Retro Cinema: Dune

For the first in a long line of retro cinema pieces, guest writer Heather Contreras reviews David Lynch's version of Dune. 

"Can someone tell me why Picard
is wearing a Borg outfit in this scene?
Foreshadowing much?"
In the prime of my youth, I found myself being introduced to a slew of far more adult oriented films.  The standout of my childhood years of moviegoing turned out to be David Lynch’s much maligned 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.  Ensnaring me almost immediately, Dune transports deep into the realm of darker, unmitigated science fiction.  Unlike the popcorn fun and thrills of Star Wars or Star Trek (who owe more to Frank Herbert than they’re willing to admit), Dune is difficult and trying.  Full of near incomprehensible dialogue, patrons were given pamphlets containing a glossary to help better understand Herbert’s intergalactic dialect, ala Anthony Burgess’ Nadsat glossary.  .  Despite these overtly uncommercial notes   Dune glued me to my television for every minute of its two-hour and seventeen minute running time. 

I was blown away by the stunning production and costume design, and the soundtrack by rock band Toto, better known for their hit Rosanna, gave my little kid body the shivers and I found myself humming it constantly.   Having seen Dune numerous times over the years, the aesthetic facets still excite me and I can still say without the slightest hesitation that I simply adore Lynch’s Dune. However, now that I am older I have learned the “weirding way” of filmmaking, and in so doing have also grown aware that sometimes higher forces can inhibit a movie’s true potential.  David Lynch, a bizarre niche-director of surrealist ventures like Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive (which includes a hilarious parody of his experience making Dune by the way) wasn’t granted Final Cut over the finished film due to studio executive meddling.  All throughout production, changes were made that drifted further from both Lynch’s (and Herbert’s) vision of Dune.  Looking at it, you can clearly tell David Lynch shot it but someone else is speaking for him.  After ultimately disowning the film, Lynch’s hatred for what was done with Dune could make for an entertaining film all its own.  Refusing to participate in the recent DVD/Blu-Ray release of the film, Lynch was asked in an interview about what was going to be on the disc, to which he replied ‘I heard rumors’.

Technically speaking from a cinematographic standpoint, Dune is as dull as the desert planet it largely takes place on.  With a stagnant visual palette by the otherwise great Freddie Francis, there is little to no broad visual exploration of the environment, leaving viewers with an unimaginative, perfunctory experience.  To make matters worse, the film quite literally breastfeeds its answers to you with interior monologues and subtleties so obvious they  spoil Dune’s climax.  Perhaps because the novel was so completely expansive in scope with an unambitious studio trying to abbreviate its complexities, Dune comes off as a confusing, disjointing experience you’re dropped in the middle of. 

"Oh look, it's Phallic City, home
of strangely shaped objects." 
All things fair, Dune is not without fantastic virtues either, with fine and precise acting led by Lynch’s man-crush and alter ego, Kyle MacLachlan.  Other familiar faces including Patrick Stewart, rock star Sting Kris Kristofferson and Sean Young (fresh off of Ridley Scott’s equally overblown science fiction epic Blade Runner) liven up the screen and do a serviceable job of anchoring the chaos.  May I remind you Toto’s score is phenomenal?!  Each individual musical composition provides Dune with a smooth flow that moves both the narrative and Lynch’s indescribably odd abstractions forward almost flawlessly.   Let’s not forget Lynch’s trademark ambient 5.1 surround sound design, which managed to survive the editing room and is a reminder of why all of his films must be experienced in a theater setting.  

The Blu-Ray itself is a stellar package loaded with extras including some stunning behind-the-scenes production footage. Seen on a large screen, I can’t help but get lost within Lynch’s creation however compromised.  To me it felt like you were on the desert planet Arrakis, trying hard to wipe away the sand from your eyes.  Dune will always remain one of my favorite films, particularly from a nostalgic end, but being able to now decipher why Dune is such a staggeringly beautiful misfire of sorts only serves to greatly further my love for it.

-Heather Contreras