Then & Now: Dune

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Geoff Harris

Given the outlandish temperature of Summer, I felt inspired to talk about a movie which is almost appropriate.  Dune (1984) is David Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel. I would normally give a brief synopsis about the plot but this story is pretty complex so I’ll skim over the high points. Dune is the only source of a spice called Melange. It’s highly addictive and has very augmentative properties. It also extends the life span of the user making them not quite immortal but damn near. The story takes place over 10,000 years in the future. Earth is a distant legend. A great empire rules known space. The Houses of Atreides and Harkonnens have stood in opposition with each other for centuries.  The Emperor has conspired with the Harkonnens to wipe out the Artreides. He grants Duke Leto control over Dune, which gives his house control over spice production. This is, of course, a set-up and soon a traitor in the midst will help bring Leto and his House down. Aside to all this, Paul, son of Duke Leto, has come of age. This is part of a legend that a “super being” shall rise and rule over all. The Navigator Guild, made of men who have been transformed by the spice into horrific abominations granted the ability to “fold space”, fear that Paul somehow may be a part of the legend and they want him killed. There’s also a hefty amount of courtly politics too. The Bene Gesserit, an order of psychic nuns, also have an interest in Paul. It has been their charge to manipulate the gene pools of great houses in an attempt to create the “super being” foretold long ago. Well, turns out Paul does have a destiny. As I have said, there is a massive amount plot going on here. Lynch did what he could but the movie does cut out a lot of details and is more a lavish costume drama than the interweaving and richly detailed story which is the book.

Then

This was a unique experience. I hadn’t read the book so most of the nuance was lost on me. However, I did enjoy what I saw. It was science fiction but with a twist. Not quite fantasy but the larger-than-Life vibe was there. The sand worms were terrifying on the big screen. They did spark many conversations about ecology and the plausibility of such beings existing. I found the notion of action figures for the movie hilarious. It just didn’t have that “Mommy, I want a  Paul Atreides figure!” feeling. I wonder if kids ever did. Let’s pretend to be far-flung aristocrats embroiled in a centuries long dispute over God knows what and sit around plan each other’s deaths! Fun Times! All told, it was different, a tad weird, and another very crucial brick in my road to full geekdom.

Now

Some movies age well. Some decay. Dune is a half-life. I watch it now, having read the book, and see the places where Lynch sacrificed moments to avoid telling a mammoth 4 or 5 hour long epic. (Honestly, if the idea of cutting a story up into separate movies could have been done back then like Peter Jackson, this story could have been the vision Lynch truly had. I’m ignoring SyFy’s attempt at telling the tale.) It’s odd how almost every time I do catch it on the tube it’s never quite the same cut as the original I saw so many years ago. Little bits get edited back in or taken out. It’s a different take on the movie almost every screening. I’m not complaining. I like seeing the potential of what the story could have been. I also find shows like Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 being influenced by Dune, book or movie. It’s the definition of “epic.” There are so many layers to examine and enjoy. The problem is that it collapses under its own weight. A cautionary tale for up-and-coming film makers and writers alike: Bigger isn’t always better. In these days of computer generated graphics, one can cheat their way around the sense of disbelief of the audience. (The scene where Paul runs alongside a worm as he prepares to ride it is some painful green screen. The thing always makes me laugh because it looks like a giant turd rolling along the desert.) Many of the performances seem stiff. If you took a gaggle of Shakespearean actors and told them to stare at a tennis ball and say, “Pretend that’s a space ship!”, you get this movie. Now, I’m not saying it’s terrible; it just takes itself too seriously.

It does qualify for my Sunday Rainy Day Club though. It’s also extremely quotable. At any given convention you will find at least one person who can either recite the movie from memory or overhear a line or two spoken out of context. It also grants you a good passage to starting conversations. Some love it. Some hate it. It’s the cousin you dread seeing at family gatherings but end up hanging out with because he’s just as weird as you are. Plus there is Sting chewing scenery like a born pro.

My heart plug is starting itch. Got to go milk my kitty.

“The tooth…The tooth…”

 

 

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