Dir. David Lynch, 1984
Inspired by the overview of the novels found in last month’s issue of The Believer,
I decided to finally watch the Lynch version I bought on DVD last September in Taiwan (not a bootleg, mind you). I’ve seen the film once before, on British TV back in the late ’80s, and remember very little except lots of troops and explosions.
So another look. You can see the things that Lynch finds interesting (the evil, rapacious Baron; the floating elephant foetus thing; the dreams; the prophecy; the decor and the retrotech we would now call steampunk) and the things he finds utterly boring (the aforementioned explosions, the plot, the regal lineage and the large cast of characters).
You wish he had been a bit more daring with his adaptation, and I wonder how much of a Frank Herbert fan he was growing up. The plot is essentially that of betrayal/banishment/transformation/return/success, the thought behind it one of theological (and ecological) revolution. But the film seems in no rush to get to this story. I also wonder how popular a story like this would be now, dealing as it does with a native people of a sandy planet banding together to proclaim a “jihad” against the imperialists who are stealing its natural resources. And the leader of this violent overthrow is the film’s hero! Blimey.
In fact, the first hour is not so bad, with the most amazing sets and design that seem lost to most recent sci-fi (The Matrix is not exactly the most exciting film to look at, and Reloaded’s underground city showed us nothing new.) What other film has a factory with a chimney the shape of an open baby’s mouth? Not many. When the first battles begin the editing and pace falls apart. It looks either like Lynch didn’t shoot enough, or too much, or that they let an intern have at the flatbed. The film becomes incomprehensible just in the visuals. And then the poncing around in caves, and the low-rent blue screen effects just suck. Lynch fans who desperately want to see the director-disowned “television cut” that adds another hour to the film are either under the delusion that there’s some brilliant Lynchian weirdness hiding on the cutting room floor, or masochistic.
I did enjoy seeing all the actors who would soon populate Lynch’s better works: Kyle McLaughlan (large hair that constantly screams “soundtrack by Toto”), Dean Stockwell (with a ridiculous moustache), Everett McGill (rugged beard), Brad Dourif (Willy Wonka Temp Agency hair) and good ol’ Jack Nance (a total of five lines of dialog; I guess Lynch just wanted him to hang out on the set).
And then there’s Patrick Stewart, whose finest moment comes when he leads a charge in the first battle, holding the dead emperor’s pug dog, and yelling “Long Live Emperor Leto!” or something. The shots of the pug throughout caused me much mirth, and I would have liked to have seen more soldiers going into battle carrying pugs, or perhaps a pug riding a giant sand worm, or a pug growing so large and eating so much Puppy Chow Now With Added Spice that it learned to fold time itself.

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