Although I consider myself to be something of a David Lynch fan, until recently there were two of his features I had yet to see. I’ve been waiting until I see Season 2 of Twin Peaks before venturing into Fire Walk With Me (although if a DVD doesn’t appear soon I may cave in on that one). As for Dune, I have to confess at having been put off by the poor reviews (many of which claimed the film to be impenetrable to those who – like me – haven’t read the book), the fact that Lynch’s ideal full-length version has never been released, plus the fact that all the clips & pictures I’d seen looked like a mediocre 80s sci-fi flick, & not very much like a David Lynch film. Then this new UK SE from Sanctuary Entertainment plopped through my letterbox, so I figured it was time to give the film a chance. And now, I’m rather annoyed that I’d allowed myself to be put off watching the film, which I found to be a pleasingly dark, complex & fascinating addition to the Lynch cannon, & one of the finest sci-fi films of the eighties.
The most precious resource in the whole universe is the spice Melange, which can prolong life, gift the user second sight, & to “bend” space for instantaneous travel through wormholes. The spice is only found on the desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, where Baron Harkonnen oversees production. The Arrakis natives are a secretive band of Nomads known as the Fremen, who have a prophecy telling of a Messiah who will come & lead them to freedom. The Emperor of the Known Universe has grown fearful of the growing political influence of Duke Leto Atreides, suspecting that he may be a threat to his seat of power. So he makes a deal with Baron Harkonnen, & hands spice production over to Leto Atreides, so he can surreptitiously assist the Harkonnens when they attack Atreides in revenge for losing control of spice production.
If that all sounds very complex, well it’s just the setup & is essentially the exposition of the first five minutes. As noted above, I’ve not read the book myself so I’m not sure quite how closely the film follows the narrative, but for sure it’s rather condensed. Which leads to the first common complaint against the film, of being too hard to follow. For sure, the first half hour is extremely dense with exposition & can be quite exhausting to follow. This is not a simple film that will spoon-feed its audience, but if you pay attention & use your brain, it’s perfectly understandable for those with no prior Dune knowledge. Far from being a straightforward Star Wars-style space opera, Dune is a grand & dark epic, almost as if Shakespeare had written sci-fi instead of histories.
Of course, the big trouble is that Lynch’s original work cut ran around 4-5 hours, & he is said to have wanted a final cut of around 3. However, producer pressure prevailed & the finished version runs 137 mins. And the film really feels like it’s been over-condensed. Many plot-points feel rushed over, too many cast members are underutilised, there are too many loose strands & the material is too compressed, not given the space to be truly satisfying. A three-hour TV version was produced by MCA in 1988, but this was cut without Lynch’s approval & he was so unhappy with the results he had his name removed from it.
Despite these problems, there is still much to recommend Dune. For one thing, the film is filled with simply stunning visuals. Here Lynch was let loose with a really big budget & the results are some truly amazing moments. The cinematography by the legendary Freddie Francis is typically captivating, & whilst some of the FX have inevitably dated somewhat, many – such as the Guild Navigator in the opening scene – are still impressive. The set work is staggering, both convincingly otherworldly & yet also plausibly real, inspirations coming from an array of styles & time periods – which really shouldn’t work, yet come together brilliantly. And all around the edges, Lynch sneaks so many extra & personal touches into the film, such as in the dream sequences, the weirdly off-kilter murmured voice-overs, the almost obscene nastiness of the Harkonnens. There are some fine performances too, & whilst Kyle MacLachlan is not so strong as he would be in later Lynch films, if his is the weakest performance things are going very well. The only let-down is that the performances are hampered by being cut down somewhat – it’s hard to make much of an impact when most of the character’s scenes are on the cutting room floor. Ultimately, Dune is a far more perverse, compelling & downright interesting film than it’s somewhat wayward reputation would have you believe, & is ripe for re-evaluation. If Dune is indeed to rank as Lynch’s weakest films, it means that the director has one of the most consistently impressive filmographies of all time.
This 2-disc SE is a UK release from Sanctuary Entertainment in R0/PAL format, & makes for a formidable presentation. Disc 1 contains the film alone, allowing for best possible a/v quality. The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is highly impressive, with good detail levels & strong, bright colours. It’s hard to imagine the film looking very much better than this. For audio, you get the choice of original stereo, or a Dolby 5.1 remix. Although it’s not the most active of surround mixes, the soundstage is opened up nicely, making for an immersive experience.
Moving over to disc 2, we get first a new 38 minute documentary “Impressions of Dune”, an extremely interesting piece with interviews from the likes of Kyle MacLachlan, Freddie Francis, & producer Raffaella De Laurentiis. No Lynch input sadly (inevitably) – for this you need to head to “Destination Dune”, the short 1983 promotional film, which boasts some nice on-set interviews & behind the scenes footage. Then there’s a brief (2 mins) interview with Frank Dune dating from 1984, the original trailer, plus the expected cast/crew profiles. You also get a nice 32-page booklet, with some nice artwork & photos, & in interesting piece by Paul S Sammon, detailing some of the struggle to get Dune to the screen. Overall this is a very desirable package, & until someone can get Lynch to go back & do a directors cut, it looks likely to remain the first choice release for this highly underrated film.