Dune is one of those films that doesn't make any sense the first time you watch it, or the first ten times, or even when you read the book by Frank Herbert. Okay, that's exaggerating. It does make sense within its own Dunely universe, but it's certainly nothing like we've ever seen before. And the PPCC has seen some pretty crazy shit.
Welcome to a universe of crazy!
In a world where the sci-fi/fantasy genre is dominated by Tolkien and George Lucas knock-offs, Dune is proudly, crazily independent. Not only that - but where even Tolkien and Lucas derived their themes from older, Eurocentric mythologies, Dune is just... Dune. Its only connections with our reality seem to be its (possible?) confangled inspiration from the 1973 OPEC crisis (yes, really, read on), a big mish-mash of Arabic and Persian and Abrahamic cultural reference points, and the very edges of philosophical discourse.
Check out the intensely Baroque interiors! This ain't no Star Wars junkpile or THX 1138 minimalism.
It is the far, far future. The known universe is ruled by the Padishah Emperor (José Ferrer), a big-nosed guy who looks a bit Napoleonic sans hat. He plays political games with the royal families beneath him: the noble and goodly Atreides family, rulers of a green and pleasant planet, and the evil (like OMG SO EVIL) Harkonnen family, rulers of a scary planet made of black filing cabinets and beeping green things and cockroaches.
The most important planet in this intergalactic geopoliticking is Arrakis, also known as the "Dune" planet. Arrakis is one big, unforgiving desert ruled by giant sand worms and a group of creepy desert people called the Fremen. The reason everyone is keen on Arrakis? The spice. (Or, as characters in Dune invariably call it, the spiiiiiiiiice.)
The spice (spiiiiiiiiice) is both a drug and a source of energy. With it, giant brain-shaped pilots bend space and time and travel great distances. With it, political advisors such as Thufir Hawat (Freddie Jones) are able to see the "plans within plans" of Dune's ultra-complex political situations. Everyone wants the spice, and, as Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) says, "He who controls the spice, controls the universe!"
Sand worms, spice, you know. Normal.
When the Padishah Emperor fires the Harkonnen rulers from Arrakis and puts the Atreides royal family in their place, an intricate chess game of political maneuvering and power-mongering begins. The wise Duke Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow) and his consort, Jessica (Francesca Annis) have a son, Paul (Kyle MacLachlan). Young Paul has been trained in the Arts of the Badassery by his trio of advisors: military man Gurney (Patrick Stewart), shifty-eyed Doctor Yueh (Dean Stockwell), and counselor Thufir Hawat. Paul's training has meanwhile been augmented by his mother, Jessica, who teaches him in the ways of the Bene Gesserit - an order of witches (except more in the mystical philosophical sense, not the Salem sense). Paul is therefore able to accomplish such feats of badassness as: (1) kicking butt slow ninja-style while wearing armor of television fuzz, (2) enduring the scary Box of Pain that burns the top of his hand off (in his mind!), and (3) use the Bene Gesserit Voice, which is, like, super powerful. And much more!
Paul is the coolest Muad'Dib we done ever saw!
Epic and dystopian! Sigh! Be still, our PPCC heart!
When the Harkonnens move against the Atreides, and Paul and Jessica are cast out into the deserts of Arrakis, Paul quickly joins the Fremen as their long-awaited Messiah, Muad'Dib. Much confangled and yet epic awesomeness ensues.
So as we said, nothing really makes sense the first time you see it. And yet the characters and plot move within this created universe with such confidence that your suspension of disbelief is never threatened. Indeed, Frank Herbert's creation is a marvel - we would argue it's more impressive than Tolkien's Middle Earth, since Tolkien constructed Middle Earth of a big jumble of Eurocentric reference points, Catholic themes and the heavy lens of Oxford linguistics don-ness. Frank Herbert's universe, instead, is a post-everything place populated by cultures that are only remotely familiar. Indeed, no aliens are needed in such a future - the people are weird enough!
One of Dune's magic moments: Paul faces the Box of Pain.
And yet their lives, their thought and their behaviors are infinitely compelling. The film (and book) is packed full of wonderful moments of large porportions; indeed, this is the stuff that movie cults are made of. Who wouldn't be inspired by Paul's bad-ass and well-known "Litany Against Fear"?
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when my fear is gone I will turn and face fear's path, and only I will remain.
YOU GO, PAUL! There are many more moments of magic - moments so creepy or so weird or so freaky and freakin' fascinating - that they have been etched in our mind since we first saw Dune, many years ago. The moment when Paul conquers his first sand worm. The moment when Paul takes the Water of Life and has a massive spaced-out trip. The introduction of the Harkonnens, when the one guy drinks the juice of a crushed cockroach and the evil duke pulls the heart plug from one of his slaves. The Box of Pain bit.
Indeed, the only thing wrong with Dune is that it is so intensely WHOA that the PPCC is actually incapable of watching it alone. There's nothing particularly scary, but it's just... so freaky! Thankfully, this freaky feeling fades after the first half hour, probably because we get used to the weirdness of Dune, and probably also because those freaky pilot people stop showing up (they're really freaky).
Being David Lean, who has something of a reputation for weird films, Dune's aesthetics are powerful strange as well. But wonderful! He fills his interiors with gold-encrusted Baroque intricacies - it's a far cry from the sci-fi cliche of sterile minimalism. Even though Lean disowned the cinema version of the film (so that it's sometimes credited with the pseudonym Alan Smithee), and it was panned by critics (Ebert hated it, The New York Times hated it), it has turned into one of those lovely cult sci-fi movies. And the PPCC is definitely part of the cult - but that's because we read the book and were completely charmed (OK, actually majorly inspired and life-changed-ed) by this article. We just love to hear these epic declamations, we love the rock and roll choral score, we love the gross-out bits and the popcorn mysticism.
Overall then, we'd say give Dune a try. You probably won't like it the first time (if you can even make it past the really freaky bits). But it's one of those classic films that always deserves a dekko.
And how can this review be? FOR THE PPCC IS THE KWIZATZ HADERACH!
*aaah aaah aaaaah*