What's most often said in relation to Dune is that David Lynch passed up the chance to direct Return Of The Jedi in favour of collaborating with Dino De Laurentiis on this adaptation of Frank Herbert's Hugo-award winning novel. What appears to be implied in this statement, accepting that Dune is one of Hollywood's most notable financial failures, is that Lynch was remarkably foolish - his turning down a chance to direct a blockbuster for Lucasfilm surely closed the door that would have led to greater financial success and not to Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Dr. - but it's one of Hollywood's great what-ifs. Would Lynch have steered away from the stories of Frank, Sailor and Lula and Laura Palmer once he'd enjoyed the rattle of a box office take somewhere north of $500m? Would the Star Wars films and Lucasfilm have survived a dose of Lynch's skewed vision or, indeed, would either Lucas or Lynch have enjoyed the experience?
But, of course, there's no way of knowing - both Lucas and Lynch steered away from one another, one to the safety of Richard Marquand whilst the other was greeted by the maverick producer Dino De Laurentiis who trusted Lynch to deliver where Alejandro Jodorowsky, in 1975, had not. The association of Jodorowsky and Dune is, in itself, another great what-if. Jodorowsky was then famous for such cryptic masterpieces as El Topo and Holy Mountain and whilst the talk was of a ten-hour production featuring a soundtrack from Pink Floyd and contributions from Salvador Dali, the production was abandoned before shooting got underway, not being revived until the success of Star Wars ushered science-fiction in, once again, as the public's genre of choice.
Star Wars and Dune could scarcely be more different, though, despite George Lucas taking his riotously entertaining Episode IV into the epic story of the fall of Anakin Skywalker and his later redemption. Star Wars, although it concerns the Jedi, the Sith, the fall of the Republic, the rise of the Empire and the power of the Skywalkers to bring balance to the universe, it is as nothing when compared to Frank Herbert's tale of the Imperial House Corrino and of Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen. The prologue to Dune explains this somewhat, with Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) offering us a back story that only hints at the complexities of a known universe that depends on the spice melange. Widely used to extend the life of those who partake of it, melange is also vital to the functioning of the Spacing Guild, which, by their monopoly on space travel, effectively control the universe. It is also used by the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood to give them the powers of foresight and of telepathy and they had longed planned to unite the Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen by marrying a daughter of Atreides and a son of Harkonnen. They were, however, were prevented in this by Lady Jessica Atreides, herself a member of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, bearing a son to her husband, Duke Leto Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow), who they name Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan). The concern over this spice is that it is found on only one planet, Arrakis, also known as Dune.
As the prologue ends, Dune cuts to the throne room of Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer), who is receiving a Third Stage Navigator from the Spacing Guild - a creature who was once human but who has been mutated through 4,000 years of spice use - who is concerned at the rumours circulating throughout the planets at news of the House of Atreides being granted stewardship of Arrakis by the Imperial House Corrino. As explained by the Emperor, though, this is but a plan to rid the universe of the House of Atreides, whose ruler, Duke Leto Atreides, the emperor has come to see as a threat. Atreides will indeed be granted stewardship of Arrakis but will be destroyed in a sneak attack by the House of Harkonnen, which is under the command of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) and his nephews The Beast Rabban (Paul L. Smith) and Feyd-Rautha (Sting).
At first, everything goes according to the Emperor's plan - the House of Atreides do indeed take over Arrakis and Dr. Kynes (Max von Sydow), who has lived on Arrakis under the rule of those who have sought to control spice production for many years, is impressed by Duke Leto Atreides' stewardship of the planet. On a flight out to the desert to see a melange harvester in operation, they see it attacked by a worm and the duke puts his own life in danger to save the men working on board the harvester. As Dr. Kynes explains, these worms, the only native creature on Arrakis, are also its greatest threat, being drawn to attack by the rhythms of the harvesters.
But as well-intentioned as the rule of the House of Atreides is, they are betrayed from within by a Harkonnen spy who has sabotaged the shields on the planet's administrative and martial installations. As the Harkonnen's forces take over Arrakis - actually being Imperial Sardaukar troops disguised as Harkonnen - they wipe out any Atreides warriors that remain. Leaving the city of Arrakeen behind, Paul Atreides is forced out into the desert along with his mother where, after escaping from an attack by a worm, they take shelter with the Fremen, a native band of warriors who live in the desert, worship the sand worms and have long waited the arrival of the Muad'Dib, a prophet who would lead an uprising against those who seek to oppress the Fremen, which now includes all those who control the universe - the Harkonnen, the Imperial House Corrino and the Spacing Guild, who insist that, above all else, "the spice must flow!"
Some, if not all, of the above may be very confusing indeed. Not even a viewing of the film will help given that the Theatrical Version of the film comes with a rather substantial prologue whilst the Extended Edition comes with an even lengthier introduction, neither of which make a great deal of sense. Both, for example, make reference to the Navigators of the Spacing Guild but it's necessary to watch the film to not only identify one but to understand what the film means by folding space. Indeed, the prologue that opens the Extended Edition tends to make the film that follows it even more confusing with it mentioning the Mentats and the use of robots that led to the Butlerian Jihad, neither of which are mentioned from that point on. Even when the prologues end - some eight minutes after the Extended Edition of the film opens - and the delegation from the Spacing Guild arrive to speak of their concerns to the Emperor, there isn't much that makes a great deal of sense on a single viewing. There are multiple voiceovers, for example, certain characters have telepathic powers whilst some do not, there are flashbacks and premonitions whilst even the most lateral of thinkers will be troubled by the various leaps between the Houses, Guilds and planets that exist within the Dune universe. So confusing is this that we look for meaning and for importance when none exists, such as with the mention of Ix by the Third Stage Navigator of the Spacing Guild when, in fact, it has little relevance to the film.
But none of this is to say that it's a particularly bad film. Indeed, I actually like it a great deal, finding that it's a good companion piece to two other wonderfully ambitious science-fiction films - Solaris (Tarkovsky's original, not the Soderbergh remake, who doesn't appear to have the heart for the story) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. What these three films share is a future where space travel is not the preserve of smugglers or maverick pilots but of great starships, even greater beaurocracies and of a belief that world governments or Spacing Guilds will be all that is capable of sustaining trading lanes and military accomplishments in space. Neither film suggests than a willing everyman will find a place amongst the stars, more that it will be permitted to the very few and that those few will carry out the most remarkable of acts. What, in summary, they share is a sense of space travel being majestic, as wonderful as the flight from Earth to Solaris, as remarkable and as beautiful as Spock's solo excursion into the cloud that surrounds V'ger and as otherworldly as the voyage of the House of Atreides to Arrakis. Where a blockbuster such as Star Wars treats the jump to Hyperspace as an everyday occurrence, which, granted, it may well be, Dune gives it a kind of reverence with a Third Stage Navigator folding space between Caladan and Arrakis. Even when Paul Atreides arrives on Arrakis and gets to see his first worm, the film understands that to see an alien creature such as this ought to be one that stuns the viewer and so it is, with the worm rising majestically from the sand to swallow whole a spice harvester. It may be done by using miniatures but it looks so convincing that it's a standout moment in a film that typically looks great throughout.
And yet there are problems with it. In face, I would say - and I apologise to fans of Dune for mention of this film - that the film that it bears closest comparison to is Battlefield Earth. I've read as much L Ron Hubbard as I've read Frank Herbert - none, in other words - but both film adaptations were somewhat mystifying as to why there's such a strength of cult around them, whilst both were comparatively successful with critics and audiences alike. In the case of Battlefield Earth, this is a literal cult being that of Scientology but I cannot be the only viewer of that film left baffled by the association between a religion that has snared half of Hollywood and the sight of a be-dreadlocked John Travolta wearing platform boots. Battlefield Earth wouldn't inspire this viewer to change channels on a remote control never mind join the cult of Scientology and I had a similar feeling whilst watching Dune, that had this film arrived before the novels then there might not have been such widespread devotion to the comings and goings on Arrakis. At times, this film is so impenetrable on a first viewing that one has not the faintest idea what is happening and the confusing prologues help little. Really, Dune requires at least a second watch, better a third or fourth with which to understand it all but even then, you may come away from it utterly lost amongst mentions of the Weirding Way, Harkonnens, Atreides, the various voiceovers and how Paul is both Muad'dib and the Kwisatz Haderach.
Though, as I've suggested throughout, I'm not impartial to a piece of impenetrable filmmaking and would say that Dune works well as a film, often in the same way as did Blade Runner. We tend to forget that Blade Runner, the original cut at least, confused the viewer with the number of replicants that were said to be on Earth, of mentions of off-world colonies that remained unseen and of a detective who did not detecting. Although the Director's Cut did go some distance to rectifying this, it brought with it some confusion of its own. Blade Runner did, though, look terrific and works very well as a piece of visual cinema with which to impress the viewer. I would say much the same of Dune - it is really not the most coherent of stories as adapted here but it looks wonderful and excepting the occasionally piece of less-than-special effects - the fighting hardware used by Paul Atreides is actually less convincing than had they simply dangled a shop dummy by the neck from his ceiling - it remains a remarkable vision of the Dune universe from one of cinema's greatest visual artists.
Finally, what of the Extended Edition. If you're one of those coming to his review with the free DVD as included with a January issue of The Observer, you have the Theatrical Cut, which runs to 137-minutes and which is included here on one side of the DVD-18. The Extended Edition is a 177-minute edit of the Alan Smithee version of the film, which ran close to 190-minutes and what they share is the alternative prologue and the same haphazard approach to the structuring of the film. There's rarely the impression of entirely new scenes being added, more that scenes from the Theatrical Version go on that little bit longer and over the length of the entire film, some forty minutes has been added. The prologue in the Extended Edition is a great deal longer than that of the Theatrical Version and there's some duplication of footage. The tram, or at least what looks like a tram, that carries Piter De Vries (Brad Dourif) to a meeting with Baron Harkonnen arrives twice in the film, once he gets out whilst, in the other, he doesn't. There is, therefore, a certain sloppiness to the Extended Edition that isn't in Lynch's cut of the film and why I tend to prefer the shorter cut over the other. For all the extra length, there is not that much more logic to the Extended Edition than there is to the Theatrical Version as the feeling remains that Alejandro Jodorowsky may have been right all along and that ten hours or so may have been necessary to properly tell the story of Dune.
In 1984, though, a ten-hour science-fiction film would not have been the kind of thought that would have been entertained by any film production company, least not one that wanted to remain around to see 1985. Post-Lord Of The Rings, where an audience is prepared to wait for three years to see the completion of a fantasy film that, in its theatrical versions, is over nine hours in length, Dune may well be revisited but I sense that the smell of failure is still strong about it even more than twenty years on. This Extended Edition does nothing to rehabilitate Dune, being no more coherent than the rather unloved original cut of the film but for that, it's still a remarkable piece of science-fiction and a glorious vision of the Dune universe.
You only have to look at occasional showings of Dune on television to see what this could have looked like - washed out colours, heavy print damage and a jittery image that refuses to remain still - but although there is clearly a considerable amount of remastering, there are also some obvious spots and stray lines in the picture. There's never enough to distract from one's enjoyment of the film as, otherwise, it's good with the colours looking right, the picture sharp but not too sharp and good levels of brightness and contrast. There isn't much to compare between the Theatrical Version and the Extended Edition as these screenshots prove:
Unfortunately, there does appear to be a problem with the DVD-18 that was used for this release with it giving me problems on a pair of standalone Pioneer players (an 868 and a 636) as well as on a PC with an NEC DVD drive and PowerDVD XP. All the problems seem to occur soon after Paul Atreides was driven into the desert, around about the layer change but which continued well into the second half of the film. I have, however, read forums comments from people who have had no problems but you may wish to tread carefully on this one.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks are good on both but better on the Theatrical Version with it making much more prominent use of all six channels as opposed to the occasional burst of noise from the rears as used on the Extended Edition. In either case, the audio tracks sound good with a good response to the score by Toto - yes, indeed...I too find it hard to believe that I'm writing those words - and with the dialogue presented well within the mix.
Of course, the main disappointment about Dune is that David Lynch no longer talks about it, saying that he has blocked that time from his mind. There is, therefore, no commentary and no contributions from him at all other than archive shots of him during principal photography. What we have, then, amounts to the following:
Deleted Scenes (17m18s): Introduced by Rafaella De Laurentiis, who begins by talking of the rumoured 4hr20m cut of Dune before saying that it was not one that Lynch was prepared to release, this goes on to present a selection of scenes that were cut from the Theatrical Release and which remain excised from the Extended Edition. None of them add a great deal to the story, being more the kind of material that would have increased the length of the film a great deal without actually making any more sense of it. There is, for example, another few minutes of Virginia Madsen's prologue in here as well as much more of the experiences of the Fremen and of Paul Atreides after he drank the water of life but neither these nor any of the others would have worked particularly well had they been cut back into the main film other than the death of Thufir Hawat (Freddie Jones).
Designing Dune (8m54s): There's no mention of Production Designer Anthony Masters still being alive or not but his son, Giles Masters, is the major contributor here, talking about how his father worked closely with Lynch to develop a design for the film that was not only functional but which reflected the different histories of each of the four planets - Arrakis, Caladan, Giedi Prime and Kaitain. There's a little bit of archive footage but, otherwise, it's all up to date with interviews from those who worked on the project.
Special Effects (6m01s): Kit West, Trevor Wood, Rodney Fuller, Gary Zink and John Baker, all of whom had some involvement with the special effects in the film, are interviewed for this feature discussing the various effects from producing black smoke (burning tyres) to the rather wobbly fighting robot used by Paul Atreides in his training.
Models And Miniatures (7m02s): When Golda Offenheim, a dear old woman who bears a little resemblance to Margaret Thatcher but who was the Production Coordinator on Dune asks, "We're not going to discuss worms, are we?", you know that she's going to be disappointed. Amongst many great uses of miniatures in the film, the worms are amongst the best and never better than when they're first sighted attacking the spice harvester.
Wardrobe Design (4m50s): Costume Designers Bob Ringwood and Debbie Phipps are interviewed here and they're both very good, praising their work but at the same time bemoaning how various garments never made it into the finished film. The best moment is their story of finding the costumes for the Spacing Guild from a collection of body bags found during the knocking down of an old Fire Department building.
Finally, there's 100 still images in a Production Gallery, being behind-the-scenes shots and production designs, as well as Production Notes, which are several pages of text that never get to the detail in what was, by any standard, a long production. There are no special features on the Extended Edition side of the disc.
I can't help but think that Colin had a release like this in mind when he wrote his recent blog on extended editions. Here's a film that the director agreed a cut on but which, through rumours of a longer cut, makes it to DVD with a less-impressive re-edit by the now-retired Alan Smithee. I can see how this Extended Edition might well be an unloved thing - it's a ramshackle edit of a film that was briskly paced to begin with and with the hand of Rafaella De Laurentiis rather than that of David Lynch. And yet, it's Dune and is likely to be greeted warmly by those with a particular bent towards Herbert's work. Anyone else, though, might want to take care - it's a superb piece of visual art but the story is something that you'll have to work at but then, is that an uncommon thing to say about a David Lynch film? Dune may be a more typical Lynch film than the director may care to admit.