Why the classic movie DUNE is a hot mess

I remember watching DUNE in the theater and thinking, “Whoah.”

Then again, I was a whippersnapper with no taste when it first came out. So on Old Movie Night, we popped in DUNE and fired it up.

Oh my.

There’s no doubt that DUNE is a hot mess. The question is, why?

Suspect No. 1: Horribly Cheesy Special Effects

This is a good place to start. You can’t excuse David the Lynch for not having access to better special effects, not when this movie came out after all three of the original STAR WARS movies were out.

Check out the trailer and tell me the effects are up to snuff, even for the era.

So, the effects in DUNE are Dr. Who-level lame. You expect the rocks to some styrofoam they bought off the old Star Trek set.

But bad effects aren’t the main reason this film is a hot mess. An audience will forgive bad effects if the story and characters are compelling.

Suspect No. 2: All Kinds of Crazytown

You don’t hire David the Lynch to direct a normal movie. You hire him to spice things up and go a little nuts.

Being absurdly weird can earn your movie cult status, with college kids playing it simply for the biggest excesses and worst moments of wackadoodle.

Moderately good or bad things are mediocre and boring. Give me stuff that's horrifically good or amazingly bad, then we'll talk. Kthxbai.
Moderately good or bad things are mediocre and boring. Give me stuff that’s horrifically good or amazingly bad, then we’ll talk. Kthxbai.

Then again, the tough part is once you base-jump off the Cliff of Normalcy, there’s no guarantee your chute will open.

And this film sprints away from Normal, stiff-arms Edgy and slides right into Bizarre.

This is half of the reason the film is a hot mess. You’re constantly distracted, sometimes by the bad effects, but more often by the weird, bizarre and gross sideshows that don’t truly move the story. The Baron Harkonnen’s massive zits get a ton of screen time. The Guild Navigators are grotesque. The bad guy troops have reverse mohawk hairdoes while the good guys wear surplus World War II uniforms. It’s constantly and consciously odd, which pulls you out of the story.

But if the story kept moving, I wouldn’t have had time to focus on all the weirdness.

Suspect No. 3: Ponderously Beating the Audience with the Cudgel of Pretentiousness

This is the true culprit.

Audiences will believe in sorcerers and elves if you don’t explain them. They’ll buy lightsabers and aliens who are into M & M’s — but not if you get pretentious and deep trying to explain all those things.

See, audiences want to believe. If you set things up from the start, they’ll stick with you. What you can’t do is (a) switch mid-way though a normal book or movie to say “Hey, actually the hero is a vampire. Surprise!” (b) commit the Hollywood sin of double-mumbo jumbo — trying to have a story that’s about dragons and trolls … plus space witches with lightsabers or (c) constantly stop the story to intrude with pretentious narration and dialogue that’s on the nose.

It’s that last sin that DUNE commits right away, with a long narration setting things up following be another and another and another.

Every time the story moves forward two inches, somebody has to stop to explain it to the audience for three minutes, as if we aren’t smart enough to watch the story and understand.  It feels less like a movie and more like a lecture. Then the credits roll.

I bet there’s a supercut of DUNE somewhere, a lot like STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM EDIT where some kind person sliced out all the boring nonsense, like Jar Jar Binks and all the talkative scenes where George Lucas is patiently over-explaining things to you and ruining the Force forever by saying it’s caused by space bacteria or whatever. No.

DUNE breaks new ground with the Unnecessary Voiceovers by having every actor whisper a voice-over of what they’re thinking, which is usually stuff the audience already knows, but hey, beat them on the head with it again.

Which is too bad. There are great actors in here like Kyle MacLachlanPatrick StewartSting and Jürgen Prochnow. A less wacky, less ponderous film with the same cast would have been awesome, even with the same cheesy special effects. It would also be far shorter and more watchable.

6 thoughts on “Why the classic movie DUNE is a hot mess

  1. DUNE is a pretty crazy world. I seem to remember that when it came out it was incomprehensible unless you had read the book which has a fair amount of exposition in it. But I loved the Guild navigators and those Fremen they kick ass… but the effects are pretty bad and the voiceovers are shocking. DUNE should be a HBO mini-series a la GAME OF THRONES or THE BORGIAS. I think with the DVD they did a re-edit and put in a ton of exposition.

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  2. In order to be a success like LOTR, Dune has to be broken into two movies. The first one should end with Paul and Jessica’s escape. This way, both “episodes” get detailed coverage and there is plenty of time for battle scenes.

    In David Lynch’s version the first half was actually quite good. The second was so hectic — they had to rush through the story to squeeze everything in. Final battle was so unimpressive.Only after I read the book I realized the whole greatness of the Kwisatz Haderach

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  3. I saw Dune on the big screen, and I enjoyed it. I was only 15 at the time. Saw it again some years later on a small screen and wondered why? It left me cold second time around – I really didn’t warm to Sting in his role – felt a bit forced to me. Just shows the impact a big screen can have. I can forgive sub-standard special effects if a story is well-worked, but it wasn’t in this case.

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  4. I can’t agree.

    Dune is one of my favorite books and favorite movies. Maybe Lynch was crazy trying to adapt a dense, complex book like Dune. But he took a balls-out stab at it. Where you see pretension, I see someone taking the source material seriously. This isn’t done as camp, everyone in this movie is giving it their all. It has style, albeit a bizzare style at times but that ads to the other-worldliness that is important for suspension of disbelief.

    Personally, I liked the voice-overs. There’s a time for ‘telling’ rather than showing and it let the audience inside the head of very closed-mouthed characters, like the Reverend Mother.

    It’s also one of the most quotable movies of all time, for me at least. And the Toto soundtrack is epic and awesome.

    While the book is beloved by me because of the dense plot and worldbuilding, the movie works for me because of the performances of the actors, the direction and themes that made the transition. Revolution. Prophesy. A messiah that burns the universe. Drugs and oil all in one metaphor.

    Good stuff, maybe great.

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