Julien Neaves – Editor
The 36th anniversary of Sci Fi epic Dune is not until December 14, but as the trailer for the new version dropped last week (you can check that out here) I thought it would be a good time to revisit the original 1984 film.
Dune is based on the eponymous Frank Herbert novel about feuding royal houses in the distant future battling over the planet Arrakis, the sole source of the most precious substance in the universe, spice melange or simply “the spice”. This drug gives extended life, prescience and, in large enough amounts over time, the ability for space travel via “folding space.” The film stars Kyle MacLachlan (Twin Peaks) as ducal heir Paul Atreides and he is joined by an ensemble cast of future genre stars including Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard himself), Brad Dourif (the voice of Chucky), Dean Stockwell (Quantum Leap, Battlestar Galactica remake), Max Von Sydow (The Exorcist, Game of Thrones) and Sean Young (Blade Runner). Even singer Sting is in it and the music is done by American rock band Toto, though disappointingly there is no song where they bless the rains down in Arrakis. #opportunitymissed. The film was directed by David Lynch (Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive) but he later disowned it because the studio denied him final cut privilege. If you see a version directed by Alan Smithee (a pseudonym for directors who don’t want their name on projects), like the almost three-hour TV version I watched for this review, then it is one of the versions sans Lynch’s name. With that out of the way and a sandworm-sized SPOILER ALERT (apparently you still need to give one for a more than 35-year-old movie) let’s blast off into the review:
#1 He Who Controls the Spice…
The film was a box office bomb when it came out and I don’t think that was solely because of its overall quality. I mean Dune has its issues but it’s a decent enough movie. But it came out a year after Return of the Jedi and I think audiences hoping for a light popcorn space opera would have been sorely disappointed. Dune is a massively complex story with multiple characters, various factions and an extensive history. There are heavy and heady teams of religion, philosophy and predestination. And it is bleak, weird, creepy and at times downright disgusting (looking at you Baron Vladimir Harkonnen). There is nothing mainstream about it, so I’m not surprised it was not a mainstream hit.
But being a hardcore Sci Fi fan and a lover of massively complex worlds I am a fan of the film. I love learning about the witch-like Bene Gesserit, the odd Mentats, the mysterious Spacing Guild and the brave Fremen. The version I watched had a long prologue and a lot of internal monologue which did feel a bit heavy handed. I mean, I want all this cool information but show me, don’t tell me. It has been years since I read the book but I remember it well enough to know the film hits most of the major plot points.
#2 Fear is the Mind Killer
You can’t have a great film without great performances, and Dune is a bit hit or miss in this respect. MacLachlan does a commendable job going from naive young nobleman to death-dealing messianic figure, Francesca Annis is all grace and dignity as Lady Jessica, Stockwell is very good as the traitorous Dr Yueh, Alicia Witt is horror-movie creepy as the unnatural Alia, and Kenneth McMillan is joyously over the top as the bloated Baron Harkonnen. But some of the other performances, including Stewart (sorry Capt) as Gurney Halleck and Sting as Feyd Rautha, are just kind of there. There are aren’t any awful performances but most don’t rise above serviceable.
#3 The Worm is the Spice
Also hit or miss is the special effects and visuals. On the positive side I loved the practical effects of the sandworms, and I actually prefer the multi-part mouth over the single mouth which they seem to be doing in the new version. And the image of Paul and the Fremen riding atop the sandworms will always be epic to me. The ship models and set design is well done and set the tone of this alien world. The costuming is also fantastic, and I especially love the stillsuits and the look of the Bene Gesserit and Fremen. The look of the Harkonnen troops was kind of meh though.
On the negative side the personal shield effect looks very hokey and has not gotten any better with age. And in the version I watched the Fremen eyes kept switching from spice-infused blue to the regular colour which is very distracting, and some of the weapons fire seemed to be missing.
#4 The Sleeper Has Awakened
And on the topic of action scenes I think Dune does better in the smaller, more intimate fights rather than the larger, wide-scale battles. For instance I prefer the scene with Paul and the hunter killer device over the Harkonnen attack on the Atreides. I also would take Alia taking down the Baron over the simultaneous final act battle. For me the big action sequences just got to be somewhat repetitive. My favourite fight scene was actually Paul versus Feyd, and the finishing stab up into his head and weirding shout was just icing on the bloody cake.
I had a good time revisiting the world of Dune and didn’t mind spending almost three hours in it. Sure some the acting could be better, some of the effects feel dated, and the pacing is not the best. But even with all its flaws it remains a fun, interesting and intriguing film that I still hold fondly in my Sci Fi-loving heart. And after the masterful work director Denis Villeneuve did with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 I have faith that his version of Dune will be mind blasting.
So are you a fan of Dune 1984? For more Sci Fi nostalgia and a look at five films based on Ray Bradbury’s works you can click here. And for more out of this world film reviews you can like and follow Redmangoreviews on Facebook here.
Julien “Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”.
I can also be found posting on Instagram as redmanwriter and talking about TV and movie stuff on Facebook at Movieville.