Moment of Truth #269 | Dune
One of the marvelous things about the science fiction and fantasy genres is how they give filmmakers the opportunity to adapt seemingly unadaptable stories to the screen. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but whatever their degree of success, there must always be an appreciation for having had the courage, vision and determination to even dare an attempt. And few films elicit such qualified sympathy as Dune, the epic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel.
The story takes place many thousands of years from now, during the reign of Emperor Shaddam IV. He presides over a feudal, galaxy-spanning empire in which rival noble houses jockey for power, but ultimately bow before the single economic driver behind everything, the spice called melange, a highly addictive substance that when taken expands one’s mental powers. Those who give themselves entirely to it are transformed into giant larval creatures who can fold space itself, thereby granting the galaxy its means of interstellar travel. Control the spice, and you control everything. And spice comes from just one planet, the desert world of Arrakis, also known as Dune. House Harkonnen has long controlled Dune by imperial fiat, but to get rid of a pesky rival, Duke Leto Atreides, the Emperor grants Dune to House Atreides, knowing full well that House Harkonnen will declare war and wipe the Atreides out. Thrust into this intrigue is Duke Leto’s young son Paul, a product of thousands of generations of selective breeding in an attempt to create a superhuman messiah of the galaxy. When Paul is stranded in the heart of Dune’s merciless desert after the downfall of his family, he must become one of the desert wanderers who really control Dune, and take his first steps on his ascension from man to myth.
Got all that? Good. Because that is about as simple a summation of Dune as you’re ever going to get. Herbert’s sprawling and ambitious creation features an act of world-building so complete that it often befuddles those who first try to read about it. But over the years the book became an enormous bestseller anyway, with legions of fans who wondered when a movie was going to come along. Long considered too broad to adapt, Dune was one of those great vaporware projects of Hollywood, waiting for the right mixture of insanity and excess to throw caution to the wind and give this thing a shot. And in 1984, Rafaella De Laurentiis and David Lynch did just that, with a treatment of Dune that people kind of loved and hated in equal measure. But by the powers, we are all the better for having it, despite its patent weirdness and endlessly questionable aesthetics.
In making Dune, Lynch seemed to want to make a statement that in a post-blockbuster world, there was still room for some kind of oddball arthouse magnum opus. He filled the movie with strange, almost unapproachable designs, offering the audience few easy opportunities to see something that they could relate to or that fit their notions of what this world ought to look like. The result is something that feels both compelling and off-putting; for every sequence that delights, there is one that repels. For everything that is beautiful, there is something that is grotesque. For everything that is familiar, there is something that is strange. And by the end of it all, we are left wondering exactly what we saw, still no more familiar with Dune or the universe that it inhabits than before, knowing all the while that the makers of this movie probably wanted it that way. Not to tee things up for future sequels, but because this story was never meant to be an easy watch, or provide folks with anything remotely close to conventional expectations.
Everything in this movie is weird. Everything. Even the most conventional scenes meant for a cheap thrill—such as an exciting knife fight between young Paul and his fencing teacher Gurney Halleck—is done in a way that is inventive to the point of confusion. Yes, the belt-mounted energy shields our heroes use are cool as hell to see. No, they make no sense, even by science fiction standards. And yes, we’re grateful for them. But that pales before sequences in which we see the Spice Navigators folding space, Baron Harkonnen having his facial cysts tended to, listening to Paul’s deeply creepy little sister Alia spout homicidal prophecy shortly before acting acting it out, or watching Paul’s fellow Fremen nomads get sweet revenge with energy weapons powered by their own voices.
In the movie’s defense, it’s not like any of this is ever hidden from us. From the opening frames, we can see this is going to be an unfiltered Lynchian head trip, and every reveal of this universe and its inhabitants merely reinforces that. And while it puts off a lot of viewers, it also provides rich viewing for those willing to let this one soak in, like rain on the sun-baked desert soil. One particularly rewarding scene is an early one in which Paul endures a sudden mind-over-matter trial on which his life depends. It’s odd and unannounced, and lets us know that in this world, what we think is real, and what actually is, are two very different things. But the moment of truth comes in our introduction of the vile Baron Harkonnen, a bloated pustule of a man who descends upon one of his terrified servants and murders him just to bathe in the dead boy’s own blood. That the servant was installed with an easy-to-remove heart plug for a swift and pointless execution isn’t just part of Dune canon, it’s a perfectly delivered grotesquerie in a movie full of them, and a grimly joyful reminder that no matter how weird the endless beyond of space might be, nothing is weirder than humanity itself.