Monday, September 27, 2021

Awesomely Shitty Movies: Dune

Good day and welcome to Awesomely Shitty Movies!  Each installment will focus on a film that, despite considerable and crippling flaws, I can't help but like or even love.  These flaws could be with the script, the acting, the special effects, the cinematography, or all of the above, but in each case the movie has something going for it and I'm inexplicably fascinated by it, despite its ineptitude.

The first movie I'll be tackling is David Lynch's commercially and critically reviled adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel Dune.

I was nine years old when this movie was released, and being a huge fan of Star Wars and Star Trek, I was immediately drawn in by the promise of sci-fi adventure.  In some ways the story of Dune resembled Star Wars (or really the reverse is true since the book was published 12 years before Star Wars was released) - a young hero with budding supernatural powers, a desert planet, laser guns, weird creatures, etc.  What I got though was a horribly confusing mish-mash of geo-political, religious and sci-fi themes overrun with baffling inner monologue narration and overly bizarre and gross-looking characters.

To be fair to Mr. Lynch, the studio interfered greatly during post-production and the theatrical cut was very different from what he intended.  Unfortunately he has all but disowned this film and has no interest in releasing a Director's Cut, which might actually make the story easier to follow.  There is a 3-hour version of the film available but Lynch had no hand in it, and from what I understand it actually confuses things even more.

Dune was originally supposed to be adapted into a film in the mid 70s, with famed Alien artist H.R. Giger attached as a production designer.  That incarnation went over-budget and never saw the light of day, and eventually in the 80s producer Dino DiLaurentiis acquired the project and David Lynch ended up in the Director's chair.

Anyway let's examine what's awesome about this movie, and then we'll talk about what's shitty.

The Awesome

Sets & Costumes

First off, this is a beautiful-looking film, production design-wise.  The sets and costumes are absolutely brilliant.  Each world represented in the film has a very different look.  On the Imperial planet of Kaitain we see the Emperor's gold-bedecked throne room with its Egyptian influences, and the militaristic uniforms of his officers.  Caladan is shown as a lush, Earth-like planet and House Atreides has a more Earthy, wooden feel to it.  Geidi Prime and House Harkonnen are shown as a filthy, industrial setting with smokestacks, a cold green and black color palette, and post-apocalyptic-inspired costumes.  And then there's Arrakis, the desert planet, whose inhabitants wear fully-functional stillsuits to preserve their bodies' moisture.

The art direction and production design of this movie are first-rate.  Lynch and his crew have created a rich, highly detailed backdrop for their story, and even when I read the book I couldn't help but picture characters and settings the way they appear in this film.


Kyle MacLachlan & Jurgen Prochnow

For the most part, this film is populated with very strong actors and performances.  Kyle Maclachlan makes an excellent Paul Atreides, projecting a youthful naivete and exuberance but with a wisdom and melancholy beyond his years.  Jurgen Prochnow and Francesca Annis both embody a solemn dignity as Paul's parents, Duke Leto Atreides and Lady Jessica.  The Atreides household also features Patrick Stewart as Gurney, Freddie Jones as Thufur and Dean Stockwell as Dr. Yueh.  All the Atreides characters are brought to life quite competently by an ensemble of accomplished actors.

See, The Baron is covered with open sores so therefore is evil.

The Harkonnen characters unfortunately are a bit cartoonishly evil for my taste, in a campy, Saturday morning serial kinda way.  Kenneth McMillan is suitably vile as the Baron Harkonnen, seemingly relishing his own wickedness, but the filmmakers go a bit too far in trying to make us hate him.  Brad Dourif is creepy and reptilian as the evil schemer Piter DeVries.  Sting, while not an experienced actor, brings a nice villainous charisma to the character of Feyd-Rautha.  The one really terrible performance belongs to Paul Smith as Rabban.  He hardly has any lines and his act mostly consists of dimwittedly cackling and guffawing like a cartoon baddie.  Surely he could've been given more than one dimension.

Ok I'll admit it, Sting was kind of a BAMF in this movie.

The principle Fremen characters are all well-played - Everett McGill as Fremen chief Stilgar, Sean Young as Chani, and Max Von Sydow as Dr. Kynes.  These performances are all fine.  I've never been the biggest Sean Young fan but she does alright here.  Von Sydow brings gravitas to every role he tackles, and McGill makes a convincing Fremen leader.

Francesca Annis & Sian Phillips

On Kaitain we have Jose Ferrer as the Emperor Shaddam IV, Virginia Madsen as his daughter Irulan, and Sian Phillips as the Reverend Mother.  Phillips is the standout here, conveying both an ancient benevolence and an unnerving, mystical sense of menace.

This cast features quite a few accomplished performers who largely bring solid professionalism and credibility to the film.


Jeezus dude, get some ointment for that shit!

This is a double-edged sword, as the makeup is all very well done but in some cases it's either taken too far or is just unnecessary.  The Baron's skin condition looks totally convincing, but it's quite disgusting and probably wasn't needed (he is not described in the book as having pustules all over his face).  Ditto for the mutilated look of the Guild Navigators.  But more on this later. 


Rock band Toto provided a very memorable, futuristic yet classic-sounding score.  I love the main theme - somehow it's both timeless and unmistakably 80s.

So there's the stuff that's good about this movie.  Now for the not-so-good.

The Shitty

Visual Effects

I'm pretty sure my iPhone does better background matting.

Most of the special effects in this movie look really cheap, despite the bloated budget (at the time $40 mil was an enormous amount to spend on a movie).  The blue screen compositing looks absolutely terrible, anything involving spaceships resembles a cheap Star Wars reject, and the little bit of creature design (the 3rd Stage Navigators) while imaginative, is not very well-executed.  The mid-80s was a time of revolutionary cinematic visual effects, and unfortunately those of Dune don't stack up well.


The editing of this film is a complete mess.  Clearly the studio's intervention hampered the flow of the project, as the middle third is full of seemingly incomplete scenes, choppy transitions, and awkward narration to explain what's been glossed over.  Lynch intended for this film to run nearly three hours but the producers insisted on keeping it close to two.  Their tampering is quite evident here, as the flow of the story just comes apart in places.  The expository scenes are fine, but once the story gains momentum it seems to rush through events to the point that their weight is lost.  I'd really like to see the film the way Lynch originally intended.

Gross-Out Stuff

It's a David Lynch film, so of course there had to be a plethora of disturbing and sickening eye candy.  Whether it's the pus-filled sores on the Baron's face, the sewn-shut eyes and ears of some of his servants, the oozing scalps of the Guild Navigators, the little bug-squashing glass that Rabban drinks out of, the cat and rat duct-taped together, or the inexplicable heart-plug things the Harkonnens all seem to have that allow them to be easily killed (Why would the Baron and his nephews have them??), Dune is full of gross-out moments that arguably should've earned it an R rating.  Most of them just aren't necessary and I'm not sure why Lynch wanted this stuff in the film.  Yeah, we get it, the Harkonnens are a-holes and should be reviled, but do they have to be disease-ridden and eat garbage too?  Would any Emperor really do business with these people?

Yup, that's crushed-bug juice he's sipping through that straw.


Much of the dialogue is taken right out of the book, which is admirable.  However some of it is so clunky it doesn't belong on the lips of real people.  Like some people said of the original Star Wars, "You can write this shit, but you can't say it." 

Consider a few of these egregiously goofy quotes:

"Put the pick in there, Pete, and turn it round real neat. ... You are so beautiful, my Baron. Your skin — love to me. Your diseases — lovingly cared for for all eternity!"  -The Baron Harkonnen's doctor treating the pustules of his skin

Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam: Many men have tried (to drink the Water of Life).
Paul Atreides: They tried and failed?
Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam: They tried and died.

"...The Duke will die before these eyes and he'll know, he'll know, that it is I, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, who encompasses his doom!"  -Baron Harkonnen

Like I said, some of the dialogue is just too ornate or plain silly to work as spoken word.

Inner Monologues

This is probably the thing more people hate about this movie than anything else.  The novel has a ton of this stuff - characters have conversations with each other while thinking other sentences.  While that works in prose, it comes off as pretty inane most of the time in a film.  A few lines of narration here and there might've been okay, but this goofy shit is all over the place in Dune.  A lot of it is just superfluous, like two characters will be talking to each other and one of them has a thought that literally adds nothing to the scene.  It often just ends up being distracting and gimmicky.  I get that there's a lot going on in the story and we as the audience might need a little help following along, but that's kinda the screenwriter's job when adapting other source material - to make it easy to understand in a visual medium.  If you need constant voiceover narration to explain what characters are thinking at all times, it's time for a rewrite.


-For a guy who's supposed to be so fat he's incapable of standing under his own power, they didn't make The Baron very large.  In the book he's described as being in the 400+ lb. range, but in the movie he looks about three bills tops.  It's a minor gripe but they could've made Kenneth McMillan's fat suit much bigger.

-Rabban's bug-crushing sippy-glass yielded what, one sip of juice?  Is that really worth the effort?  At that point wouldn't you at least put three or four of 'em in there?

-There's a scene where Paul and his mother are stranded in the desert and are being chased by a sandworm.  Then someone in the distance sets off a "thumper" (seismic device to attract the worms), and the worm leaves.  Jessica is still in a panic and asks "Why did it leave??"  In the middle of the word "leave" she breaks down into hysterical sobs and the result is so unintentionally funny - one of the most amusing bits of overacting I can remember.

-During the prologue, which consists of Virginia Madsen in closeup with a field of stars behind her, she gives us the setup of the plot and tells us about the importance of the spice Melange.  She concludes the monologue and her image fades, but then immediately reappears as she says, "Oh, I almost forgot to tell you, the spice is only found on Arrakis..."  I just find this a really odd choice.  Why didn't they just have her tell us everything without making it look like she screwed up?  Also, she pronounces it "Irrakis" for some reason, which always bugged me.

"Oh.  Yes.  I forgot to tell you about the spice. 
Because the guy with the cue cards fucked up."


I find Dune such a fascinating film to watch, and I'm really not sure why it's endured for me.  It's so deeply flawed and falls so far short of its potential, but I can't help but break it out every so often and give it a look.  As I said before, visually there's a lot to enjoy, the performances are strong enough, and the overall story is very intriguing, even if the movie fails to get it across clearly.  I guess the shitty aspects of the movie are so unabashedly terrible I have to kinda respect the filmmakers for being so ballsy.  In what other movie do they feature for no discernible reason whatsoever a scene where Sting emerges from some weirdo space-age steam bath wearing only a codpiece, just so the obese, boil-ridden villain can ogle him for five seconds?  That takes some goddamn balls, my friends.

See in a Michael Bay movie this would be Megan Fox wearing just a codpiece.

Thanks for reading!  Comment below with your thoughts about Dune.

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