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.
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.
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 MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart, Sting 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.