Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: Reconsidering David Lynch's Dune

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David Lynch's Dune is an epic sci-fi film that deserves repeat viewings. Photo / AP
David Lynch's Dune is an epic sci-fi film that deserves repeat viewings. Photo / AP

Over this past weekend, I got together with two of my best friends to watch David Lynch's 1984 science fiction epic Dune.

When Dune was first released, my whole family went to see it on the strength of my mother's respect for the titans of literary science fiction - Frank Herbert's 1965 source novel of the same name is often described as the genre's defining work.

I've always appreciated my mum's desire to expose my young mind to Herbet's consciousness-expanding ideas, but I was only seven-years-old, and the movie freaked the bejeezus out of me.

By the time the pustule-ridden Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) was removing heart plugs from slave boys, I was cowering behind the chair in front of me and demanding to be taken into the lobby.

This initial reaction put me off revisiting the work, and the film's reputation as an over-the-top fiasco disowned by Lynch allowed it to sink into the further recesses of my memory.

But in the last few years, I've been finding myself complaining a lot about the serious dearth of anything resembling a personal vision in the modern blockbuster, particularly sci-fi movies. This discussion perked up again in the wake of the release of Prometheus, and Dune was cited. A viewing was in order.

With my expectations lessened over time due to the overpowering homogeny of modern big budget sci-fi, I was completely blown away by Dune upon watching it for the first time as an adult.

I lapped up the exquisitely baroque visuals, splendidly ornate design and crazy-ass creatures, like this guy.

There are set-pieces unlike any other, such as this notable scene in which some dudes harness a giant space worm then ride it into battle. Make sure you keep watching until the electric guitar kicks in. How can you not pump your fist?

The film has plenty of flaws and is borderline incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't read the book (I had an expert on hand to explain everything), but it stands as one of the most impressive sci-fi productions of the post-2001: A Space Odyssey era.

There are plenty of exceptions of course (Aliens, District 9, Prometheus), but the lack of personality in most of the big budget sci-fi movies that followed Dune (like say, Independence Day and the Star Wars prequels) has retroactively rendered Lynch's film a landmark film.

It's interesting to consider how different things might be if Dune wasn't the giant failure it was perceived to be. Its oddness makes me perceive it as the third part of an informal trilogy of European-leaning sci-fi movies, with Ridley Scott's films Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) forming the first two parts.

We all know what happened with the Alien franchise, but if Blade Runner and Dune had made an impact at the box-office, we might currently be living in a world where weirdness, esotericism and mood have a greater role to play in mainstream sci-fi movies than brand-awareness and Happy Meal-compatibility. Is 1997's The Fifth Element the exception that proves the rule?

Certain elements of the film hint at a more populist story - the central figure Paul Atriedes (played by a youthful Kyle MacLachlan) is very Luke Skywalker-esque, and the book was an influence George Lucas' original Star Wars film. But it's also really icky and off-putting at times, in the best way possible. Looking at it from today's perspective, it's remarkable it was made at all.

In addition to MacLachlan (for whom Lynch would later provide his two best roles - Jeffrey in Blue Velvet and Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks), the amazing Dune cast features Lynch regulars Dean Stockwell, Jack Nance and Everett McGill.

Brad Dourif; Francesca Annis; Patrick Stewart; Richard Jordan and Jurgen Prochnow do stellar work here too. Plus, Sting is in it.

The SyFy Channel mounted a reasonably well-received mini-series adaptation in 2000 starring William Hurt and Alec Newman. It was successful enough to garner a sequel.

Paramount Pictures had been developing a new film adaptation of the book - Battleship director Peter Berg was originally slated to direct, before he left the project and was replaced by Taken's Pierre Morel. But that has fallen over too.

I am happy for Lynch's film to stand as the definitive apaptation for now. If you've let the film's tarnished reputation put you off seeing it, remedy this soon. I'm still having weird dreams.

* Have you seen Dune? Do you think modern sci-fi would be different if it had been a hit? Am I being too harsh on modern sci-fi in general? Comment below!

Follow Dominic Corry on Twitter.

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