Release Date(s)1984 (April 27, 2010)
[Note: The film portions of this review are by Adam Jahnke. The disc comments are by Bill Hunt.]
The first and last time I saw Dune in its entirety was upon its theatrical release back around Christmas of 1984. In retrospect, that trip to the movies may have been a key formative experience in my decision to write about them.
It was the first time I can remember people getting mad at me for not liking a movie. I had gone to the movie with some friends and as the lights came up I said, “Well, that wasn’t too good, was it?” My friends had found much to appreciate about Dune and while I’m not sure if their opinions have changed over the years, I stand by that 15-year-old’s snarky comment. Dune isn’t too good.
In its defense, Dune is also not a complete disaster. It isn’t nearly as confusing as some of its harshest critics make it out to be. True, you do have to pay attention and also true, the stilted, beyond-Shakespearean style of the performances and the dialogue may make paying close attention difficult for some. Fans of Frank Herbert’s novel complain, and justifiably so, that the film omits major chunks of the book. Also true enough, but try to find a movie based on a complex book that doesn’t do the same thing. And while Herbert’s Dune is a very good book, it isn’t such a sacred text that filmmakers shouldn’t be allowed to adapt it as they see fit.
Technically, the film is very impressive. Whether you’re enjoying the movie or not, it’s easy to become mesmerized by the work of production designer Anthony Masters, costume designer Bob Ringwood, creature designer Carlo Rambaldi and director of photography Freddie Francis. In some respects, the sumptuous look of the film may be a contributor to Dune’s reputation as a confusing mess. The first time you see the movie, you’re almost hypnotized by the images on screen. By the time your mind switches back to concentrate on the dialogue and the story, you may well be totally lost.
But for all it has going for it, to call Dune a misunderstood, underappreciated masterpiece is to overstate the case by a lot. The film appears to be well cast if you just look at the credits and production stills. But almost all the actors seem to be lost amid the overwhelming design elements and the formalized, unnatural dialogue. If some feel that Kyle MacLachlan owes his career to Lynch casting him in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, MacLachlan probably thinks Lynch owed it to him after making his film debut in Dune. In retrospect, his isn’t a bad performance. But as an introduction to film audiences, it could have been crippling. Lynch relies on voice-over narration in a comic book/thought-bubble style, forcing actors like Max Von Sydow to endure overlong shots of them looking pensive while their thoughts are read over the soundtrack. Other actors who either had already worked with Lynch or would go on to work with him again, such as Jack Nance, Brad Dourif and Dean Stockwell, give very entertaining and eccentric performances, but all seem to be in a different movie from the rest of the cast. Only Kenneth McMillan as Baron Harkonnen comes through the other end of the movie unscathed, creating a truly impressive and memorable character.
[Editor’s Note: For the record, I’m with Jahnke. I admire what Lynch tried to accomplish here, but the technical and financial limitations of the time conspired against him. The film is a visual and production design marvel, but it’s also terribly flawed. And I personally just don’t think it’s possible to boil down Herbert’s novel into a two hour version that serves either the book or a film experience well.]
From an A/V standpoint, Universal’s new Blu-ray is good but not great. Quality-wise, it’s about on par with the recent HD-DVD version. The 1080p transfer (2.35:1 aspect ratio) is generally very solid, but the film itself conspires against high-quality presentation. It was shot with anamorphic lenses in low light situations, so the edges of the frame are occasionally in soft focus. Grain is light in live-action scenes but more heavy in effects shots due to compositing. It’s the effects shots that suffer most, exhibiting serious contrast issues. Some are washed out looking (often a deliberate effort by the filmmakers to create a sense of scale and the look of atmospheric sand) while others feature crushed blacks. In both cases, a notable lack of fine detail is the result. Live action footage features very nice looking textures and only light to moderate DNR. The result is a highly uneven presentation, but it still represents the film itself fairly well. Audio is the usual DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless. The soundstage is nicely wide and less directional that you might expect of a film of this vintage. Dialogue is generally clear, there’s decent LFE in the mix. The score (by Brian Eno and Toto) sounds quite good.
The Blu-ray includes the theatrical cut of the film only – the longer “Alan Smithee” TV cut from the previous Extended Edition DVD has been omitted. Also missing from the DVD (and HD-DVD) is the gallery of production artwork and photos. Aside from that, everything else from the DVD has carried over, including all 5 featurettes (Deleted Dune, Designing Dune, Dune FX, Dune Models and Dune Wardrobe). If you want to keep the TV cut and gallery (and if you’re a fan, why wouldn’t you?) you should put the DVD in a paper disc sleeve and tuck it into the Blu-ray case. It’s not a perfect solution, but it works.
Given Universal’s slow pace of releasing catalog titles in high-def, this is probably the best presentation of David Lynch’s Dune that we’re likely to get on Blu-ray for some time to come. It’s a shame that the TV cut and gallery have been omitted, and yes... the HD video quality isn’t as good as some other catalog BD titles. But let’s face it: Dune is a cult movie, not the major mainstream sci-fi success that Universal wanted. If it had been a huge hit, we’d undoubtedly get a packed special edition on Blu-ray. So fans will just have to settle for this.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke and Bill Hunt