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Cinema: The Fantasy Film as Final Exam

4 minute read

DUNE Directed and Written by David Lynch

Science fantasy is an act of subversion disguised as a fairy tale. In primal imagery and orotund cadences it sets the young imagination on a children’s crusade against malevolent power. It describes a vicarious rite of passage through bloodshed and anarchy to heroic manhood; it upends the prevailing social order to establish a new moral equilibrium. For the generation of budding revolutionaries in the 1960s, Frank Herbert’s Dune was a magical mystery trilogy that, along with The Lord of the Rings and the Gormenghast books, galvanized the spirit like a Disney Das Kapital. In Dune, rival masters from four planets battled for control of “melange,” an addictive spice that conferred powers of prophecy and transcendence. Here was an inter-galactic Colombian drug war, with a stash of celestial LSD waiting to be harnessed by a teen-age messiah-Holden Caulfield maturing into Che Guevara.

Well, the ’60s are prehistory now, and nothing ages as fast as futurism. So it seems anachronistic for David Lynch, the gifted eccentric whose only previous features were the $20,000 Eraserhead and the $5 million The Elephant Man, to spend some $50 million (not another one!) bringing Herbert’s mammoth fantasia to the screen. And more than a little confusing to those mortals who have not memorized the book. For Herbert devised not just a teeming universe but the rudiments of several new languages, and Lynch works hard to squeeze the novel’s richness and oddness into 2½ hours. Dune begins with an animated lecture-leaving a mass of factoids swimming through the moviegoer’s brain-and ends with the cry “For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!” So inward and remote does the movie seem, it might have arrived in a time capsule from one of the four warring planets. Most sci-fi movies offer escape, a holiday from homework, but Dune is as difficult as a final exam. You have to cram for it.

And why not? the host of Dune bugs might ask. Who decreed that fantasy films must be as simple and simple-minded as Porky’s Goes to Arrakis? Nobody did; and one can admire the world Herbert and Lynch have created even as one feels like an illegal alien visiting it. At the very least, Dune provides a bizarre bestiary of characters. One such, the Navigator, is a giant walrus-like creature that rules the universe while floating inside a liquid cage. The Harkonnens are the comic villains of the piece. These red-haired nasties with a taste for drinking human blood and baroquely torturing farm animals are led by the pustulous, airborne Baron Vladimir (Kenneth McMillan) and his aide-de-camp Feyd (the rock star Sting), in gold-leaf bathing suit resplendent. The Guild Spokesman, an imperial messenger, has a bald head cracked on one side and oozing like a soft-boiled egg. Then there are the 1,000-ft. worms of Arrakis, the universe’s longest phallic symbols, which hold within themselves the secret of melange.

The worm, then, is a sort of Moby Python, and young Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) is an Ahab with a happy ending. MacLachlan, 25, grows impressively in the role; his features, soft and spoiled at the beginning, take on a he-manly glamour once he assumes his mission. Like most of the other cast members, MacLachlan delivers his speeches as incantations from an old, old testament. The actors seem hypnotized by the spell Lynch has woven around them-especially the lustrous Francesca Annis, as Paul’s mother, who whispers her lines with the urgency of erotic revelation. In those moments when Annis is onscreen, Dune finds the emotional center that has eluded it in its parade of rococo decor and austere special effects. She reminds us of what movies can achieve when they have a heart as well as a mind. -R.C.

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