giger, Christopher Foss and Jean Giraud aka Moebius to start pre-production on designing the film, with Gong, Tangerine Dream and Pink Floyd lined up to compose music. The sheer cliff face of bonkers was then scaled when he approached Salvador Dali to play the Emperor of the Known Universe. After demanding $100,000 per day and a toilet-throne made of dolphins, Dali agreed. Perhaps predictably, affairs rapidly spiralled into utter madness and scatology to the point where collaborator Dan O'Bannon was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and the Hollywood backers withdrew their support. For more about the Dune you'll only ever dream of read Lee Arizuno's extensive tQ feature.

Lynch's effort may seem vanilla by comparison, but by normal genre standards it is certainly an eccentric piece of work. Even after forgiving Kyle MacLachlan's patently bizarre chin and the giant sandworms which look like they were knocked up by Blue Peter presenter Lesley Judd in a Japanese POW camp, one cannot fail to notice the colossal flaws in executing the story of a feudalistic, far-flung future. It commits the cardinal sin of the adaptation: if you haven't read the book it makes no bloody sense whatsoever. Dune is populated by human computers, drug-addled mutants, scheming assassins plus a host of dysfunctional families and cabals vying for power, wealth and above all Spice - the key to longevity and prescience. Lynch takes some liberties with the fundamentals of the plot, alarmingly so in the case of the ending, but changes had to be imposed to mitigate the fact that George Lucas had already nabbed a number of key features previously unique to Dune. (Danny Cannon and company would have a similar problem many years later with their Judge Dredd adaptation, after RoboCop had plundered the comic's signature characteristics.) Herbert's hugely intricate and meticulously detailed plot compounded the issue. So much so that John Harrison's TV miniseries, first broadcast in 2000, spanned almost five hours despite having compressed or omitted a number of elements.

Cinema is certainly not new to shorthand versions of epic novels, but some of the methods employed by Lynch can be particularly jarring at first - the chief example being his decision to allow the audience to overhear characters' thoughts as lines of dialogue. Thanks to the accompanying shots of the thinkers in question looking at best vaguely pensive and, at worst, utterly vacant, the results range from diffident to bizarre. The average viewer can only be distanced further by the chewiness of Lynch's dialogue and the cast's wildly diverse response in their delivery choices. Some achieve masterful results, most notably Kenneth McMillan (Baron Harkonnen) and Brad Dourif (the Baron's sidekick Piter De Vries), whose every utterance is thoroughly invested with glee and dripping with spite. Undoubtedly as actors they just get it. Sadly, some plainly do not and their efforts, even to an avowed Dune fan, threaten to blow the whole mood. Kind of like your mam and dad coming round during a particularly hilarious, Butthole Surfers-accompanied mushroom trip and telling you the dog is dead.

Dune's closest analogue is John Boorman's Excalibur. At the time of its 1981 release a US critic, while denigrating the film as a whole, noted that "the images have a crazy integrity". It was, in effect, a greatest hits collection of Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur: an artfully visualised series of key scenes and epic occurrences that lacked a uniting flow. The same could be said of Lynch's picture and its source novel.

Despite these shortcomings, Dune still manages to scale brilliant heights. Sting is awful, that's a given, but according to one of the many rumours surrounding the film he was already cast and forced on Lynch as part of the deal. Toto composed music for the soundtrack - music that actually made it into the film - yet it sounds fantastic thanks largely to Brian Eno's input on the signature theme. Across the board, there is always a saviour at hand. For every Sting there is a Brad Dourif; for every Button Moon-esque miniature shot there is a hand-crafted set of sumptuous detail and virtuosity; and for every clunky sandworm a gloriously immersive matt painting by genius industry artisan Syd Dutton. Ultimately the big saviour, in the face of an impossibly convoluted script devoid of all comprehensibility to the casual cinema goer, is David Lynch himself. He may have largely disowned and generally declined to talk about it, but his fingerprints are all over this film. Furthermore, thanks to the essence of the original story, the looming production pesence of the De Laurentiis family and the eclectic international cast, it has a slightly seedy, nasty European sensibility quite unlike any other mainstream blockbuster (with the possible exception of Flash Gordon, another glorious De Laurentiis failure from four years prior).

David Lynch's Dune is not Star Wars (although it could have been: George Lucas approached Lynch to helm Return Of The Jedi before hiring Richard Marquand). There are no sassy robots, no laconic heroes, no aliens and no dogfights in space. There are, however, lots of very unpleasant people trying to screw each other over on a grand stage, set against a complex backdrop of subplots and themes involving power politics, bloodline manipulation, messianic tendencies, cultural conflict, ecological flux and greed. The 140-minute theatrical cut struggles to knit them into a cohesive whole and this undoubtedly contributed to the poor reception it received in 1984, although it did intrigue enough viewers for the De Laurentiis Company to re-edit and release a three hour version for television. A number of the more unpleasant and suggestive scenes were removed, ensuring that the extended cut is a frustratingly less complete experience. Lynch himself objected strongly enough to withdraw his directorial credit on this version, resulting in it carrying the Alan Smithee seal of disapproval. Undoubtedly there is an appetite for a Lynch-supervised restoration but it will probably never happen, so we have what we have: a flawed but ingenious slice of Lynchian weirdness wrapped up in a juicy ball of vivid imagery, perverse villainy and gloriously left-field performances.

I see no reason whatsoever why Dune should be enjoyed any less than the director's other, even more unfathomable but still outlandishly brilliant works. As a Lynch fan it affords a heaven-sent opportunity to see him grapple with massive sociological themes, shoot futuristic visuals on 70mm and coordinate the talents of cinematographer Freddie Francis on altogether grander vistas than the tightly focused and claustrophobic The Elephant Man. For the discerning viewer, one unconcerned with mainstream appeal and hungry for sensation, David Lynch's Dune is a glimmering, idiosyncratic success. And Jack Nance is in it.

Dune screens on Saturday February 4 and Friday February 17 at BFI Southbank. Tickets can be purchased here.

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Jan 30, 2012 8:42pm

I never understood how people could dislike such an awesome movie... I end up re-watching Dune about every 3 or four months and have done so for the past 15 years... I love it to death... Certainly one of the best science fiction movies ever and one of the greatest things to come out of Hollywood in the 80s... But it's all subjective, I guess... I also hold the original Conan movie in high regard and am always defending that to people who have never seen it... anyway, great article... should have liked to see Jodorowsky's version as well... Or Lynch doing return of the jedi...

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Jan 30, 2012 8:58pm

That 3rd youtube clip... I think I was like 5 or 6 when I first saw that. I was flicking and came across something sci-fi-y. It had space, funny costumes and I was already aware of Star Trek and Star Wars so I was immediately hooked.

I tuned in at the moment that large fat dude (Baron Harkonnen) started floating... Anyway it scared the shit out of me and it's always stuck with me. Fucking David Lynch, man. Haunting kids' dreams. That scene has stuck with me more than any of the creepy stuff I saw much later on in Lost Highway (his best film!). Really fascinating read though and I'll be sure to catch it again. Thanks for posting the clip too. It's a brilliantly horrific scene even out of context.

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Andrew Stimpson
Jan 31, 2012 8:28am

In reply to G:

It had a similar effect on me when my dad rented it on video when I was a young 'un. I was utterly agog at that scene and at that point I knew something totally different was going on, and could go on in science fiction. To this day I count Kenneth Macmillan's Count Harkonnen as one of my favourite villains and that scene one of the most brilliantly realised in cinema.

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Andrew Stimpson
Jan 31, 2012 8:30am

In reply to alexander:

Cheers for the feedback, I also adore Conan the Barbarian (original) so power to you.

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Jan 31, 2012 10:39am

God I wish they made, surreal
epic & dark sci-fi nowadays.

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Rich M
Jan 31, 2012 11:27am

God I love this film. Anyone else who loves this film really owes it to themselves to acquire some of the fanedits out there, which pull together as many of the extended material and deleted scenes as possible. While they're not Lynch's original vision they're a damn sight closer than anything that's been properly released.

It's a shame that the original wasn't more successful. If it had been and I'd been in charge, it would have been a trilogy with Jodorowsky directing the second film and either Terry Gilliam or David Cronenberg doing the third. Because Cronenberg's God-Emperor of Dune would have been amazing.

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Andrew Stimpson
Jan 31, 2012 1:02pm

In reply to Rich M:

You make a fine point. Cronenberg would have been perfect for the body horror angle of God Emperor of Dune. Aaah... what might have been...

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Jan 31, 2012 8:27pm

I've definitely read interviews in which Lynch has voiced his interest in re-editing the Dune footage - including the outtakes - into a sprawling stream of consciousness piece. That would be the definitive version I think, something along the lines of Inland Empire, but set in deep space. With sandworms. And Gordon Sumner.

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Gordon Hunter
Feb 1, 2012 10:55am

Really enjoyed the blog and, especially, some of the collector's items like Dali and his throne. Appreciating films is a bit like "taste": it's a personal perception; some people like IKEA, others antiques. Personally, I enjoyed the original film when it first came out. But I also love Flash Gordon and, even, Space Balls and my all-time favourite is Fifth Element. So, what do I know! Gordon Hunter @ the Lincolnshire Community Foundation

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Andrew Stimpson
Feb 1, 2012 1:05pm

In reply to Gordon Hunter:

Gordon, Flash Gordon rules. RULES!!!

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Feb 2, 2012 10:49am

In reply to Gordon Hunter:

Sir, if you're referring to the gaudy 80s Queen-soundtracked Flash Gordon then, I concur, it's a corker. Max Von Sydow as Emperor Ming = perfect!

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steve davidson
Feb 4, 2012 12:15pm

this apologia for one of the worst SF films ever made (hasten to add 'and THE worst adaptation ever') is an amazing piece of Orwellian misdirection; cataloging the film's numerous flaws and concluding it's a good film because 'it coulda been worse'? The auddacity of the reviewer is epic. Nicely done.

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Feb 16, 2012 1:49pm

Am I the only person who thought Sting was well cast in this film? Feyd Rautha, was a pompous, strutting, detestable peacock of a princeling. I struggle to think who could have fulfilled that role better.

I saw the extended cut, and there are some weird scenes just before the Emperor meets the Guild, and he voices his thoughts to camera, which seems really odd.

Great article, too. I do feel this film has been vilified, somewhat. It's certainly better than Inland Empire. I saw the film, then read the book, then saw the film, and you are right - the film makes so much more sense when you are familiar with the source material. I cant decide if it makes the changes maddening, or welcome.

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Feb 16, 2012 1:55pm

@James Murphy - Dragon In The Sea would make a great HBO mini series

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Feb 17, 2012 4:54am

Loved the movie (even as a 14-year old who had never read the book at the time... I could follow what was going on), and loved the article. Thanks!

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Andrew Stimpson
Feb 17, 2012 9:59am

@Brett It's great to read a defence of Sting as Feyd. I agree that physically he looks the part, particularly when posturing in his crazy shower pants, but the moment he opens his mouth the illusion just fell apart for me. Fair play though, he is no worse in his delivery than Sean Young. Regarding the changes I think most of them were forced and some, like the 'weirding module' business work in a strange way, but the biggest problem for me was the 'rain bringer' climax.

On the whole though I must say I am so pleased that so many folks out there love it like I do.

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Feb 17, 2012 10:35am

In reply to Andrew Stimpson:

@Andrew 'All I see is an Atreides that I want to kill'.

Yeah, the rain-bringer element is a step too far, really. Considering that he'd be killing all of the Sandworms with that rather thoughtless display of messianinc largesse. I wonder if by that point, they realised that it wouldnt have carried on the franchise, and wanted to underscore the messianic idea.

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Andrew Stimpson
Feb 17, 2012 1:09pm

In reply to Brett:

If you check out the link to Mike White's blog up in the facebook comments there is a brilliant clip of an interview with Lynch and Herbert, recorded after completion but before the disastrous release and critical mauling, in which Lynch says he is already well on with writing the second film! Apparently the finer details re: the ecology of Dune were considered secondary to the genetic superman angle. Perhaps the god-like power angle was cinematic short-hand to explain why the Fremen would follow Muad'Dib across the galaxy on a bloody jihad. Either way it does damage the integrity of the story.

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Feb 19, 2012 10:40pm

I don't think it's terrible at all. As an adaptation of the book it's a bit of a disaster, but the look of the thing is astonishing and there are some really twisted scenes which are worth the price of admission on their own - the last clip here is so unlike anything else in cinema it makes the film worth watching in my view. There should be a law that if sufficient people vote for it a director's cut of a film should be compulsory, and this would be pretty near the top of my list.

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Andrew Stimpson
Feb 28, 2012 3:48pm

In reply to Chris:

Amen to that.

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Apr 21, 2013 9:51pm

In reply to alexander:

I agree. I have read Frank Herbert's vision a few times and I feel that Mr. Lynch captured the spirit and essence of it quite well. I know David himself wishes he had not made it or, at least, been given Final Cut. And I'm sure with more creative control it would've been even grander. But I am perfectly happy with the film we have. I wish Mr. Lynch wouldn't be so hard on himself.

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Nimsy Numpty
Nov 18, 2014 6:35am

I actually read every Dune book by frank herbert I am currently reading the final book Chapterhouse Dune. I doubt the writer of this article has read the entire series. I saw the movie by lynch I wouldnt trash it & sting wasnt terrible. It wasnt the book but it had some decent casting i enjoyed the visuals. Look it isnt like reading the books but at least that jodorowsky guy didnt make an abomination of the book thank freaking god emperor. Whats the point of this article written by a guy who never read the entirety of frank herberts vision. Again its not the book but i wouldnt completely bash it

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Nov 23, 2014 8:03pm

I think i saw the film a few years after it came out. I liked it from the start but i have never meet anyone else that does. I picked up all of Herberts Dune books in a 2 week period a few years later - all second hand - and have loved them ever since. I rewatched the film after reading them all and fell in love with the film as it looks just how Herbert wrote it - i was amazed. Yes the film has flaws and has one truly bad performance by an "actor" called Sting, but so what? I have a couple of versions of the movie at home. I have read somewhere that a version full of scenes that were restored back into the film was released in France, i would love to see it. I understand why Lynch does not want to do back there - he most have been a wreck after it was finished. Either way, if you have read the books and like them then check out the film.

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Feb 7, 2015 11:11am

In reply to Edward:

An extended version was produced for US telly, but rather than simply add in some rather lovely scenes (Gurney playing the baliset, more Jurgen Prochnow and some excellent fremen shenanigans following the naming of Usul/Muad'dib) the producers shat the bed massively by adding an awful introductory narrative and removing some of the violence and grotesquery. Lynch objected to it and had his name taken off the credits (so it's an Alan Smithee gig). That said, it's definitely worth watching for the extra stuff. It used to be available over here on DVD but only as an ugly fullscreen transfer, but I got a US steelbook edition in the early 2000s that had it in 2.35:1.

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Tony Seymour
May 16, 2015 6:51am

The greatest sin the Lynch committed was that his movie bore no resemblance whatsoever to either the story as told by Frank Herbert or the sheer feel of his magnificent book(s) which were very largely based on Middle-Eastern culture extrapolated thousands of years into the future (Si-Fi Channel's TV series efforts kind of got it). Neither was there any sense of the ecological messages which Herbert held so dear. It comes as no surprise that he never read the books. To me, Frank Herbert's Dune series is certainly the best science fiction ever written. Conversely Lynch's Dune is not only a travesty to the books but probably one of the worst movies ever made.

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