Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Dune
I’ve been remiss in omitting an important name from Your Weekend Cheesy Movie: the late, great Dino De Laurentiis. The Italian studio mogul and 1980s Hollywood heavyweight rode trends as thought he were an accomplished surfer on the choicest of waves. Also, in a strange twist of fate, he helped create the blockbuster era by denying someone the opportunity to make a film.
But that’s a story for another day.
Instead, let’s talk one of his most interesting and direct attempts to ride the ion trail of Star Wars, the often-attempted but rarely realized Dune. The novel by Frank Herbert is sweeping, epic and every other word you can think of to sub in for “grand.” It has a ton of characters, intricate galactic politics and 20,000 years backstory so dense, an entire book exists to compile all the trivia in helpful tables and timelines. Its metaphor of an all powerful space-fuel, psychotropic drug and apparent foodstuff lends itself to discussions of the 1970s oil crisis, arguments over rainforest depletion and any other topic in which ecology and geopolitics meet.
I’m sure minds smarter than mine have read it for a climate change message, but I’ll stick to own pet theories about a servants’ revolution.
Herbert would write a further five Dune novels — though the first sequel is really the final segments of his initial Dune World serial published in Analog magazine — and his son Brian Herbert would continue to add to the lore of the series while giving it an endpoint his father supposedly outlined. Dune has spawned video games, two television miniseries and songs by Iron Maiden and Rayzd.
Yet, for all the everything it inspires, there is one thing a Dune newcomer may not expect: the first novel is largely set around fireplaces while characters talk and drink spice coffee. All the big action happens between chapters while the reader learns about the characters’ reactions to those events. The structure, in Herbert’s hands, works well. But it is the first thing a filmmaker must confront before it blows up in their face. Just ask Alejandro Jodorowsky, who famously attempted to make Dune without having first read it. Or try to get Ridley Scott to comment on it. He attempted to develop the film for De Laurentiis in the wake of Star Wars. But considering Scott’s aversion to reading, it’s possible he never really understood what he was getting involved in.
After this failed attempt, De Laurentiis looked to a young art film director named David Lynch to adapt Herbert’s parlor discussion novel into a big action movie. Lynch would go on to create something magical, meaningful and pretty much reviled the world over. Even Lynch himself declines every invitation to speak about it.
But you might be asking, “Is it cheese?” Oh, my, yes!
The plot — as simply as I can put it — involves the arrival of an intergalactic messiah onto the landscape of a religious and sociopolitical logjam centered around the cultivation and exploitation of a single substance: the spice melange. The spice extends life. The spice extends consciousness. The spice is vital to space travel. He controls the spice controls the universe. Surrounding this new messiah and his quest to halt spice production are bevies of old rivalries, Westerosi-style power plays and giant sandworms infesting the single planet in the universe where the spice may be found: the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune.
Although, really, people rarely — if ever — call it Dune.
The film is stuffed with eccentric characters played by actors offering eccentric performances. Kenneth McMillan’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the principle antagonist, is odious, sweaty and spittle-expelling throughout. Patrick Stewart, making an early appearance on the American scene, clearly believes the movie is about his character and imbues Gurney Halleck with a lot of personality. Which, I suppose, befits a character who tells his boss “like a wild ass in the desert, go I forth to my work” with a straight face.
And that straight face is key to the film’s charm. Lynch, coming to Sci-Fi from the drama The Elephant Man and whatever the hell Eraserhead is supposed to be, fell in love with Herbert’s work as he wrote his screenplay. That much is clear from the amount of the author’s gonzo dialogue which appears verbatim in the film. But in finding something to love in the pages of Dune, Lynch also marries its self-serious and occasionally grim tone. He also spread his conviction in the material to every level of the production. The set design, costumes and performances all reflect the sense of being utterly enchanted with recreating the world within Dune. But never forget that conviction can easily produce cheese.
Let me stop right here and say I love Dune. It utterly baffled me the first time I saw it. Like many before me, I expected something much closer to Star Wars and got a brain-boost worthy of a Mentat training ritual. It would take a number of viewings to understand it, but like the spice, it altered my consciousness. With that said, I freely admit this movie is quite cheesy.
Jürgen Prochnow, as Duke Leto Atreides, shouts every line, even when he’s whispering. The fact his German accent never passed to his son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) is never addressed. The notion of a Mentat — humans trained to perform high functions of mathematics and logic — only gets a cursory explanation before Baron Harkonnen explains his plan for kanly (the Imperium word for “vendetta) against House Atreides. In an attempt to maintain the book’s reliance on people’s thoughts, Lynch had his actors record voiceover in a whisper-voice that many find grating. And like Stewart’s straight reading of the “wild ass” line, actors say bananas things like “my name is a killing word” and “Usul, we have wormsign the likes of which even God has never seen” with absolute conviction.
And in one of the few obvious departures from the novel, Lynch introduced a sound-based weapon to give the movie some Star Wars appeal.
While I doubt it was Lynch’s intention, the film honors the pulp roots of Herbert’s writing with its devotion to his plot and dialogue even as it elevates the work with outstanding production values and actors. Yeah, those actors are giving strange performances, but MacLachlan, Stewart, McMillan, Brad Dourif, José Ferrer, Everett McGill, Francesca Annis, Linda Hunt, Freddie Jones, Sean Young and Sting are all one hundred percent in the moment and present in all of their choices. It’s a level of sincerity ripe for cheesiness.
But I think that all gets missed because Dune is not easily accessed or overtly campy — though I could point out its camp content as well — and thus it remains a somewhat obscure cameo.
Oh, but what of Dino De Laurentiis, who gave Dune to his daughter Raffaella De Laurentiis to produce? Confused by Lynch’s initial cut, he impressed upon Lynch the importance of delivering a two-and-a-half hour version of the film. As a showman, he always praised the film and his daughter’s work on it, but showed it no more special attention than, say, Orca: The Killer Whale. But without De Laurentiis’s trend-chasing, science fiction fans might still be waiting for a feature film version of Dune and we’d all be poorer for not having MacLachlan whisper-speak “Fear is the mindkiller, Fear is the little death which brings total obliteration.”
Dune is free to stream with a Showtime account via its own service or as an add-on to your Amazon or Hulu accounts. It’s also available as a budget Blu-ray release with a handful of interesting special features. Sadly, it does not include the TV cut of the film.