For one thing, Dune's dense, intricately structured narrative is consistently captivating. It brings to life a believable vision of the far future (perhaps the only believable one I have encountered in film, I might add) and reveals the concerns and troubles of the powerful elites of this universe. The viewer is so sure to find himself immersed in the schemes and passions of feuding aristocratic houses caught up in a web of politics, contending interests, secret agendas, and grand ambitions. As wonderful as this vision is, however, it is is not sustained until the end of the film. Instead, it gives way to a new vision, that of the arising of a messiah who wrecks this structure and brings in something new, who, in other words, transforms the universe. This change of emphasis is, consequently, not a weakness. The details of the first part of the film give those of the second a greater poignancy and allow the moviegoer to feel a genuine sense of awe, a sense that he is seeing tremendous events, and to allow him to taste the terrible, world-destroying heroism of the protagonist.
Most films either present the viewer with a narrative that is so simple it is idiotic or one that, trying to be complex, is, instead, nonsensical. Lynch, however, has crafted an ornate tale filled with intrigue which demands that the viewer make use of his intelligence if he desires to follow it. While he does present a substantial amount of information about his fictional world, rather than relying exclusively on exposition to reveal this, Lynch often allows reactions, implications, and the like to do so. We are thus, for example, allowed to understand the relationships existing between the Guild and the emperor without these actually ever being stated.
Fortunately, such narrative virtues are complemented by the film's other admirable qualities. The movie's sets and costumes, as much as its story and dialogue, conjure up a fascinating future. Instead of the dull white corridors, shining metal fixtures, and generic skyscrapers that so many unimaginative people seem to find futuristic, Lynch has placed his characters in lavish, gilt throne rooms, in the dark hallways and wood panelled chambers of well guarded, labyrinthine palaces, in weird, factory-like hells, and in various other distinctive locales. I should, moreover, add that the sets used for each of the movie's cultures are stylistically different from those used for the others, as are the costumes worn by the persons belonging to each of those cultures. Lynch has, in this way, created a sense that, while there is a unity to the movie's universe, particular areas each have their distinctiveness, their own sets of aesthetic ideals. Lynch may not be the only director who has had such a vision, but, as he is one of the few who has been able to develop such a vision successfully, he does deserve some credit for his work here.
What is more, this beautifully envisioned universe is peopled with an endless number of well realized characters, virtually all of whom are skillfully portrayed by the actors appearing in the movie.
As he often does, Lynch has created a truly monstrous and absolutely delightful villain. Instead of merely thrusting a dull reflection of some ordinary person living in our own reality into his story, the director has, with the Baron Harkonnen, conjured up a wildly exaggerated, utterly horrific monstrosity, who is more like a caricature from a medieval painting than he is like a living being. The baron is a cackling, howling, grossly fat creature, who is covered with enormous boils and floats through the air. He really is horribly repulsive and a consistent joy to watch.
Lynch's portrayal of his protagonist is, fortunately, just as good. He successfully evokes a sense of Paul's messianic heroism. The character has real charisma, the kind that seems capable of motivating men to perform great deeds, and he has a mysteriousness that hints at the presence of great depths below the surface of his being. He is, however, far more than this. Over the course of the movie, the hero emerges as a powerful individual who acts cruelly, defies morality, and rejoices in violence. Seeing such actions, the viewer is made to savor the intense pleasures of savagery and conflict. In fact, by drawing the moviegoer into a brutal world, where he is infused with all the passions of its war-like denizens, Dune reveals to him something liminal, something truly distinctive in Paul's nature, something which raises him above his fellows.
Even the movie's supporting characters are nicely delineated and skillfully portrayed. Alicia Witt is eerie as Paul's weirdly precocious, half supernatural sister, Alia. Max von Sydow has a serene yet harsh dignity as Dr. Kynes, an imperial ecologist who has gone native. Sting brings a delicious animal vitality and human cruelty to his depiction of the baron's nephew, Feyd-Rautha, and José Ferrer is utterly believable as Emperor Shaddam IV, the ruler of the known universe. If I mention only a few of the actors here, it is not because their fellows are inferior, however. There is hardly a performance in the movie that is not entrancing.
As numerous as are its virtues, Dune is, however, deeply flawed. The worst of its shortcomings is, undoubtedly, the introduction of a number of details that are never explained. The director, for example, repeatedly depicts Paul in the company of two young boys, but fails to reveal who these children are. The Water of Life, which plays a significant role in the development of Paul's powers, remains vaguely described, and the last quarter minute of the film is so incomprehensible it is something of a let down. Such flaws do compromise Dune, but, I must emphasize, they do not ruin it.
I say this with the awareness that many reviewers have strongly disliked the film. One particularly well known critic, for instance, has even described Dune as being a mess and has claimed that its characters spend their time speaking dialogue without any context being given for it. I can only assume that this person, distracted by munching on his popcorn or scooping up mustard that had dribbled onto his clothing from the hot dog thrust between his lips, was not paying attention to what was happening on the screen in front of his eyes. I do understand that most movies make few intellectual demands on the viewer, that a complex cinematic plot is still one a ten year old can follow, but that does not mean that more intricate, tightly structured stories should not be aimed for. Complexity does necessarily limit a film's audience, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
In spite of its occasional shortcomings, Dune is amongst the best science fiction films I have encountered. It is, without a doubt, the most ambitious, and, even though it may not achieve all its promise, it is still a pleasure to watch.
Review by Keith Allen
© 2007 firstname.lastname@example.org Keith Allen. All rights reserved.