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The buzz has been building around Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune for some time now, even taking into account the fact that this is yet another of 2020’s big films which finds itself emerging into the world rather later than originally intended. This is no doubt partly because Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 have given Villeneuve a claim to the title of the most important science-fiction film director working in the world today, but also because, well, it’s Dune, isn’t it?

If you know your science fiction history, Dune isn’t just one of those things which dominates the landscape, in many respects it is much of the landscape. The DNA of the book, and of the early attempts to film it, have been filtering into the culture for decades now, all without a genuinely satisfying screen adaptation ever being forthcoming. The TV miniseries from twenty years ago is now largely forgotten, while the 1984 David Lynch film, though retaining a cult following, is at best a horribly flawed and deeply confused take on the material.

Comparisons with The Lord of the Rings follow Dune around like seagulls after a trawler, but it’s easy to see why Villeneuve and his team decided the book could only be done proper justice as a series of films, rather than a single movie. Hence (although not billed or advertised as such) the new film is essentially Dune: Part One.

The story unfurls itself on a suitably epic scale, although it is ambitiously thin on the kind of non-diegetic exposition that has become such a cliché of this kind of film – there is no opening crawl, or prefatory monologue, or even much in the way of captions explaining where the various scenes are taking place. We are often in the distant future, when the known universe has reverted to a form of techno-feudalism and vicious and bloody galactic politics occupies the various Great Houses and the organisations that connect them.

As the film opens, the House of Atreides, who seem to be a generally benevolent lot, have just been assigned the job of overseeing the desert planet Arrakis, source of the most important substance in the universe – a psychedelic spice which facilitates interstellar travel and thus allows the empire to function. Control of Arrakis grants immense power and wealth, but are the Atreides being handed a golden opportunity or a poisoned chalice? Certainly, the arch-enemies they are displacing, the brutal House of Harkonnen, don’t seem that worried…

Nevertheless, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) sees this as an opportunity, for Arrakis is also home to fierce native warrior culture, the Fremen, who he is keen to make an alliance with. His son Paul (Timothee Chalamet) is also excited to visit this new world, partly because he is having strange precognitive dream concerning the place. Paul is disturbed to learn that he is the product of generations of selective breeding to produce a superhuman with immense psionic powers, and that the people of Arrakis have been primed to recognise him as their long-awaited messiah or Mahdi – but is this a destiny he is prepared to accept?

The challenge in adapting Dune for other media is basically one of balance: the richness of the setting is fundamental to the novel, but it’s how one retains this without swamping the story so it grinds to a halt or becomes unintelligible. The decision to chop Dune in half for the new film is probably a good one (always assuming the concluding movie gets the green light): the narrative gets room to breathe, retaining all the key incidents of the story, while at least a sense of the detail and texture of the wider universe is still communicated.

Of course, something’s still got to give, and one does receive only a vague impression of some elements of the background. There are a lot of characters, and some of them are in the film only quite briefly: Dave Bautista, for instance, is near the top of the bill as Count Rabban, but probably only on screen for less than ten minutes. The same is true of many others; the film is more about striking miniatures than in-depth characterisations, though Jason Momoa is more prominent than one might expect as the Atreides warrior Duncan Idaho and the same is true of Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet-Kynes (yes, the Progressive Agenda Committee have had a word).

The whole film feels like it’s operating on a greater-than-human scale, anyway: there are immense vistas, ships the size of small cities hanging in the sky, colossal sandworms lurking under the surface of the deserts, and more. As a spectacle it is never less than impressive, the visuals backed up by an extraordinary score from Hans Zimmer, almost more like musique concrete in places than a conventional piece of orchestration (that said, the soundtrack album also contains a Pink Floyd cover, which can’t be a coincidence considering that over forty years ago the band were on board to provide the music for an earlier attempt at the novel).

There’s a huge amount to admire about Dune, but perhaps that’s the problem with the film – it’s a film which impresses and provokes admiration, but never really excitement or delight.  Frank Herbert himself thought he had identified fourteen separate clear points of identity between Dune and George Lucas’ own tale of a young man on a remote desert planet discovering his own mystic heritage and battling the forces of a corrupt imperium, but this film doesn’t have the same kind of swashbuckling, eye-catching verve: it’s much less a piece of pulpy space opera. Villeneuve works so hard to keep the story focused, relevant to contemporary concerns, and naturalistic that the sense of wonder which is a central part of the appeal of science fiction is never quite there when you’d expect it to be.

Nevertheless, this is a film which easily eclipses its predecessors and is likely to define this story in the minds of generations to come – especially if the concluding episode, which we are assured is almost a done deal, matches the virtuosity of this one. I am very curious to see how Villeneuve handles some of the more metaphysical aspects of the story, and the epic spectacle which to some extent is only promised at here. Perhaps no movie of Dune could ever really live up to expectations, but this one comes impressively close.

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I earned various gasps and envious mutterings from my friends the other night when I casually let slip that the next day I had a ticket to a showing of Dune on the big screen. This naturally abated somewhat when I made it clear this wasn’t the delayed, and now even-more-eagerly anticipated new version of the story directed by Denis Villeneuve, but another outing for David Lynch’s 1984 crack at the story, courtesy of the Prince Charlie near Leicester Square.

(Ah, the Prince Charlie: looking back I’m startled to realise I’ve only been there two or three times in the past, and not since 2013, but every time I even go past I feel like it’s somehow my spiritual home. It’s almost enough to make me contemplate moving to London just so I can go to this one cinema more often. Very odd.)

‘I become very happy, because the film is terrible,’ said Alejandro Jodorowsky, describing his own first experience of seeing Lynch’s Dune on the big screen. As is now quite well-known, Jodorowsky spent years planning a lavish ten-hour-plus version of the book, starring Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Gloria Swanson and Salvador Dali (amongst others), with music by Pink Floyd. Strangely enough, no studio was willing to finance this project, and the rights to Frank Herbert’s novel fell into the grasp of Italian impresario Dino De Laurentiis. Meanwhile, if you believe the folklore, Jodorowsky’s pre-production work went on to inspire the great wave of blockbuster SF-fantasy films that came out in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It’s kind of ironic that the Lynch Dune is part of this wave itself. I was vaguely aware of it at the time it came out, when it was definitely marketed as a sci-fi blockbuster not unlike the previous year’s Return of the Jedi, complete with Panini sticker album given away free with the comic 2000 AD. But I don’t remember anyone ever really being very excited or interested in Dune, hardly anyone bothered collecting the stickers, and I’m not even sure it showed near me. The only person I knew who’d seen it (much older than I was) said it made no sense at all unless you’d read the book.

But, hey, there was a pretty good turnout for the Prince Charlie revival, so what were we all there for? Presumably a few sci-fi die-hards, and David Lynch completists, and people wanting to refresh their memories ahead of the new film (across the way they were showing a thirty minute preview of the Villeneuve version; hopefully nobody got confused and went to the wrong one). And I suppose this is a sort of cult film, which only goes to show that cults can crop up in all sorts of places.

The film gets underway with an introductory monologue from Virginia Madsen, playing Princess Irulan, daughter of the Emperor of the Universe. This actually does a pretty decent job of setting the scene is very broad strokes, establishing that we’re in for an epic tale of ruthless galactic politics, all based around control of the planet Dune, source of the most important substance in existence. The titles and music crash in, it’s all very impressive and stirring, and it’s only much later that you realise that pretty much all that Madsen does in the rest of the film is stand around in the background; her character is completely insignificant.

Things stay visually impressive, in terms of costuming and set design and a lot of the special effects, as we get a brief gazetteer of important planets in the story (Arrakis, Caladan, Giedi Prime, Kaitain), and the various factions attached to them (the Fremen, the Atreides, the Harkonnens, the Imperial House, the Guild of Navigators) and we are privy to an audience between the Emperor of the Universe (Jose Ferrer) and a third-stage Guild Navigator, telepathically overheard by his Bene Gesserit advisor (Sian Phillips), where the Emperor’s plan to use the Harkonnens to destroy his Atreides rivals is outlined, while the threat posed to the Navigators by Duke Atreides’ son Paul (Kyle McLachlan) is also touched upon.

And all this is just in the first scene. Are you baffled yet? If not, you are either some kind of a savant, or have read the book, or aren’t really bothering to pay attention (all of these are equally acceptable excuses).

The thing about Dune, the novel, is that it is essentially a straightforward, even archetypal tale of a young man born into privilege who loses everything but undergoes various trials through which he attains superhuman faculties, which he uses to avenge himself on his numerous enemies. Nothing wrong with that; that’s a perfectly solid framework for a story.

The other thing about Dune, however, the one that makes the book so extraordinary and has ensured its reputation as a masterpiece of SF, is the complexity of the world of the story, and the way it is filled with intricate background detail. The main problem with the film is that Lynch concentrates on all the throwaway detail and back-story so much that the actual central narrative disappears from view.

Names of people and things pile up: Mentat, Bene Gesserit, Sardaukar, Shadout Mapes, Shai-Halud, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, weirding modules, Gom Jabbar, the Waters of Life. Introducing all of this (all without ever quite explaining what much of it is) causes the film to grind to a halt and buckle under the weight of its own baffling exposition. Characters like Irulan are introduced as if they’re going to be significant, only for them to barely appear again.

That the film makes any sense at all is because of Lynch’s lavish use of voice-over as an aid to explaining what’s going on. We are frequently privy to the thoughts of many characters, mid-scene, even when we could likely figure out for ourselves what they are thinking, while the progress of the story is usually accompanied by a bit of voice-over explaining what’s happening or has just happened.

I can’t stress enough how important this is: I’ve read Dune several times and some parts of this film are still impenetrable. You can usually tell when something important is happening in a scene – the appearance of the stirring main theme is usually a clue, especially if the electric guitars kick in – but quite what it is or its significance is frequently a mystery. Everything that’s wrong with this film is encapsulated in the final moments, with the last line of the film being an unlikely cry of ‘For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!’ Who or what the Kwisatz Haderach actually is has only been touched upon in the vaguest of terms, rendering this moment both momentous and deeply obscure. This doesn’t feel like an attempt at a slingshot ending or an enthymeme, where lack of traditional closure is part of the intended effect – it’s just bad scripting from Lynch.

You can see why they employed someone with Lynch’s kind of visual sense on a grandiose project like this one, but the narrative utterly escapes his control and he seems more interested in small details  – Baron Harkonnen’s disgusting pustules, for instance – than epic storytelling. I think it’s telling to compare Dune with the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, another lavish De Laurentiis extravaganza – Dune’s climax, where desert warriors riding on gargantuan worms do battle with imperial terror troops as atomic weapons go off in the background, is broadly akin to the Hawkman attack on the rocket ship in the earlier film, but where Flash Gordon is lively and colourful and thrilling, Dune is subdued and ponderous.

Most of the cast (McLachlan, Sean Young, Francesca Annis) are good looking but bland. Even very fine actors like Max von Sydow, Sian Phillips and Patrick Stewart (yes, it’s our week for discussing early Patrick Stewart fantasy movie roles) end up just standing around doing the best they can to make an impression. Well-drawn characters simply vanish into the art direction (which, to be fair, is consistently good); Baron Harkonnen, one of the great villains of SF, is reduced to being simply a ‘flying fatman’, in charge of a family of slavering perverts.

Perhaps Jodorowsky was right and it’s impossible to do Dune justice as a conventional movie; you either need to do it as a TV mini-series or an absurdly long mega-epic, or a series of films. Jodorowsky opted for the mega-epic; Villeneuve, I understand, has opted just to do the first half of the book and hope the film is successful enough to allow him to finish it off in a second movie. We shall see; the audience is certainly there for a really good Dune movie, the question remains whether such a thing is even really possible.

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One of the amendments I have made to my lifestyle this year, along with the No News Policy and various other things, is to stop watching new trailers over the internet, on the grounds that these things are much better enjoyed in the natural home of film, i.e. an actual cinema. This has worked out quite well for me, all things considered, but less so for the guy on the next desk to me at work. We are of a very similar sensibility in many ways, but he is much less web-averse than me and got very annoyed about not being able to discuss the teaser trailer for the forthcoming Disney Star Wars movie with me for a couple of months.

I was expecting a similar sort of delay with regard to the ‘proper’ trailer but, as it turned out, this has practically been rushed into cinemas, especially those looking to use ticket sales from a massive blockbuster to support an otherwise fairly arty schedule. So it was that I ended up seeing the trailer for The Force Wakes Up twice in the same afternoon (one of my DIY movie double-bills at the Phoenix in Jericho). And, well, I was very impressed, much more than I’d expected to be. But…

Well, one of the films I’d gone to see was Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which if nothing else leaves you with a pretty good idea of what a properly ground-breaking SF-fantasy film should and could look like, as well as leaving you with few illusions as to what happens to visionary film-makers trying to work within the Hollywood system.

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The Jodorowsky of the title is Alejandro Jodorowsky, a cult director of avante-garde metaphysical movies, creator of such singular works as El Topo and The Holy Mountain. The Dune of the title is the legendary science-fiction novel written by Frank Herbert, generally accepted to be one of the towering achievements of the genre. The film tells the story of the two years and more that Jodorowsky spent planning his adaptation of the book – as someone observes in the documentary, no-one has ever put quite as much energy and effort into planning a movie which never ultimately got made.

Everyone interviewed for the movie is firmly of the opinion that the world missed out on another towering achievement when this version of Dune was scrapped, even if some of them express doubt that some aspects of Jodorowsky’s vision could be realised even with modern special effects technology. But just a brief listing of some of the personnel assembled by Jodorowsky makes it possible to understand why they hold this belief: an eclectic set of actors including Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and David Carradine, concept artists like Moebius, Chris Foss, and HR Giger, and music from Pink Floyd. It is a tantalising prospect, isn’t it?

Jodorowsky comes across as, to quote one of his collaborators, a very erudite lunatic, apparently taking enormous pleasure in relating the many extraordinary anecdotes surrounding the Dune production process. The man’s passion and energy are winning, even when he describes his intention to make a film which would ’cause a mutation in the minds of young people’. Why did he not employ top Hollywood special effects guy Douglas Trumbull on Dune? Because he was apparently not a ‘spiritual warrior’, which was the most important criterion for potential collaborators.

Various elements of the film are brought to life via animation, using the extremely detailed storyboards produced by Jodorowsky’s team, and it’s enough to give you a flavour of exactly what a startling production this Dune would have been, even if the full richness of the designs never quite come to life. One is left to fully imagine just how extraordinary this film would have looked – it might well have realised Jodorowsky’s ambition to make a film which artificially reproduced the effects of LSD for the viewer.

(As you may have surmised, this film is very much about Jodorowsky rather than Dune itself: we learn very little about the origins of the novel or even very much of the story, which in any case seems to have been radically reinterpreted by the director. ‘I was raping Frank Herbert,’ chortles Jodorowsky at one point. ‘But with love!’ Certainly not many people on the team seem to have actually read the book.)

Of course, we will never know, because – and having seen this documentary, the fact is still somewhat heartbreaking – Jodorowsky’s Dune was never made, despite the plans and script and budget being favourably received by a number of American studios. The documentary’s suggestion is that it was simply the studio’s fear of Jodorowsky as a sort of metaphysical maverick that stopped them from funding this project, but it still opens a crack to an intriguing parallel world where Dune preceded the original Star Wars to the screen.

I was curious to see what this film had to say about the David Lynch-directed version of Dune which eventually reached cinemas, to no very great effect, in 1984. Its existence is acknowledged, and in one of the documentary’s most winning moments, Jodorowsky fondly recalls how his mood lightened while watching it. ‘Step by step I become very happy, because the picture is awful!’ – an opinion no sensible critic could really take exception to.

The documentary doesn’t just limit itself to the Lynch Dune, either, proposing that it was Jodorowsky’s vision as much as George Lucas’ which powered the great boom in late 70s SF and fantasy films – elements from the storyboards do seem to uncannily anticipate the imagery of films from Star Wars, to Flash Gordon, to The Terminator, to Prometheus. Exhibit A for this theory is surely the fact that all of Jodorowsky’s key collaborators (Foss, Giger, special effects man Dan O’Bannon, and so on) were taken on to work on a little film called Star Beast, which eventually reached the screen in 1979 under the snappier title of Alien.

If you are at all interested in the development of SF as an element of cinema, or Alejandro Jodorowsky as a director, then this film probably counts as unmissable. As a piece of documentary it is not especially innovative, but with a story this unique and interesting it doesn’t really need to be. In the final analysis this is very much a niche film – but it’s a niche well worth visiting.

 

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