Directed by David Lynch
To appreciate this batty box-office bomb, you have to give up, right at the start. You won’t ever make sense of the plot, not without having source novelist Frank Herbert’s brain, so don’t even bother—absorb the basics and let the rest wash over you, starting with Virginia Madsen’s opening monologue, backstory tacked on at the producers’ request, the beginning of so much exposition; this is a movie almost defeated by its need to introduce its particular political systems and personal grudges within a world whose emphases are very different from our own. But give it a chance to move past all that, past the establishment of Herbert’s 10191 CE, which resembles George Lucas’s long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—a petty space empire conducting its affairs in mid 20th-century English. It all feels so very post-Kennedy, especially once the oil allegory gets going: the world of Dune relies on Spice, which enables space travel; it’s also medicine and a powerful psychotropic, throwing off the neat metaphor. Getting it back on track is the fact that Spice is only found on one planet, a desert planet, control of which determines control of the universe. Factions war.
This was Lynch’s last attempt at a mainstream commercial product, at least one that wasn’t based on an original (straight) story, and it feels like it’s his Spartacus, not least for the dialogue scenes in that stiff style of Old Hollywood epics. Producer pressure drastically shortened the length Lynch had envisioned, and the result is infamously unfollowable; critics hated the movie, and audiences didn’t pay to see it (at least not enough of them, based on its budget). But revisiting it now, there’s some pleasure to be had from its misguided spectacle, from its radical political subversive’s ascendance to messiah, taming giant worms and riding them through the desert—from the overwrought intensity of its psychedelic fantasies, bewildering plot developments and commitment to its baroque mythology. You can decipher the grandiosity so that it makes a sort of primal sense—but only if you give yourself over to it, embrace the mystery rather than try to define it, which is true, really, of all of Lynch’s work. Surrealism isn’t meant to be sorcerered into making sense. Henry Stewart (November 28, 7pm, at BAM’s “Turkeys for Thanksgiving”)