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On Dec. 14, 1984, David Lynch unveiled a divisive 140-minute epic based on Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic, Dune, to mixed results in theaters. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
Dune is not the masterpiece its adherents have hoped for — but neither is it the disaster its detractors have claimed. Adapted from Frank Herbert’s sci-fi cult classic and directed by the eccentrically gifted David Lynch (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man), this lofty $40 million allegory of interplanetary insurrection, long thought unfilmable, is at once a work of almost visionary beauty and surprisingly conventional adventure. Fans shouldn’t mind the excessive length and too-deliberate pacing, and while those elements could well render the picture’s infinite intelligence inaccessible to certain other audiences, it is nonetheless a hotter property than the inexplicably cold feet of its distributor, Universal, would seem to indicate.
The time is A.D. 10191. The principal setting is the red planet Arrakis, an arid wasteland beneath whose sands lies a life-sustaining spice. Its extraction has forced the subjugation of the planet’s inhabitants, known as Fremen, into whose sanctuary comes Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan), the son of an outcast duke. Slowly, the young man begins to assume his long prophesied role as the Fremen’s messiah — a destiny that culminates in the overthrow of Arrakis‘ evil rulers and the restoration of universal justice.
It takes nearly half of Dune‘s 140 minutes for the various plot threads to intertwine, and the ecological import of Herbert’s original concept tends to get lost in the shuffle. Still, for all its cumbersome scope (realized on a shimmeringly large scale by Lawrence of Arabia cinematographer Freddie Francis), the film remains an intensely personal epic, Lynch’s uncommon emphasis on characters rather than effects lending his exposition a rather remarkable lucidity.
There are notable lapses: Lynch directs his all-star cast into rather too many portentous whispers that overstate the story’s mythological attributes, and his handling of the big action sequences is altogether to lackadaisical (a flaccid score by Toto doesn’t help). But there’s a daringly abstract quality to much of Lynch’s imagery, and his preoccupation with textures — here abetted by some of the best production values producer Raffaella De Laurentiis could buy — sets the proceedings into almost tactile relief. You don’t just watch this film; you can practically feel it.
The movie works best at its most sinister, when Lynch’s macabre sensibilities take unfettered wing and in which he encourages the delectably florid turns from Kenneth McMillan as a boil-face, free-floating baron (kept dizzingly aloft by mechanical wizard Kit West) and Brad Dourif as his bushy-haired lieutenant. Lynch is less comfortable with nobility, eliciting an especially unmessianic performance from Kyle MacLachlan, though Francesca Annis is singularly divine as the hero’s strong-willed mother.
More than a few members of the heavyweight supporting cast appear to have left their best scenes on the cutting room floor. Survivors include Jose Ferrer, looking for all the world like Flash Gordon‘s Emperor Ming as a malevolent monarch; Sian Phillips, a veritable death’s head in baldpated seer’s makeup, and, best of all, Police lead singer Sting, clad in a gravity-defying codpiece and dispensing pain with a most ingratiating smile.
Further contributing to the production’s other worldly aura are some expansive sets from 2001 art director Anthony Masters and the flavorful costumes of Bob Ringwood. Master monster maker Carlo Rambaldi’s ubiquitous sandworms have all the ominous presence of giant firehoses, and the optical effects are too hurried looking at times, but Alan Splet’s multi-layered sound helps give resonant voice to the mournful grandeur of this overblown but fine-grained Dune. — Kirk Ellis, originally published on Dec. 3, 1984.
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Portia de Rossi
James Gordon Meek