Sting and Kyle MacLachlan in Dune.
David Lynch movies have always been a mixed bag for me. There is always something to like or admire about his work, but his movies usually leave me cold and a bit disappointed. The movies I enjoy the most are the ones where I can invest emotionally in the characters and the story. Not surprisingly my 2 favorite David Lynch movies are The Elephant Man and Straight Story. I enjoy visuals, I like being made to think and I appreciate symbolism. But none of those things can carry a movie on its own. As corny and old fashioned as it sounds, you've still gotta have heart.
Visually Lynch is versatile. The look of this movie is part Stanley Kubrick and part Vincente Minnelli. The methodical pace of the space sequences and the psychedelic visuals are reminiscent of 2001. The interiors look more like Gigi. Great lighting, ornate sets, lush costumes. In one scene Jessica wears a green dress that Scarlet O'Hara might have worn and wears her hair like Greer Garson. Lynch did choose the right actors, which is very important when translating a novel to the big screen, since the characters have to live up to our preconceived idea of them.
At the beginning of Star Wars George Lucas famously introduced his interplanetary setting with a few short, but memorably photographed, subtitles. He then jumped right into the action. Dune begins, instead, with 20 minutes of cinematic exposition that includes one character narrating directly to the audience and even a graph showing the different planets. Lucas had it right. People pay money to see a picture, not be explained one.
Once the plot kicks in there is too much mental expounding going on. Hearing characters thoughts works in some cases, but here it seems like just an easy way of sneaking in more plot info. Frank Herbert's book is socially, politically and technologically complex, so to be fair this isn't entirely Lynch's fault.
What is his fault is that he has the entire cast playing to the rafters. Whether it's the Baron killing a young male slave and then orgasmically smearing the blood all over himself and the boy, or a tender scene between Jessica and Duke Leto, everyone is hamming it up, every emotion worn like a poster-board. Campy is the only word for it, even the tag line is campy.
Frank Herbert was supposedly upset when he saw Star Wars. He had a reason. The similarities between it and his classic science fiction novel are pretty obvious. The young boy on a quest on a desert planet discovering the secret of his destiny. The whole interplanetary setting for that matter. The spice created by the giant sandworms leads to a religious order similar in some ways to belief in the Force. Even details like the evil Baron Harkonen has a disgustingly disfigured face, just like what's his name behind the black mask. Or that characters in Dune use voice manipulation much like Obi Wan uses on hapless Storm Troopers.
Maybe Frank Herbert was jealous of George Lucas because he took similar elements to the ones in Herbert's book and turned them into cinema magic. Lucas is a filmmaker, Herbert was a writer. So watch Star Wars and read Dune.
Photos © Copyright Universal Pictures (1984)