Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Two (Movie) Versions of Dune

Frank Herbert's book Dune has been filmed twice: once by David Lynch and the other time by the SciFi Channel (now SyFy because they're embarrassed that play science fiction, but they're not embarrassed to have professional wrestling). Both movies would be effective tools for teaching the book Dune but they have their strengths and weaknesses.

David Lynch's Dune has a baroque visual style that's very compelling. Every scene looks opulent in some way, either with decoration, costuming or architecture. Many scenes feel rusty and gritty, as if the entire future were powered by high-tech steam. As well, the special effects hold up well for model audiences, mostly. There are some moments of cheesy blue-screening but the model effects with the gigantic sand worms are spectacular.

This movie also has a terrific, charismatic cast. Kyle MacLechlan as Paul Atreides is stiff, but he carries the gravity of the movie effectively. Jürgen Prochnow as Duke Leto Atreides, Paul's father, is charismatic and convincing as a man who might one day challenge the Emperor of the galaxy for supremacy. In smaller roles, Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard!), Brad Dourif, José Ferrer, Freddie Jones, and Sian Phillips are effective.

This movie falls down for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's incoherent at times. Dune is a sprawling, epic book that has many subplots (“plans within plans”) which are difficult to bring across in a two-hour movie. David Lynch has his characters say cryptic sentences to bring the plot along, but they end up sounding pretentious. As well, David Lynch adds at least one new idea to the book, changing the fighting styles of Duke Leto's forces and the Fremen from a futuristic martial art to a new system of weaponry based on sound. It's actually an interesting idea, and it makes for some cool growling on-camera, but it's a distracting change.

The next issue is, to me, just as distracting. Duke Leto's adversary, the Baron Harkonnen, is played by Kenneth McMillan as a raving psychotic. He's deformed, perverted, and monomaniacal. (I actually don't blame the actor here: the fault lies in David Lynch's direction.) This baron is simply too insane to be a formidable enemy to the obviously cool-headed and intelligent Duke Leto. This distorted portrayal of the Baron is simply depraved, and David Lynch takes this depravity to levels that are completely inappropriate. While the book does make clear that the Baron is a homosexual (for Frank Herbert that's a reasonable justification for his evil) and fat, he's also a brilliant schemer. The movie Baron's two nephews, the Beast Rabban and Feyd Rautha (played distractingly by the singer Sting), serve as little more than nutty accomplices.

This said, the movie is a lot of fun. For a teacher interested in teaching the book, this movie would be effective for it's excellent sense of visual geography. Each planet looks very different. As well, the performances carry the sometimes fragmented script to a satisfying conclusion.

The SciFi Channel version of Dune is an entirely different beast. (Get it? Like the “Beast” Rabban? Oh, never mind.) It's a six-hour miniseries, not a two-hour movie. This gives the movie far more time to take in the sprawling plot, and, to my money, does a far better job. You get the story. There are no leaps of understanding necessary to understand what's going on.

Where the miniseries falls down is in the acting. Duke Leto is played by William Hurt, whose a fine actor but not at all charismatic in the way Duke Leto should be. Instead this Duke seems to mope from scene to scene, as if he's already anticipated his own death and is going through the motions. Paul is played by Alec Newman, a relatively unknown actor who doesn't quite have the gravity to carry his role of savior of the planet Arrakis. Surprisingly, the portrayal of Baron Harkonnen by Ian McNeice is very effective. He plays the villain in an understated, intelligent way that makes the Baron seem like a real threat, not just a dangerous maniac. As well, I liked the plucky actress Julie Cox who played the Princess Irulan. She was intelligent and scheming, just as a person at her level should be.

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