Disasters are often beautiful. Even when we should pull away, even when we feel guilty for enjoying it on some visceral level, we love watching bridges fall, the Hindenburg crash, the CG Titanic sink while Jack and Rose carry on inconsequentially in front of it. Such is the case with Dune; a film with just about the largest divide between visual and narrative skill I’ve ever seen. Artistically, the design and execution are breathtaking. Unfortunately, so is the writing.
Dune suffers from the all-too-common syndrome of Cult Literary Adaptation, causing massive confusion when the filmmakers attempt to navigate the treacherous waters of keeping the fans happy with certain set-pieces while constructed a condensed but cohesive narrative. At the same time, it has too much exposition. These contradictory impulses result in a film in which certain concepts are imparted multiple times during an interminable first half, while the last half jumps along without any apparent pattern or comprehensible plot. Through it all, the characters’ are drawn by someone who apparently has no social intelligence whatsoever and thinks the audience must have every emotion and motive spoken in voiceover. Why even have actors if their acting will be explained to us? I can see that she’s scared and that you wonder why—you don’t need to tell me, “I wonder what she’s afraid of.”
There is very rarely an excuse for extraneous inner monologue in film. It’s a clumsy device that must make itself essential in some way. In one scene, a character’s speculative inner musing is repeated to us twice by external means. Imagine you’re watching someone about to drink some water. “I wonder if my enemies have poisoned this water,” you hear him think to himself. “They probably have.” He drinks the water.
“Ha ha ha!” the villain cackles as he enters. “You drank the poisoned water I left for you!”
Immediately a voice comes over a loudspeaker. “Do not drink the water,” it intones. “It has been poisoned.”
I’m not exaggerating. Those weren’t the exact words, but it’s that bad.
My objections don’t stop there, however. Underneath the bad writing, there’s an offensive patriarchal consciousness that I don’t think I’m overstating. The women in the film are accessories; even the Reverend Mother we are told is very powerful constantly reiterates that there are places no woman can go, pain no woman can bear, and of course Kyle MacLauchlan is the Boy Wonder who can. Kyle, moreover, was born only because his mother the acolyte and concubine defied her duty to bear only daughters in order to bear a son for the Duke, who won’t even marry her. So far we have a Cult of Women in the service of an Emperor and a Duke, and the production of a son as the highest form of regard a woman can pay her lover. Good. So let’s take them all to a desert planet with huge phallic worms so that this amazing son can walk into a group of natives, tame the giant penis to his will, and act just like every other old white guy in the movie. There doesn’t appear to be any difference between the warring factions, no moral distinction between them. I don’t even know what they’re fighting for, other than for power over this drug-like spice. While we’re at it, let’s throw in a scene of the repulsive Baron Harkonnen ogling an almost-nude Sting, who functions in this film as basically a gorgeous codpiece. This movie is a celebration of the masculine body without regard to any political, moral, or social workings of the characters involved. We side with the pretty ones. With big worms.
What makes this disaster even more tragic is the obvious care that was taken in designing and casting this mess. Some of the actors are amazing, including Brad Dourif, Kenneth McMillan, and an uncredited David Lynch. The transport the Atreides men take to the spice mine might as well be an Elektra-ferry bringing us hot Daddy-figures Patrick Stewart, Jürgen Prochnow, and Max von Sydow. Sting is beautiful, Kyle is pretty, and the women are too (and awesomely scary, in the case of Siân Phillips as the Rev. Mother). And the design of the ships, the palaces, the planet are fantastic. Unfortunately, it makes the pain of watching it all the more acute, because if it was any less beautiful you could walk away.