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Posts Tagged ‘Sean Young’

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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It’s easy to talk too much about cinema in rarefied terms of its themes and value as pure art, but I think it is important to remember that it also serves a valuable purpose by cheering people up when times are especially hard, as they are at the moment. The world feels like a tough old place at the moment. Will this rain never cease? It is enough to make one permanently miserable. This is before we even get to the ceaseless glare and noise from the giant billboards everywhere, or the perpetual whine of the cars zipping about overhead. It is no wonder that virtually anyone who can afford the fare and pass the medical is choosing the emigrate to one of the outer space colonies, even if they are stuffed with homicidal androids. At a time like this one has to get one’s pleasures where one can, such as in the form of a revival of Ridley Scott’s eerily accurate dystopian thriller Blade Runner, originally released in 1982.

The movie is set in present-day Los Angeles, shortly after a group of synthetic human beings – known as replicants – have illegally arrived on Earth. They appear to be trying to infiltrate the Tyrell Corporation, which originally created them, for reasons which are not immediately clear. The business of finding and eliminating replicants is entrusted to a special corps of investigators known, for no very obvious reason, as blade runners. The blade runner initially assigned to this case is murdered by one of the replicants at the start of the movie, and as a result jaded former blade runner Deckard (Harrison Ford with an unflattering haircut) is essentially blackmailed into taking over.

Deckard’s investigation is made a little more complicated by an encounter with Rachael (Sean Young) a woman at the Tyrell Corporation’s HQ who eventually proves to be another replicant herself – just one who believes herself to be human. Is the distinction between natural and artificial humanity really as clear cut as his job requires him to believe? Rachael takes badly to the news of her true nature and drops out of sight, giving Deckard another target to locate. He ploughs on with the case regardless.

Meanwhile, the surviving replicants, Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah), persist in trying to get to Tyrell himself. They have been constructed with a drastically limited lifespan and their time is almost up. Can they find of way of extending their existence before the blade runner catches up with them?

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Blade Runner – it must be at least three or four – and, to be honest, of all the different versions of the film that have been in circulation over the years. On this occasion we were treated to The Final Cut from 2007, which is one of the ones without Harrison Ford’s voice-over. This is obviously a film of significant cultural importance, and I have never watched it and come away thinking it was outright bad. But at the same time I’ve never quite been able to see what all the fuss is about. I know at least one person who says this is their favourite film of all time (I once encountered them smoking a very nervous cigarette outside the cinema as they waited for the sequel to start), but… it always leaves me oddly indifferent. I have struggled to have a strong opinion about it of any kind. Part of the reason I went to see this revival was the hope that encountering it on the big screen might help me to finally connect with it.

And did this happen? Well, not really. There was obviously some additional amusement value this time around, simply because the film’s vision of the future is (joking apart) so much at odds with how things have actually turned out – although it turns out it was spot on about all this rain we’ve been having lately. Overall, though, no matter which version I see, I always have the same response to Blade Runner, which is the same one I have to a lot of Ridley Scott films, especially the early ones: this is a director obsessed with the visual impact of his films, to the point where the actual narrative suffers badly.

I don’t deny that Blade Runner is one of the most visually and striking and dense films of its time, and very influential as a result of this – although, as I have noted in the past, all of these dystopian urban hell-scapes ultimately find their roots in Lang’s Metropolis. The screen is packed with fascinating incidental detail, rather as in the first couple of stellar conflict movies, but this being a Scott movie the camera is inclined to dwell on these vistas rather than treat them as a casual backdrop to the ongoing narrative. Impressive though the look of the film is, it still strikes me that some of the imagery is remarkably clumsy in its symbolism: the theological subtext of Roy’s quest to meet his maker is quite obvious before we get to the point where he starts inflicting stigmata upon himself, and the moment with the dove is about as subtle as a brick through a window.

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with making a very pretty film, as long as the pictures don’t start eclipsing the story. Arguably, here they do: the plot, on reflection, is remarkably thin, with Deckard in particular coming across as a rather drab and only borderline sympathetic (not to mention competent) individual. Ford does his best with the material, but Deckard does recede into the scenery a bit. It probably doesn’t help that the typically offbeat elements of the character from Philip K Dick’s original book have almost all been excised (in the novel, Deckard is unhappily married to a wife obsessed with acquiring robotic animals, which represent a status symbol in their society – he spends a lot of the novel worrying about whether the bounty he will get for killing Roy and the others will allow him to buy her the replicant sheep she has her heart set on).

As a result, the film is dominated by Rutger Hauer’s striking (and one might even say career-defining) performance as Roy. As he himself admits, this is a character who does some very questionable things, but he still comes across as a vivid, sympathetic individual, perhaps the only one in the film. As noted, the film’s focus on the visual and aesthetic elements means that its more philosophical ideas get rather neglected – a shame, as this is the very purest kind of SF, reflecting on what it really means to be human – but Hauer manages, almost single-handed, to make you think about this.

So, well, maybe I did see something in Blade Runner that I didn’t before. I must confess I am one of those people who always preferred the original version anyway – the voice-over by Ford gave the film a kind of identity as a Chandler-esque private eye pastiche, which I thought gave it a sense of identity and a level of accessibility it wouldn’t necessarily otherwise possess. As a piece of visual art, and in terms of its production design, this is obviously a hugely successful and important film. But as a conventional drama it frequently feels underpowered and rather hollow; the surface detail is remarkable but beneath it there is a distinct lack of substance.

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