Does “Dune” (1984) Have Enough Spice To Be Considered Good?

A man of noble birth finds himself caught up in political intrigue set along the backdrop of interplanetary space. The ruling figure, the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, in an attempt to hold on to his power, sets up the noble House of Atreides to be destroyed by their enemies, the House Harkonnen. At the same time, a very powerful sisterhood, known as the Bene Gesserit, has been manipulating bloodlines through selective breeding, in an attempt to produce the Universe’s super-being referred to as the Kwisatz Haderach. Their plan is to both produce and control him so that they can cement their power in the galaxy as well. One of the sisterhood, the Lady Jessica, is sent to become the concubine of Duke Leto Atreides and produce only daughters. The excuse is that by producing an Atreides daughter it could seal the breech by having her marry a Harkonnen male, since the Harkonnens have no female heirs. However, Jessica and the Duke have fallen madly in love, and because Leto wanted to have a son Jessica chose to defy the Bene Gesserit order and gave birth to Paul, the man of noble birth I previously referred to.

Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides

They are sent to the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, to manage the CHOAM company responsible for the mining of the orange spice called melange. For most people the spice only extends life, but to those with the proper training it has psychoactive properties. It helps to gives the Bene Gesserit many of their mental abilities, and prolonged use of the spice gave mutated beings, known as Guild Navigators, the ability to fold space that would allow for ships to travel to any point in the galaxy without actually moving. This method of space travel is the commercial success for the survival of this Imperium that Shaddam rules. Without it the Imperium would crumble as each of those planets would then become isolated in their part of the galaxy for there is no other means of interstellar space travel. While on Arrakis, the Emperor sends the Harkonnens back for a sneak attack, supplemented by a legion of his elite shock troops, the Sardaukar. They bring the House Atreides down, but not before Paul and his mother escape the city and make their way into the deep desert, where they are discovered by the native population known as Fremen. They have a prophecy that a savior would come from another world and would deliver them and Arrakis out of bondage from the Imperium. They believe Paul to be that very person.

Science fiction stories can come in a variety of packages. Some of them are very minimalist and character driven, while others are all about the establishing of the “world” that story takes place in and its characters taking on a secondary role. For Frank Herbert’s book Dune that is clearly the case. In fact, his is a book of pure info dump. Having read this book twice, once in high school and then again after the release of this 1984 film, I continued to find it to be a work of genius that can only be compared to Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings or perhaps even The Silmarillion. However, in the case of Herbert’s seminal classic, which was the first book to receive both the Hugo and Nebula award for best science fiction novel, it is also probably the most tedious. I know that will brand me as something of a heretic, but there it is. And because it’s such a dense book that is 90% universe building and 10% character driven plot, it is also something that is virtually impossible to adapt and film for the screen. Six years after the book’s release there was a plan by Chilean/French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky to adapt this movie to the big screen. After a lengthy development period it failed to materialize, and all that is left is a documentary simply referred to as Jodorowsky’s Dune (we interviewed the producer of that documentary, Stephen Scarlata in TG Geeks Episode 105). Later, under the control of executive producer Dino De Laurentiis, the film was tackled again with David Lynch serving as director. Here again we have a problem with trying to film a movie with as dense a story as the book, causing there to be, among other things, a myriad of literary short cuts. This came at a time where splitting a big story over several films was unheard of. Even the “Star Wars” saga had standalone films that would make up a greater story arc, but the idea of taking a book and splitting it up over multiple films (such as Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit) was absolutely unthinkable. This is a pity because allowing for that type of development might have actually saved this film.

Sting as Feyd Rautha

One of the biggest marketing aspects of Dune is its cast. While Kyle MacLachlan was cast to play young Paul, the biggest news was the casting of rock star Sting (who was still active with his band The Police) as Paul’s arch-nemesis, Feyd Rautha of House Harkonnen. Even though Feyd had little screen time as opposed to Paul, Universal Pictures thought to market Sting as much as possible while at the same time hoping to create a franchise of films with the idea that this would be “Star Wars for adults.” There are many other notable actors here including Brad Dourif as Piter De Vries, Linda Hunt as the Shadout Mapes and Max Von Sydow as Doctor Kynes.

Sadly, having a stellar cast does not make for a stellar film. Even the casting of Jose Ferrer as the Emperor, despite performing the role with the perfect type of noble arrogance that the Emperor has, is not enough to save this film. Nonetheless, there is something bizarrely hypnotic about it. The production values of this film are absolutely spectacular. Some of the set designs are brilliant beyond belief, even though they may only show up in one short scene. The visual effects were top-notch for its day, and the appearance of the monstrous sandworms of Arrakis looked amazing when they first appeared. However, due to the enormous disappointing returns the movie saw, there continue to be attempts to produce something more in line with Frank Herbert’s initial vision. In 2000 SyFy produced Frank Herbert’s Dune that was regarded as being much more faithful to the book, and while it did garner a sequel titled Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune (adapting both Herbert’s second book Dune Messiah and its sequel Children of Dune together), it did not quite gain the cult following that Lynch’s film did, despite having been critically received. It should be pointed out that while most of the critical reviews of Dune were generally negative, there is one voice in the wilderness that actually gave praise for the movie, and that is from noted science fiction author Harlan Ellison. It was also reported that Frank Herbert himself was pleased with what David Lynch wrote.

Dune is an ugly hot mess, and yet we here at TG2Studios love this film. We have seen a variety of cuts for it, but we prefer the Special Edition that runs 190 minutes. It’s flawed in its own right, most notably in the reuse of visual effects in places where they don’t belong, but the overall narrative helps to bring Lynch’s version closer in line to Herbert’s book. Suffice to say, this film is not for everyone. The Special Edition is in some ways easier to watch as the theatrical cut has a couple of scenes that range from gross to almost violently homophobic. There is also a new theatrical version to be filmed by Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival) and has stated will take at least two years to make, is reported to star Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) and will consist of at least two movies. Villeneuve is more than a competent filmmaker, so time will tell if he is able to create the type of big screen adaptation that truly meets with Herbert’s vision.

For now, we enjoy pulling this one down from the shelf every so many years. If one chooses not to think of Herbert’s book, it might be possible to enjoy this film purely on its own merits.

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2 responses to “Does “Dune” (1984) Have Enough Spice To Be Considered Good?”

  1. Bill Hensley Avatar

    Good perspective here. “Dune” is one of my favorite books; I get it off the shelf every couple years for a re-read.

    I was greatly anticipating the movie in 1984. I came out of the showing vastly disappointed. As you say, the movie was a hot mess. The pacing was chaotic given the timeframes and story arcs involved. OTOH, most of the casting was very good. Sting stole the scenes he was in. Several of the other characters stood out as well, in particular the Baron and the Emperor.

    The whole idea of “weirding devices” used in the movie runs against the “Dune” concept of development of the person as a combat device. I never understood why prescience and melange (the mental side of the “Dune” universe) was left in, while the physical side was ignored in favor of the weirding devices.

    This probably should have been a couple movies as you suggest. There is just too much scope for a couple hours.

    Good review!

  2. Gini Koch Avatar

    Saw this first run in the theater with my BFF and her dad, who was a gigantic fan of the books. My BFF was a big girl and had a big voice. During the second time Paul looks at the spice, she anticipated his (constant and repeating inner monologue) line and said, “Spice! Arrakis! Dune! Desert Planet!” right before he did. The audience roared. It because a joke all the way through the film. When it was over, we apologized to her dad for the movie and were hugely grateful that we’d paid for the tickets because that was just the worst adaptation ever. The hubs has managed to watch it like you guys do — pretending the book doesn’t exist — but never again for me. Once was bad/funny enough.

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