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Posts Tagged ‘Dune’

We have around a year to wait until Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is set for release.  This seems like a good time to revisit David Lynch’s underrated gem.  I first saw the film when on its original VHS video release in the mid 80’s.  I would have been around 10 or 11 at the time.  I loved it and watched it twice in the little over 24 hours before the tape had to be returned.  I immediately told anyone who would listen (and a few who weren’t listing) how amazing it was, I think I said “better than Star Wars”.  Nobody agreed!  Everyone I convinced to watch it hated it.  It wasn’t until years later after I had watched it many times that I understood that the film, bombed at the box-office, was universally hated and received terrible reviews. Dune movie poster

For those not familiar with Dune, it is based on Frank Herbert novel from 1965.  Set around twenty-thousand years in the future; the universe is split into what essentially amounts to medieval fiefdoms.   Two are these House Atreides, and House Harkonnen are sworn enemies.  The former is ordered by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, the effective ruler of the universe to replace the latter as rulers of the planet Arrakis aka Dune.  Arrakis, an inhospitable desert planet, and the only place the only source of melange, or “the spice”.  Spice is the most valuable substance in the universe, a drug that heightens awareness, prolongs life, and is essential for intergalactic space travel.dune book cover

The aforementioned medieval fiefdoms are the crux of both the setting and the plot.  The overlying story is Paul Atreides bith as a hero.  The birth of a hero is an age old concept; the hero experiences loss, followed by hardship, and often exile.  He overcomes his circumstances and then graduates to hero status by confronting and defeating firstly his personal daemons, then his adversary, and the source of evil.  If you wish to explore the character further, there is a strong argument that Paul’s story is a white saviour narrative.

The film looks amazing.  Director, David Lynch had by this time made two stunning movies:  Eraserhead (1977), and The Elephant Man (1980).  He amassed a fantastic, and experienced team including: Cinematographer: Freddie Francis (winner of two Oscars (one at the time)), Production Designer: Anthony Masters – (Oscar nominated for 2001: A Space Odyssey).  The large practical sets have combine Venetian, Victorian, and Art Deco architecture that looks simultaneously futuristic and historical.  The production design include elements of Nazi symbolism, cyberpunk and steampunk.david lynch and frank hurbert dune

I can see some of the reasons why people don’t like the movie.  There are two things that stand out that are at odds with peoples expectations.  Firstly there is an almost entire lack of humour or brevity.  Second the film doesn’t have the clearest narrative.  Most of the plot is set out at the start.  The film is about mood and character, once you accept this, it is more satisfying than a typical formulaic movie.  The film is also more cerebral than emotional making it difficult to fall in love with.  A plotline common to many stories describing the birth of a hero. He has unfortunate circumstances forced onto him. After a long period of hardship and exile, he confronts and defeats the source of evil in his tale.

The film is packed with fantastic characters steeped in back story, some of which is explored, others are left as colour. The cast is perfect; Kyle MacLachlan has the fresh innocence of a young actor giving him space to grow into the part  This is perfectly balenced with the gravitas of the more thespian Francesca Annis, Siân Phillips, Patrick Stewart, Jürgen Prochnow, and Max von Sydow.  This is further enhanced by the over the top Kenneth McMillan, Sting, and Dean Stockwell.  All the characters, as well as a lot of supporting characters I haven’t mentioned inhabit their parts making them totally believable in the fantastical setting. Key amongst the characters are:

House Atreides – Rulers of a water planet of Caladan.  Noted warriors, they have created a new sound based weapon.

Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan): The hero of the story

Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis): Mother of Paul, concubine of the Duke and a member of the Bene Gesserit

Duke Leto Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow): head of House Atreides

Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart): Areides military leader, Pauls teacher, fiercely loyal to Paul and Leto.

Doctor Yueh (Dean Stockwell): Doctor for the Atreides, with an important role in the plot.House Atreides

House Harkonnen – A brutal house, and the villains of the movie.  They have hey have been involved in a feud with House Atreides for a thousand years (in the book it dates back to a slight ten thousand years earlier).

Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan):head of House Harkonnen.

Feyd-Rautha (Sting): Nephew and heir of the Baron.

Glossu “Beast” Rabban (Paul Smith): Older but somewhat inept nephew of the BaronHouse Harkonnen

House Corrino – The ruling house of the Known Universe (often called the Imperium)

Shaddam IV, Padishah (José Ferrer):Emperor of the Known Universe

Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen): Daugter and heir to the Emperor, and the narator of the movie.House Corrino

Bene Gesserit – Female social, religious, and political organisation.  Members  train from a young age to obtain superhuman/magical abilities.

Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Siân Phillips): Head of the Bene Gesserit, loyal to the Emperor.Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam

Fremen: The Fremen, Natives of Arrakis, noted for their bright blue eyes.

Stilgar (Everett McGill): Fremen Naib chieftain

Chani (Sean Young): Freman warrior and Paul’s loverFremen

Spacing Guild – Organization that runs banking and commerce, but most importantly has a monopoly on interstellar travel thanks to their ability to fold space with the help of Melange.  The real power in the universe!Spacing Guild

I have heard fans of the book criticise the film for differing too much from the book.  I don’t see this, Having read the book a few years after seeing the film, it is very faithful to the themes and spirit of the book.  Author Frank Herbert spent a lot of time on set, and in a interview suggested it was one of the most faithful book to film adaptations ever.  I understand Lynch’s preferred cut was three hours long, around 45 minutes longer than the released versions.  It is my understanding that there are two longer cuts available, but not a director’s cut, quite the opposite, Lynch had his name removed from one of them!  In the same way that Star Wars is an adventure story and the TV show Firefly is a western, Dune is a historical epic.  A key theme of the story is how a group of people is a distillation of their leader.  This comes though in the look and costumes of the “houses” as well as their actions.  Arrakis could be seen as colonial Africa, Asia, or the Americas.  The spice Melange is a clear metaphor for the rescores striped from the developing world, such as oil.

At the heart of the story we have a prophecy, this is the most Sci-Fi/Fantasy thing about the movie.  This gives us both the setup and the conclusion to the story.  The Spacing Guild’s power over the Emperor tell us so much, it could be seen as a historic story such as precarious or declining empire such as Rome.  However it could also be seen as a very modern statement about how corporations can be bigger and more powerful than nations.  This may appear to be a very modern idea especially for the 1960’s when the book was written, however, look at William Randolph Hearst in the early 20th century.  There are themes of the book that don’t make it to the film, but they ate more subtext in the first book, but they do become more overt from the second book Dune Messiah.  Frank Herbert has spoken of the underlying idea of being beware of heroes.  Paul is a man who acts, and more importantly is treated like a god.  This fanaticism is clearly frightening and dangerous.  The book ends with Paul setting the Fremen on a Jihad that he knows he cannot control or stop.  This becomes more important in the later books.

It is a film I love, and hope that with the publicity leading up to Denis Villeneuve’s version, I hope more people look it out.  And those who have seen it and dismissed, it, give it another go! 

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The new season of Stranger things has hit Netflix.  It’s 1984 and the kids are dressing up as Ghostbusters for Halloween.  Then, there is a gratuitous shot of a cinema showing The Terminator, it seemed like a good time to look back at my favourite movies of 1984:stranger things season two

A Nightmare On Elm Street: Wes Craven’s horror thriller about serial killer who kills his victims in their dreams.A Nightmare On Elm Street

Beverly Hills Cop: Eddie Murphy’s best movie role. Culture clash action comedy about a Chicago cop to travels to Beverly Hills catch a killer. Beverly Hills Cop

Blood Simple: The Coen Brothers criminally under-seen debut about a rich man who hires a private investigator to kill his cheating wife and her lover (obviously things don’t go to plan). Blood Simple

Dune: David Lynch’s criminally underrated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s influential sci-fi novel. Dune

Ghostbusters: If I need to explain Ghostbusters, give up now!Ghostbusters

Repo Man: Alex Cox’s bizarre sci-fi fantasy about a punk who becomes a Repo Man.gnp-0428-dvd.jpg

Night of the Comet: Two valley girls, a trucker and a group of mad scientists are amongst a small group of survivors after a comet wipes out most of the population and turns the rest into zombies.night of the comet mac10

Streets of Fire: “A Rock & Roll Fable” Walter Hill wrote and directed the story of a mercenary who is hired to rescue his now famous ex-girlfriend who has been kidnapped by a motorcycle gang.Streets of Fire

The Company of Wolves: Neil Jordan’s Gothic horror fairy tale based on a story by Angela Carter.  A clever reworking of Little Red Riding Hood that is possibly a allegory on the end of innocence. The Company of Wolves

The Terminator: James Cameron’s seminal Tec-Noir, Cyberpunk thriller about a killer cyborg who travels back in time to change the future.

The Terminator

Other 1984 movies to check out: 1984, Tightrope, Paris Texas, Top Secret, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Romancing the Stone, The Bounty, The Killing Fields, Against all Odds, The Natural, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Purple Rain, This Is Spinal Tap.

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At the start of the film Iron Man (2008) you would be forgiven for thinking that you were watching a film set in the real world. As it went on it remained on the edge of reality with the only science fiction being the technological advances of Iron Mans suit. Later the same year The Incredible Hulk (2008) added more sci-fi and fantasy to the story as did Captain America: The First Avenger ( 2011), Thor (2011) and The Avengers ( 2012). Later this month will see the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, a film within the same fictional universe as the Marvel movies but set “In the far reaches of space”. This leads me to ask the question; have you ever noticed that is space set Sci-Fi movies we can never get too far from earth? When I say too far, I am talking I am not talking physical distance. With the exception of Star Wars (1977) most notable “space operas” tend to be set a few (or many) years from now and feature humanity exploring or colonizing other worlds. The other common plot involves returning to a Earth after some near apocalyptic event. I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with films that are tied to earth, humanity and reality but the freedom that George Lucas gave himself and the makers of the new films by setting the first film “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…” is immeasurable.Guardians-of-the-Galaxy

Serenity (2005) Set mainly in the outer worlds away from the Alliance government, it is basically the American west or frontier in the late 19th century, with the addition of space travel. The towns on many of the planets look intentionally like those from western movies. There are no alien life forms or creatures, everything has an old fashioned look to it. This is contrasted with the new and shiny cities on alliance planets. The film uses its settings and the idea of humans colonising the universe to its advantage in the plot of the film. I can’t remember any reference to Earth in the Firefly, the TV show that spawned the movie, but the film starts with the explanation of earth not being able to sustain us so new planets were found and terraformed. This comes back to bite humanity later as we learn what was created in the process. There is a nice symmetry about the way the story creates its own monsters “like the bogeyman from stories”, this gives an extra dimension and meaning to the plot. It makes the back story of the setting integral to the current plot but also grounds it somewhere near reality.serenity

David Lynch’s Dune (1984), is a more complicated story, there is no reference to earth in the film, but there is in Frank Herbert’s source novels (a reference to Chaucer as I remember it). It is the film, after Star Wars that best creates a believable universe. There are planets with different ecosystems and inhabitants. The Spacing Guild acts as an antagonist in the story, with a monopoly on banking and interstellar travel, I have always suspected they were an inspiration for the Trade Federation in Star Wars. At the time of its release, it was hit with the duel criticism of not being faithful to the book at the same time as being unintelligible to anyone who hadn’t read the book. I have never understood this, I saw the film on its initial release when I was around ten years old, several years before I read the book and had no trouble following the plot. We only see a handful of the planets and the people who populate them, as the story is mainly set on the planet Arrakis (also known as Dune) rather than the rocketing around the galaxy. Dune is the centre of the universe because of the presence of Spice, the most valuable substance in the universe. Unlike the McGuffin Unobtainium (Avatar) Spice becomes central to the plot of the film.Dune

Alien (1979)and its sequels are all about humans in space, despite the extraordinary alien creatures the film always has a sense of realism. There is always an unbalance between the working man and the plans of big business. There is always a desire to capture the alien to study and weaponise it, this is both a plot point and the bases for the movies subtext. The themes explored give it more in common with a Bruce Springsteen song or a John Steinbeck novel than with Star Wars. Most of the action in Alien takes place onboard a spaceship. Aliens (1986) relocates the action to the surface of the planet, that is undergoing terraforming leaving the action mainly in an industrial interior.Alien

There is then sub genre of films about protecting the world from an alien invasion or attack. Notable among these are The Fifth Element (1997), Flash Gordon (1980), Starship Troopers (1997). Notable, not for how good they are, but because they leave the confines of earth and are set in part on alien planets. Of these only Flash Gordon does any notable “world building”, but this is largely inspired by earlier film, TV, and comic versions of the story. One of my most anticipated films of the year is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a film that appears from the trailer to be a film about space exploration set in a near future of depleted resources. I’m sure there is more to it than that but the less I know going in the better. interstellar

I understand the reason for tethering a story to earth and humanity, and the emotional connection it gives an audience to the plot and characters, however I want to see something different. Films will always be filled with meaning, metaphor and subtext. A films social and political stance will always be grounded in the era its is from, but cutting the ties from earth and humanity as we know it could be the start to it. I’m not sure if there is a film other than Star Wars set in a totally fictional universe, but if there is I would like to see it. If there isn’t it’s about time someone made it. With a new Star Wars trilogy and at least two stand alone films I think they will have the market cornered, but my hope, and the real reason for this article, can they inspire future generations of film makers the way Star Wars inspired a generation in 1977?A_long_time_ago

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As I work on my inevitable list of best films of 2012 I started thinking about Argo. Not the Ben Affleck film that we saw, but the un-filmed Star Wars rip-off Sci-Fi movie that featured in it. For as long as I can remember Star Wars has been essential Christmas viewing, but why? Probably because as an action adventure fantasy film it is yet to be surpassed. It is often stated that Star Wars changed films for ever, it certainly built on the idea of the summer blockbuster that began with Jaws two years before. All this is most probably true, but surprisingly Star Wars has never inspired a successful and credible action adventure set within a alien universe. The greatest failing of most of them is an unnecessary attempt to ground the plot in the reality or to earth, this is true from The Last Starfighter (1984) through to Avatar (2009). It worked for Star Trek as the idea of humanity exploring space was central to the premise. After its cancellation in 1969, it gained cult status, around the time of Star Wars a plan to resurrect the television series as Star Trek: Phase II.  It was a planned and quickly abandoned, ideas from the pilot were however saved and became Star Trek (1979). The  highlights of the film series that followed are: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Star Trek: First Contact (1996) and the reboot Star Trek (2009). 1977 star wars

The latest failed attempt of the genre was John Carter (2012) based on A Princess of Mars by (Tarzan author) Edgar Rice Burroughs. So uncomfortable in its own skin the producers dropped the Sci-Fi “of Mars” title from the movie shortly before it hit cinema screens. Telling the story of a civil war era gent who is transported to Mars that is going through its own Civil War. A lot of the story involves the fish out of water scenarios as Carter adapts to the culture of the society and then imports his own sensibility. Going back to the time of Star Wars, the biggest of the early attempts to cash in on the Star Wars was unsurprisingly by Disney. The Black Hole (1979) had a budget of around $20million, around double that of Star Wars but only grossed around the same as Star Wars took in its first weekend. There is a good reason, for all its technical accomplishments, the movie is just plain dull. I have seen it at least twice and remember very little about it. With a budget of around $4million Starcrash (1978) is certainly low budget but isn’t quite the Z Movie it is often claimed to be. Poorly acted with terrible effects and unintentionally funny moments it isn’t very good. However it does deserve a certain amount of praise as a low budget movie that has grander ambitions than many of its contempt competitors, it is also good silly fun at times.

Starcrash

The one success of the genre (artistically if not financially) was Flash Gordon (1980). The plot is a rehash of the original thirteen part film serial starring Buster Crabbe from 1936. One of the reasons the movie looks so good and worked so well is the retro design including long shiny almost phallic spaceships that were inspired by the original 1930’s comic books. The result is utter camp, the characters and the performances are totally bonkers and over the top in the vein of Barbarella (1968). All this was held together by a an equally camp and over the top score by Queen.

Flash Gordon

The story goes that David Lynch turned down Return of the Jedi instead opting to replace Ridley Scott as the director of Dune (1984). Unlike most people, I am glad he did. I first saw Dune on video in 1985 and loved it. A few years later I read the first three or four of Frank Herbert’s novels. It was the first David Lynch film I saw, I have seen and loved everything he has made since. The movie shares producer Dino De Laurentiis with Flash Gordon, that is where the similarity ends. While Flash Gordon is fun and camp, Dune is sombre serious but when you strip away all the religious symbolism, mythology and the ideas of loyalty and betrayal it is simply a story of trade and politics, possibly an allegory for the fight for the control of the worlds supply. The TV mini series is heralded as a superior adaptation, it may be but it is painfully dull, something the movie can not be accused of even in its three hour cut.Dune

Star Wars often plays like a western set in space.  This is where the genre has found the most sucess.  A film that took this idea a stage further was the Roger Corman produced Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) that took its plot from Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai. It has a certain degree of pedigree with a screenplay by John Sayles, a score composed by James Horner, and the special effects directed by a young James Cameron. A similar idea had been attempted in the “High Noon in space” Outland (1981) with Sean Connery in the Gary Cooper role. Not a classic, but far better than its reputation. The best space western is probably Serenity (2005) based on the too short-lived TV show Firefly (2002-2003). It is still rooted in the reality of humanity but unlike the movies that suffer for this, Serenity plays its hand perfectly.Battle Beyond the Stars

The Star Wars prequels failed to live up to their billing, will the new Disney produced movies be more successful or will we have to wait for someone else to create a new Space Opera in a believable alien universe? Star Wars: Episode VII is expected in 2015.

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