David Lynch’s Dune (1984) – Blu-ray Review

reDVDit.com presents a new series of reviews from writer Chris Haller, titled, “David Lynch: The Man, the Myth, the Movie.” Through the coming months, Chris will present his thoughts on the  Blu-ray releases of each of divisive director David Lynch’s films, from Eraserhead all the way through his most recent, Inland Empire, starting with his 1984 feature, Dune.

The Movie (3/5)

David Lynch, even in the early 80s, was not known for making particularly approachable movies. At the time that he was asked to direct an adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel Dune, all he had under his belt were some short films, Eraserhead, and The Elephant Man. Neither of his two features really scream to me, “this is the guy I’d want to make a large scale, sci-fi epic adaptation.” His early filmography consisted of small, character studies of sorts, both shot in black and white, and edited at a leisurely pace to ensure maximum development of plot ideas and characters. Unfortunately, the people at Universal, and the film’s producers didn’t want slow, well developed ideas, and when Lynch turned in a first cut of nearly four hours, and explained that it would eventually be trimmed to three, they balked at the idea. Instead, they demanded a maximum of two hours and 17 minutes, and after scrambling to re-edit existing footage, and perform quick reshoots and audio mixing, that is exactly what Lynch and his creative team delivered.

Unfortunately, under those severe restrictions, Lynch was forced to cut out substantial portions of the film’s narrative, and with the lack of final cut privileges, was not totally in control of even the cut apart version of the film. It debuted in theaters in 1984 to tepid at best box office performance, and a slew of scathing reviews that essentially sunk the movie into the ground. Even as opinions on the film have softened throughout the years, Lynch considers it the only truly bad film he’s ever made, and has essentially disowned the film. Luckily for us, someone over at Universal must really have a passion for Lynch’s version of Dune, as it has been re-released many times over the years, including two Laserdisc releases, a slew of DVD releases, and now this Blu-ray edition. It has been expanded and re-edited over the years, and in the eyes of some, Dune is worth its weight in spice.

So, what is Dune exactly?

Dune, through the lens of Lynch, is the story of a man, who, against all odds, rises to the mantle of godhood in order to save the Galaxy from its overreliance on a spice known as mélange. The spice is used to expand consciousness and life itself, and is used by a select few to fold space itself, allowing for interstellar travel. At its surface, the story is about a growing feud for control of the planet that is the exclusive home of this spice, known casually as, “Dune.” The feud concerns 3 parties, House Atreides, House Harkkonen, and the regime of Emperor Shaddam IV. Through a series of events, House Atreides is given control of Dune for mining purposes, under the guidance of Duke Leto Atreides, and his son, Paul Atreides. Through means of deception, House Atreides is left vulnerable to an attack by the Harkkonens, and is essentially destroyed, leaving survivor Paul Atreides to rise up and lead the natives of Dune in an insurrection against House Harkkonen, and eventually the Emperor himself, in an epic battle that will decide the fate of the known universe.

And that’s just the abridged version of the story.

Dune is a massively ambitious sci-fi epic of sorts that is crippled not only by the studio’s restraints on Lynch, but David Lynch’s own brand of strangeness. For the most part, the film feels understandably rushed, with entire plot lines condensed to two or three shots, such as a romance between Paul Atreides and one of Dune’s natives, as well as the relevance of various side characters, such as the Emperor’s daughter Princess Irulan, who appears in only one scene, but delivers the exposition that sets up the entire story at the very beginning. Various character motivations are left somewhat unclear, such as that of the character that betrays House Atreides, and huge character arcs that should feel substantial and important just sort of end, such as that of Paul’s father, the Duke. On top of that, just short of a million concepts and ideas are tossed on the table, and explained in such a half-assed manner, that I’m certain that no amount of re-cutting or extending could create anything useful out of them.

But as I mentioned earlier, Lynch’s brand of strangeness somehow, through all of the mess that this movie is just from various plot threads and ideas, still manages to shine through. As if to disarm us intentionally, many of the film’s dialogue sequences feel awkward, and wooden. It feels like Lynch, in order to further obscure the film’s narrative, took the best takes and dumped them in the trash, favoring off putting performances and strange facial expressions that would probably be perfect for a Lynch directed feature about a small town with a dark secret, but don’t suit the style of movie he had been asked to make at all.

BUT. All is not totally lost. Where Lynch and his team dropped the ball in terms of making the film work in terms of plot at all, they managed to create one of the most visually interesting sci-fi worlds. The massive physical models of space craft, and the huge worms of Dune look incredible on the big screen. The sequence dedicated to visualizing the folding of space is one of the most trippy, and most visually distinct forms of space travel I have ever seen depicted on screen, taking nods from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with enough of a Lynch twist that it feels unique in its execution. With a use of fantastic wide shots of the drifts of the desert, as well as of other landscape exteriors depicted throughout the film, Dune feels alive, and massive.

Creature designs, costumes, and makeup are used to create a visually disgusting vision of the universe in the future. Instead of painting guys green and calling it a day, Lynch and his team designed mutants that are bulging with weird pieces of slimey and unappealing flesh, and created a villain of sorts, whose face is comprised mostly of oily burnt skin and terrible boils. The natives, for some reason, walk around sporting bright blue eyes, and although I cannot totally vouch for what they mean, it just looks fantastic, and sets them apart from the armies of other humans that exist on Dune.

And then, on top of that, we somehow go from amazing costumes and effects, to some of the cheapest B-movie effects I’ve ever seen. There are scenes in which black outlines are clearly visible surrounding characters composited against cheap backgrounds, and laser blast effects that are frankly, in a post-Star Wars Hollywood, embarrassing. At one point Paul leads the natives in a guerilla campaign against spice mining, in what is a definite nod of Lawrence of Arabia’s second half, but it ends up being almost hilarious in terms of the effects used to convey epic battles and huge explosions. These effects, and the weird score, which was a collaboration between artist Brain Eno, and 80s rock band Toto, give the film a, “so bad, it’s good,” sort of vibe. Typically, that vibe usually drives me away from a film, but especially when set in contrast to the otherwise excellent visuals and sound design, it just makes the production even more intriguing.

Dune starts off weird, and ends even weirder, as a low budget, and heavy studio restraints plus David Lynch’s style obscure what could otherwise be a convincing, and dare I say it – fun sci-fi adventure story. Featuring a fantastic cast featuring the likes of Kyle Maclachlan, Jose Ferrer, Patrick Stewart, Max von Sydow, Sean Young, and Francesca Annis, Dune is a strange case. I can smell the potential somewhere beneath the surface, and although I feel that the film is overall a worthy viewing, I have a tough time telling you that it’s actually any good. It’s one of those movies where you come for a sci-fi epic, but end up staying because you’re just trying to figure out where everything, frankly, went wrong.

The Video (2.5/5)

Dune was photographed primarily on 35mm using anamorphic Todd-AO lenses, which were a cheaper alternative to the prestigious Panavision lenses. Select visual effect sequences were shot using the Vistavision 35mm format, and inserted alongside the 35mm anamorphic footage for a theatrical presentation aspect ratio of 2.35:1. For this Blu-ray, the film is presented in 1080p, maintaining the original theatrical aspect ratio as intended.

Watching Dune on Blu-ray felt like I was watching a late 80s Laserdisc. Mostly likely using an older, DVD era scan of an interpositive element, the presentation is exactly that. No clean up, so color revitalization, just a straight dump of whatever completed version of the theatrical cut of the film that Universal had laying around ten or more years ago, which is usually what happened with the early Laserdisc presentations from major studios. Scratches, and various amounts of dirt and speckles are visible throughout the film’s presentation, typically becoming more aggressive during the film’s visual effect heavy sequences, but it starts as far back as the opening Universal logo, which generally doesn’t bode well for a 2010 Blu-ray.

On top of the damage, the transfer’s detail and overall sharpness is inconsistent at best. I know this is an 80s film, but we’ve seen better, more consistent presentations from that era – think Return of the Jedi, Star Trek II, and Blade Runner. Sometimes, the image is awash with natural grain, and then, in the next shot, there will be no grain whatsoever, which screams of an odd application of good ol’ DNR. Color is muted, which most likely is a source issue, but I’m sure with a fresh scan, we could get better contrast, and more consistent image quality. Will we ever get such a treatment? Most likely, the answer is a solid no. So, I guess we’re lucky that we have this transfer at all, even with its shortcomings.

The Audio (4/5)

Even with all of the signs of a flop in front of them, Universal gave Dune the star treatment, allotting it a small run of 70mm blow up prints. As a result, a 6 track magnetic Dolby Stereo surround soundtrack was created. That soundtrack has been approximated here in a 5.1 DTS-Master Audio surround sound presentation.

Dune, as a whole, actually sounds pretty good. Sounds pan across the sound stage as characters and ships move to and fro throughout the film. Dialogue is mixed well, but due to the complicated manner in which certain lines are laid on top of one another, it becomes a little chaotic in playback. Sub woofer activity is excellent, really lending some impact to the movement of spacecraft, and the large scale battles that take place close to the end of the film. Overall, I was pleased with the audio presentation on this Blu-ray.

Special Features/Packaging (1/5)

Dune, released to Blu-ray by Universal Home Video, is packaged in a standard blue keepcase. The front artwork eschews using the film’s theatrical artwork, in favor of artwork used to present the film’s Extended Edition on DVD, and is in essence a recycle. The back artwork features a few sequences from the film composited together, paired with a paragraph about the film, a list of special features, technical specifications, and theatrical credits. Nothing particularly inspiring here, but considering that it isn’t exactly a big release from Universal, it is to be expected.

Onto the disc’s special features, which are recycled from previous DVD editions:

Deleted Scenes – a selection of deleted scenes, introduced by producer Raffaella De Laurentis. Nearly fifteen minute of footage, in various shapes, that was cut from the finished film.

Designing Dune – a nine minute feature, which dives into the way that the various props and sets were designed by a massive, multi cultural art department.

Dune FX – a 6 minute piece, in which the effects team breaks down how they created the composites, various flying effects, and explosive effects for the film.

Dune Models & Miniatures – A seven minute clip which details the construction and design of the various model and miniatures used to create the world of Dune.

Dune Wardrobe Design – a five minute clip, in which crew members talk about designing the massive number of costumes used to create Dune.

Overall, with a full set of recycled extras, as well as packaging artwork, Dune falls short of being any sort of definitive release in terms of packaging and special features.

Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)

Video

Codec: VC1

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Audio

DTS-Master Audio 5.1 (English)

DTS-HD 2.0 (French)

Subtitles

English SDH

French

Spanish

Overall (2.5/5)

Dune is a tough movie to tackle. It’s strange, and more or less unfinished. It falls into the, “king of everything, master of none,” style of filmmaking, which forced the studio to try and reign it in unsuccessfully. It didn’t work too well for Universal in 1984, and that kind of intrusive filmmaking has similar effects today – just look at either of two recent DC films. And yet, for all of its shortcomings, it presents a fascinating world, with grandiose visual effects and creature design, that make it an absolute feast for the eyes. It stands rightfully at the bottom of David Lynch’s filmography, and serves as an interesting jumping off point for this series that highlights the Blu-ray releases of Lynch’s films. With an unimpressive visual transfer, a standard audio presentation, and weak packaging and features, Dune is a pretty tough recommendation for acquisition on Blu-ray. I’ll mark this one with a resounding, “for fans only.”