REVIEWS by SULLYDOG
a Film by John Harrison
Sullydog belongs to that minority of souls who believe that, for all its failures and excesses, David Lynchs 1984 cinematic adaptation of Dune took more of a beating than it deserved. Yes, it tackled too much story for a 2-and-a-half-hour movie. Yes, it was by turns gratuitous and patronizing. It was, as Lynch himself said, a gorgeous mess. But it was gorgeous, and rather unlike anything wed ever seen on the screen. The film was well-cast, and if the performances werent brilliant, they were nevertheless engaging. It had the mixed virtue of being funky. If nothing else, Lynchs Dune had an inimitable flavor.
But for all that, the dish never quite gelled. And when you take on something like Dune and fail, people are unforgiving. The worst thing about Lynchs Dune was that it fostered the suspicion that perhaps Frank Herberts masterpiece simply wouldnt translate to the screen. Certainly, anybody who tried again would have to at least make it past the bar set in 1984. But there was hope that a miniseries might make the gradeif anybody dared to try.
Well, those of you who think any attempt to make Dune into a decent movie is doomed to failure can now bolster your argument by pointing to the Sci-Fi Channels new miniseries, a half-hearted attempt that makes Lynchs work look downright masterful. Mr. John Harrison, who adapted and directed this version, has virtually insured that nobody will try again for another sixteen years. Thanks, pal.
Production values? Splendid, mostly. Oh, yes, money was spent. CGI people were employed. Artists and set designers had lots to do. A frustrated butterfly collector was brought on as costume designer. And yet, aside from the painful image of the Princess Irulan showing up for dinner with a bunch of dead bugs pasted to her gown, there is absolutely nothing new here. Nobody had the daring to bring a new vision of Shai-Hulud to the screen, a new take on the stillsuit, a fresh look at ornithopters or shield fighting or the spice trance. Technically, its all beautifully rendered, but familiar to the point of being drearya rehash of images from 70s Dune calendars, Dune picture books, and yes, Lynchs Dune. Here is one way in which the makers of SFCs Dune, like Lynch, might have put their stamp on the story and made it their own. But the images offered here, as pretty as they are, show us nothing new.
And they certainly dont compensate for the lousy direction and soporific performances. Hey, Bill Hurt! Wake up! The Duke is soft-spoken, not narcoleptic! Youd think the guy with top billing for this turkey might have tried to set the standard. But Hurts snoring on the set, and it looks like hes got the other performers yawning, just from watching him. Dune is a story about passionate, intelligent, extraordinarily dangerous people caught up in a time of great risk and turmoil. Herbert milked the story for all it was worth, filling his novel with moments of deep emotion and incredible tension. Lynch was able to tap into some of that drama, but Harrison and his actors apparently didnt think we could handle all that stress. The direction is .. well, directionless. The performances are bloodless, stilted, completely without passion or humor. In the second instalment, Chani weeps over the loss of her father, Liet Kynes, and for a moment Sullydog thought he felt something. But the moment passed, and it was back to sleep. These people arent taking the Spicetheyre all on Valium.
If Harrison lacks vision, or an understanding of dramatic tension and pacing, or the very elementary knowledge that performers should be encouraged to perform...well, those are simply shortcomings. But Harrisons greatest sin is no mere act of omission. Harrison thinks he can tell the story of Dune better than Herbert himself. If youre going to indulge this kind of arrogance, youd damn well better be right.
Harrison is wrong. His rewrite doesnt just massacre Herberts beautiful language and powerful dialog. It breaks the very backbone of the story. Why is Paul portrayed as a surly, undisciplined rich kid? What the hell is Irulan doing on Arrakis (wearing a butterfly collection, for God's sake!) before the uprising? Why do they think they have to call it a "Congress" instead of a Landsraad? Why, despite all the inept and irrelevant exposition, does Harrison leave out the most critical information about this universe--that after the Butlerian Jihad against artificial intelligence, humans evolved along three cognitive pathways: the Guild, the Bene Gesserit and the Mentats? That the universe is ripe for a great, violent remixing of genes led by a new kind of human who encompasses all three?
Answer: they think we're too stupid and shallow--just as they think we're too vapid and dull-witted to notice the rudderless direction and lackluster performances. They think they can show us spaceships and sandworms and we'll go "ooooh! aaaah!" and not notice that they've marred one of the supreme accomplishments of the human imagination. Or perhaps they dont care what we think.
Im still hopeful that someday Dune will get the film treatment it deserves. The way Sullydog sees it, neither Lynch, who failed with a flourish, nor Harrison, who has simply failed, can plead unfilmability. If David Lean can make Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, if Bernardo Bertolucci can make The Last Emperor, and if Richard Attenborough can make Ghandi, then I believe it is possible to make a film that captures the sweep, the power, and the beautiful ideas encompassed by Dune. Mr. John Harrison hasnt done that. Im not even sure he really tried.
Frank Herbert on Zoloft. Sullydog does not approve.