For a self-described sci-fi nerd, I was late to the Dune saga party. Friends recommended Frank Herbert’s epic series, describing it as The Lord of the Rings of science fiction. But it wasn’t until I caught a scene of young James McAvoy in the Children of Dune SciFi Channel mini series that I officially decided to read it. I had to read the series at least up to Children of Dune before watching any film or TV adaptation, of course!
Despite starting the series for aesthetic reasons (James McAvoy is pretty), I knew I was hooked to the novels as soon as I finished the first book. Not only is it on the scale of The Lord of the Rings, it features non-Western, heavily Middle Eastern-inspired themes and imagery as well as many prominent characters of color. It’s unprecedented!
It is because of this appreciation to the grandeur and audacity of the book series that I have avoided seeing film and TV adaptations. That is, until I saw Jodorowsky’s Dune, the documentary about the so-called greatest film never made — a film adaptation of Dune. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a fascinating glimpse into the brilliant vision of Alejandro Jodorowsky and his team of self-described geniuses. He isn’t lying — Moebius, H.R. Giger, Dan O’Bannon, and Chris Foss, not to mention Salvador Dali and Orson Welles, are geniuses. His adaptation of Dune isn’t necessarily what I would do — simulating the effects of LSD on screen? Um, okay. — but his dream of bringing life to the literary classic is awe-inspiring.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is so good because it never was. Instead, famed Hollywood producer Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights and after several failed attempts, finally managed to make a Dune movie with David Lynch as writer and director. As per his contract with De Laurentiis, Lynch was able to make Blue Velvet as long as he also made Dune. I like Blue Velvet all well and good, but was it worth desecrating Dune in the process?
Enlivened by Jodorowsky’s Dune, I decided to finally watch Dune. And boy, was I not missing anything. David Lynch’s ambivalence, nay antipathy, for this movie is palpable. He doesn’t care about Paul Atreides’ complicated struggle against his destiny to become a universe-altering Messiah. He doesn’t care about the allegory of oil dependency imbedded in the conflicts surrounding the coveted spice, melange. Instead he creates a bland, mind-numbingly boring movie about a conventional male hero who can predict the future (maybe) and teaches a bunch of sand people how to use a weird voice-box weapon against the bad guys. Um…this is the guy George Lucas wanted to direct Return of the Jedi?!
The movie isn’t just bad — it’s a massive disappointment. Frank Herbert’s Dune saga is overflowing with ideas. Almost every sci-fi film of the last 30+ years has a kernel of story that relates to Dune. From Star Wars and The Matrix to Firefly and Orphan Black, the sci-fi genre owes a lot to the characters, themes, and stories of Dune. If Tatooine wasn’t at least partially inspired by the planet Arrakis, then I’m a half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerfherder.
The best aspects of the film are in the grotesque and the bizarre — what David Lynch thrives on in his other works. The third-stage Guild navigator is creepy, cool, and unnecessary. Baron Harkonnen’s puss is gnarly and perfect for his gross-in-every-way persona. The most developed parts of the film involve the Padishah Emperor and his political maneuverings at court. Too bad that’s less than 10% of the movie.
After being spurned by David Lynch’s Dune, I don’t think I’ll be seeing the Children of Dune mini series for awhile — no matter how pretty James McAvoy is.