The sleeper has awakened!
Love it or hate it, the 1984 film adaptation of Dune has become something of a cult phenomenon for fans of sci-fi films or of the Dune Universe. It was a film that signalled the changing look of adaptations, heralded a stellar cast, and brought director David Lynch’s vision to a group of viewers that may not have ever viewed his work.
Like so many other trailers of the time, the film is described as a world beyond your experience and imagination. A voiceover tells the audience that the film takes place in the year 10,191 and that something called spice melange is the most precious substance in the universe. What follows is an epic looking vision of aliens, desert planets, space ships and battles. Without knowing anything about the film, or the Frank Herbert book it’s derived from, the trailer is probably incomprehensible. Grab some sunblock and let’s delve into the mysteries of Dune.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
An opening narration sets up much of the back story for the film: It is the year 10,191 and the most precious substance in the universe is the spice melange. There are four important planets with three important households. These planets are Kaitain–which is home of Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer), the emperor of the known universe, Geidi Prime–the home of the evil Harkonnen, Caladan–a world with many oceans and home of the Atreides, and Arrakis–a desert planet, also called Dune, and the only place Spice is able to be found.
The Emperor has made a deal with the Spice Guild to destroy House Atreides and re-install House Harkonnen as the rulers of Arrakis. The Guild warns the Emperor that Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) is dangerous to their plans, but the Emperor laughs this off–Paul is the Duke’s son and of no concern. It is also revealed that the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, who has a Reverend Mother serving most of the leaders of the galaxy, has been working to breed a super being called the Kwisatz Haderach. It is heavily implied that Paul is this being.
As House Atreides readies to move their palace to Arrakis, Paul is busy training using a weirding module (a weapon that creates blasts using sound) and battling Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart) using personal body shields. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Sian Philips) comes to test Paul to see if he may in fact be the Kwisatz Haderach, a fact that she blames Paul’s mother Jessica (Francesca Annis) for–due to the fact that she was instructed to only bear daughters.
Once on Arrakis, Liet Kynes (Max von Sydow) takes the Duke (Jürgen Prochnow) and Paul for a tour of spice harvesting in the deep desert. They witness an attack on the spice harvester by a giant sand worm, in which the Duke chooses to save the people rather than the product. The palace is sabotaged by Dr. Wellington Yueh (Dean Stockwell), who is the personal advisor to the Duke. What makes it worse is he bears the symbol of Imperial conditioning. He was corrupted by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) who wishes to install his sons Rabban (Paul Smith) and Feyd Rautha (Sting) as leaders of the planet.
Paul and Jessica manage to escape the destruction of the palace, but Duke Leto is killed. The mother and son join up with a desert nomad group called the Fremen, led by Stilgar (Everett McGill). Their numbers are unknown, but Paul believes that they will help him change the face of Arrakis. Within the group he begins to fall in love with Chani (Sean Young) as he trains the Fremen in the weirding ways. He is eventually welcomed into the clan as their leader and adopts the name Muad’Dib, a name that becomes a killing word via the weirding modules.
Paul becomes the prophesied leader, helping to unite all the Fremen clans and disrupt spice production in order to get the attention of the Emperor and the galaxy. Paul’s mother gives birth to the Duke’s daughter, Alia (Alicia Witt) during this time. Paul’s army stages an attack on the Baron and the Emperor at the capitol city and the Baron is killed by Alia, who grows at an accelerated rate due to Jessica imbibing the “water of life” during pregnancy. Paul too has drunk from the water and has become an all powerful being, as the Bene Gesserit have feared. He fights and kills Feyd. Stilgar declares that Paul has become the Hand of God, as water begins to rain down on Arrakis for the first time in forever.
“He who can destroy a thing controls a thing.” – Paul Atreides
History in the Making
While over forty films on Sci-Fi Saturdays have been based on books, no title has been as prolific in popularity as Dune, save maybe works by HG Wells or Jules Verne that were adapted in the 1950s. This epic story of family, politics, ecology, and a messiah was a relatively young story by the time it was adapted into a movie by David Lynch and Raffaella De Laurentiis. Written by Frank Herbert, Dune was originally published just 19 years earlier in 1965, and stands as one of the more modern sci-fi stories adapted into a film, along with titles like Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969 novel, and 1971 film), or or Soylent Green (1966 novel with 1973 film). But neither of these other two examples matched the popularity of Herbet’s epic story. With this title, Herbert would become the best selling sci-fi author of all time (according to Reader’s Digest), and in the company of such notables as the aforementioned HG Wells, and Jules Verne, but also Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury.
The film has a long production history that started in 1971 when the rights were acquired. Several different versions were attempted, with the most famous being the Alejandro Jodorowsky version (which has a 2013 documentary devoted to the aborted work). Director Ridley Scott (Alien) was hired by producer Dino De Laurentis in the mid-70s to attempt a version but dropped out but decided to pursue working on Blade Runner instead. With the rights about to expire, De Laurentis hired relative newcomer David Lynch to help the adaptation. Lynch, who was known for the experimental Eraserhead as well as the more mainstream and conventional The Elephant Man was also approached to direct the third film in the Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi, but opted instead to focus on his vision of Dune. It is the only sci-fi film from David Lynch and also probably the only film in his oeuvre that stands out as different.
For many people, Lynch is identified with bizarre and surreal subject matter and imagery as evidenced in his biggest films, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, plus his off-kilter television soap opera/mystery series Twin Peaks. In fact his film style has coined an entirely new definition with the word ‘Lynchian.’ So in this way, Dune very much stands out. It still contains many elements that make it exceedingly Lynchian, such as the Carlo Rambaldi designed, fetal-looking, Guild Navigators, the dreamlike nature (and actual waking dreams) of many sequences, and the exploration of inhumane practices used by the Harkonnens. Unfortunately, the audiences were not impressed. Lynch’s style and storytelling has never been considered mainstream, even for the brief shining moment that was Twin Peaks Season One. Like David Cronenberg, his vision for his work is often off-putting, yielding an uncomfortable experience. On top of that, adapting a 400 plus page novel into a two hour film (or three-hours in the extended cut) just meant that a lot of material was needed to be excised. However the biggest complaints probably come from the constant deluge of exposition about the various Houses, inter-galactic politics, and social structure of this future world. The opening four minute narration, by newcomer Virginia Madsen, is so packed full of meaning and backstory that it may only become understandable after a dozen viewings.
This section of the Sci-Fi Saturdays articles is often used to ask ‘what does this film add to the genre of science-fiction.’ Many of the films reviewed here so far offer some groundbreaking addition to the genre or at least an extension and refinement of previous notions. Dune may not be groundbreaking in the traditional genre sense, but it does make a point that there was a place for hard sci-fi adaptations in film. Hard science-fiction is usually characterized by scientific accuracy and logic, as opposed to the swashbuckling or space operatic types of forays which include technobabble and fantasy elements. Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dune fit appropriately into this category. Some consider this sub-genre to be more authentic and somehow better than a more pulpy story, but there is definitely room for both types of storytelling in the world.
Science-fiction books of the time had more of a luxury to do things at their own pace, such as world building–the depiction of a fantastical and seemingly complete societal structure outside of the reader’s perceived reality. Fantasy stories such as The Lord of the Rings are a great example of using this element, as is Dune. The film also tries, and I would say succeeds, in creating a wholly realized world of different cultures, political, and social landscapes drawn from elements of the real world. Much as Star Wars had done 7 years prior, the film creates an epic scope for the worlds of the story using special effects, costumes, and the words of Frank Herbert to realize a new reality where the technological aspects are not fantastical, but more rooted in a possible future reality.
But these things that make up the complex world building elements are also the things that make it difficult to understand, at least without the background of the novel, or repeated viewings. Lynch obviously had an idea for the structure of the film, drawing from the source material, and as such needed to introduce the various groups and cultures. His choice was to have a huge amount of exposition and repetition that explained who the Atreides and Harkonnens were, the importance of the spice, the role of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, and the necessity for control of Arrakis. The book seems to have been inspired by Lawrence of Arabia as well as the life of Jesus Christ, and Lynch also brings these elements to the film, along with a noir-aspect present in the first half of the film. But instead of a tech-noir look, the production design yields more of a steam-punk or retro-futurism style similar to some of Jules Verne’s works.
The biggest difference for Dune from the recent types of sci-fi films, is its definite thematic interest into the human condition. Much like the films and shows in the Star Trek universe, which explore human issues within the context of science-fiction, Dune looks at a number of aspects of humanity and culture through a decidedly foreign lens. The non-Western aspects of the film (and story) may seem more natural to audiences in the 21st Century than they did in 1984. The bedouin-like culture of the Fremen and their nomadic desert lifestyle speaks to a more Middle Eastern style. The Bene Gesserit seems analogous to the Roman Catholic Church and their role in European politics between the 11th and 16th Centuries. The feuding Houses could be a stand-in for almost any political state or familial lineage throughout history. These themes of family, religion, and political maneuvering all serve as the basis for dealing with the larger theme of the messiah.
The story follows Paul Atreides, who is attributed early on as inconsequential by the Emperor, but soon is placed in a position to assume his prophesied role as Muad’Dib and the unifier and godhead for the planet of Arrakis. Like T.E. Lawrence, Spartacus, Jesus Christ, or even Luke Skywalker, Paul is young and unaware of his importance. He has a set of skills that do not seem particularly important, but his being in the right place at the right time, coupled with others’ belief that he is the chosen one, allows him to rise to great heights. The messianic role also is coupled with the theme environmentalism and conservation. Paul is able to see connections within the ecosystem of Arrakis that others may only hint at. He sees the links between the worms, the spice, and the galactic trade routes built around the rare element.
The Science in The Fiction
This ecological bent was a watershed moment (no pun intended) for sci-fi stories. Herbert wanted to incorporate a complex life-cycle and interdependent web of life in his story to increase the veracity of the book. While the film may water-down (ok, pun intended) the overt relationships on Arrakis, it still is able to create a believable and potentially truthful extension of future technologies. The full story on the ecosystem of Dune, taken from various sources, includes the spice being produced, in essence, out of the worm excrement via water deposits seeping into this pre-spice mass. The reason it’s only available on Arrakis is due to the presence of the worms, which also guard these deposits making it dangerous to mine. Lynch’s film only makes some of the connections at a superficial level, but does try to show the connectedness between the people, water, sand, spice and worms of Arrakis as a balanced area of nature that should be respected.
Then of course there are the hundreds of meter long sandworms that live on Arrakis. The worms here have grown to millions of times the size of the Earthly brethren, and as such are much more dangerous. The Fremen have adapted to using the worms as transport, as well as revering them as deities. They also use devices called thumpers which produce a rhythmic vibration to attract the worms to either disguise the human passage across the sand dunes, or to call the worm for other purposes. While the science of giant animals in Hollywood films is notoriously bad–sizing up small creatures would not work for various reasons, the look of these worms, writhing through the sand like sharks in an ocean is definitely a frightening and awesome sight. The depiction of the worms in Dune most likely influenced the 1990 action/horror film Tremors, in which similar (yet smaller) beasts terrorize a small Southwestern town.
Other aspects of the film include the oft-seen still suits, which allow a person to survive in the open desert without water for days. These rubberized suits collect moisture from the wearer, in perspiration, respiration and excretion, as well as store and filter that water for later reclamation. A brief explanation near the beginning of the second act explains these marvelous suits and creates an interesting technological advancement that doesn’t seem as far away as some of the other tech from the film. Two other more “normal” sci-fi related elements include the weirding modules and the personal shields. These electronic devices, used by the Atreides, work as offensive and defensive weapons. The weirding module concentrates sound into a physical force that can be used to stun, kill or destroy enemies. It appears to work on the idea of resonating frequencies and has analogous counterparts in today’s battlefields where low-level sound waves can be used to induce nausea and fatigue in combatants. The shields are a little more futuristic, but appear much more retro in their style. Rather than a smooth force field around the wearer, these devices produce a blocky outline susceptible only to the slow attack. A perfect device to fend off projectiles, but not necessarily good for hand-to-hand combat.
The Final Frontier
There’s no question that Dune is an influential work, both in prose and in film. A specific scene from the novel was recreated nearly verbatim in the horror film Phantasm. It involves a young boy placing his hand in a box to feel searing pain, but soon realizing that he had control over his fear, and when he withdrew his hand it was none the worse for wear. Lynch’s version of this scene is almost identical. From film to stories to music Dune has influenced artists, such as the musician Fatboy Slim whose 2000 hit “Weapon of Choice” contains a lyric lifted almost exactly from the film: “Walk without rhythm, and it won’t attract the worm.”
The soundtrack to the film also was a unique entry into the world of 1980s sci-fi. As with Queen’s Flash Gordon soundtrack, De Laurentis wanted to capture something unique for the score of Dune. He hired rock band Toto to compose the score with musical artist and producer Brian Eno to create a synth-inspired potpourri of themes and melodies that evoke the film. The film also inspired other versions and adaptations of the world of Dune. Most notable is the 2000 SciFi Channel (now Syfy) production of Frank Herbert’s Dune (and its sequel Children of Dune) which were both produced as three episode mini-series for the cable station. There is also an upcoming October 2021 big-budget film from director Denis Villeneuve that has gotten much press, and will be another attempt to tell this sprawling epic on the big screen.
One final version exists, officially, that David Lynch would best like the world to forget. A TV edit of the film was created, and spanned a two-night presentation, running almost three hours long. This extended cut adds in a lot more exposition and may be considered greater or lesser depending on the audience. It does explain a lot more of the backstory to the universe and provide more character moments, but Lynch was unhappy with it’s release, which is why the film is credited to Alan Smithee (a famous pseudonym for directors who wish to remove their names from works they disavow). Whether you love the 1984 version of Dune, or detest it, the film does provide a different context than other big-budget blockbusters. It serves the messages of conservation, humility, and focus as traits to be admired and cultivated rather than expunged. It was also an immense undertaking for the time that came out as something not as bad as it might have been. Fans of Dune and the Dune Universe can also check out the Dune-Cast podcast right here on RetroZap.com.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.