I once had a big fight with a friend over what should be the cinematic definition of weirdness. My argument was that as soon as a filmmaker attempts to act weird, it all falls apart. To be a genuine oddball, he or she must so believe in their own strangeness that, for them, it is commonplace and ordinary. Just as true camp is the result of failed seriousness, I believe the same principal holds for true weirdness. Once it's self-aware, it just becomes pathetic and desperate.
David Lynch is truly weird. And I mean that as a compliment. I honestly believe he does not view any of his films, nor his perceptions and attitudes, as unusual. To him, they are perfectly normal, despite what most others may say. Even if I can't comprehend a tenth of the surreal imagery and narrative cul-de-sacs in his movies, he believes in them, and so innately they make some twisted sort of sense.
It's appropriate, then, that Lynch may have been the only director daring enough (or foolish enough) to take on a film adaptation of Frank Herbert's 'Dune.' Originally published in 1965, it became so legendary an epic of sci-fi that spawned five literary sequels, and the passion of its devoted following has trailed only 'Star Wars' and 'Lord of the Rings' in rabid fandom. So back in 1984 when 'Dune' was finally released theatrically, expectations were extremely high. With Lynch at the helm, many expected the kind a rapturous, visionary, sci-fi masterpiece to rival Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' -- Anything less would be unacceptable.
Unfortunately for all involved, 'Dune' pretty much became the new 'Plan 9 From Outer Space.' An instant camp classic, Lynch's 'Dune' is truly out-of-this-world, though perhaps not in the way intended.
To be fair, the film has been seen several different versions over the years, which hasn't helped to inspire favorable reactions. Though it is reported that Lynch originally intended the film to be about three hours long, he ultimately approved a 137 minute version for theatrical release. Four other versions of the film would ultimately see the light of day, including a 189-minute version that was recut by the studio for television, and disowned by Lynch (who had his name removed from the credits and replaced by "Alan Smithee"). It is the Lynch-approved theatrical version that appears on this HD DVD.
I've seen both the theatrical cut and the 189-minute "Alan Smithee" version, 'Dune' and watching the original cut again for this review, I have to say I find all versions unsatisfying. Lynch is indeed a visionary director -- some of the images in 'Dune' are among the most original and memorable of any he has committed to celluloid. But structurally, I think the Sci-Fi Channel had the right idea when they turned 'Dune' into a television mini-series in 2000. Herbert's sprawling narrative is just too dense and complex to work as a feature film. Lynch gives us some startling sequences, but quite frankly, his version of 'Dune' is a complete mess as a story.
It is easy to see why so many find 'Dune' funny. It is relentlessly serious. Herbert's story worked well as a book, where exposition on the page combined with the reader's ability to use their imagination to fill in the visuals, helped transform even the silliest of ideas into genius. But onscreen, it is hard not to giggle at giant worms floating through space, Kyle MacLachlan fighting Patrick "I'm not Picard!" Stewart inside animated Rubik's Cubes, and a near-naked Sting in spandex. And the dialogue -- woof! Again, the endless speeches and pontificating took on a form of grandeur in Herbert's book, but here it just feels like painful exposition. Even some last-minute narration by a young Virginia Madsen does little to help clarify the nearly incomprehensible plot; next to Harrison Ford's tacked-on overdubs in the botched theatrical cut of 'Blade Runner,' it is probably the worst narration ever heard in a sci-fi flick.
Ultimately, there is little real heat or tension in Lynch's 'Dune' -- so much time is spent setting up the world and its characters that scenes never get to live and breathe. Dramatically inert and emotionally sterile, nothing feels organic. 'Dune' is a beautiful sight to behold, but hard to care about.
Somehow, despite all that, I still find myself recommending that uninitiated sci-fi fans check out the film. Unintentional laughs aside, it has its plusses -- the optical effects hold up nicely, some of the action scenes are cool, and the visuals are, again, fantastic. Lastly, it has a great cast -- perhaps the best ever assembled for such a film (in addition to MacLachlan, Stewart, Sting and Madsen, watch for Brad Dourif, Sean Young, Linda Hunt, Jurgen Prochnow and Max Von Sydow). 'Dune' may be a catastrophe, but it is, in its own way, a noble one. Unusual, daring and inventive, despite any failings, 'Dune' remains an intriguing footnote in the history of the genre.
'Dune' is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1 video, and I was quite pleasantly surprised with the results. I'd only seen the old barebones DVD release and various television airings of the film, and they were all pretty piss poor. But this newly-remastered transfer (minted from the same master used for the standard-def DVD reissue released earlier this year) is generally excellent.
The source material has been very nicely spiffed up. Blacks are very consistent. Grain is surprisingly minimal for a film now two decades old. Yes, the film is filled with optical effects, so grain is exacerbated during these scenes, and contrast sometimes wavers. But it is not nearly as bad as most of effects-heavy catalog remasters from this period that I've seen. Colors are also far more luxurious than past video transfers. Where before the film's color palette seemed to only have two shades -- brown and browner -- now golds, reds and especially greens really come to life. Detail also excels for a film of this vintage. Non-matte shots have a depth and clarity that reveals subtleties previously lost -- the costume and production design in particular greatly benefit from the increased resolution. 'Dune' may not be a great film, but this HD DVD goes a long way in making the case that it is a visual masterpiece.
'Dune' on HD DVD features a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (encoded at 1.5mbps), but unfortunately I wasn't as blown away by the audio. It is a perfectly fine mix to be sure, just a bit dated and lacking in surround action.
Tech specs are up to snuff -- the elements have either been nicely preserved or newly cleaned-up (or both). Dialogue is quite clear and intelligible, which wasn't a strong suit of previous video versions. Overall dynamic range is quite robust, with a nice warm quality to the high-end and fairly punchy low bass. Alas, I just didn't get much in the way of atmosphere. Even the rather baroque score by Toto (yes, Toto!) didn't swell up in the rears the way I had hoped it would. Sure, there are a few discrete sounds here and there, but they are surprisingly sporadic. But bottom line, as I mentioned above, 'Dune' sounds perfectly fine -- especially for a film of its age.
Since David Lynch has largely eschewed supplemental features on most of the DVDs of his films, it should come as no surprise that he made no exception for 'Dune.' But Universal was able to craft a pretty good special edition DVD release for the film anyway. Though lacking Lynch, a nice assortment of featurettes were assembled, with participation from Producer Rafaella De Laurentiis, as well as what seems like every member of the production crew, including conceptual illustrator Ron Miller (the cast either declined to take part en masse, or weren't asked to).
Most interesting (to me) was "Deleted 'Dune.'" An assemblage of excised footage that was not all later reintegrated into the dreaded 180-minute "Alan Smithee" version of 'Dune,' Rafaella De Laurentiis offers a much-needed introduction on why the material was snipped. Amid fears that the film would be far too long and convoluted, Lynch chopped out a large chunk of material, then shot one new scene to replace it and bridge continuity. The footage itself is presented in only 480i video, and windowboxed to 2.35:1. The quality is just fair.
Four more featurettes follow, running nearly 40 minutes combined. "Designing 'Dune'" takes a look at the process of conceptualizing and interpreting the world of Frank Herbert for the screen; "'Dune' FX" dissects the film's then-cutting-edge optical work; "'Dune' Models" pays tribute to the lost art, which has now been all-but-replaced by CGI; and "'Dune' Wardrobe" documents the nearly 4,000 costumes that were created for the movie. Admittedly, all of this tech talk does get a big dry after a while. But none of the featurettes overstay their individual welcome, and 'Dune' fans will be pleased with the wealth of never-before-scene stills and conceptual drawings presented (no on-set making-of video footage was apparently shot, or could be found). The editing is also quite good, with a quick pace and a nice balance between the stills and talking head interviews.
Rounding out the extras is a Photo Gallery, with some (but not all) of the pics recycled from the featurettes. Sadly, no theatrical trailer or other promotional materials are included.
'Dune' is a film most people find hilarious. I admit, I giggled throughout, too. But it is also a very unique and sometimes magnificent visual achievement, and you certainly can't accuse a David Lynch film of being pedestrian or boring. This HD DVD is actually quite nice. The 137-minute Lynch-approved theatrical version is presented in a very nice restoration, and there are a good batch of extras, too. I'd say this disc offers enough of a visual upgrade over the standard-def DVD version to make it well worth considering for fans of 'Dune.'