Misunderstood Modern Cinema: Dune
by Mike Dawson
Left Field Cinema
So what didn’t the critics like about the film when it was released? Critics like Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, Janet Maslin, and Richard Corliss (all of whom are reputable American film critics) all chastised the film with scathing one-star reviews. The common complaint was that the film was structurally a mess, overly confusing, and made little to no sense. Corliss stated that “most sci-fi movies offer escape, a holiday from homework, but Dune is as difficult as a final exam. You have to cram for it.” This unifying complaint seems a tad perplexing to myself as I distinctly recall watching the film (before reading the novel) at the age of ten and found that the film made entire sense to me. Not only that but when I recently re-watched the film in preparation for this edition, I did so with my partner who had not seen the film before or read the book but followed the story perfectly and felt that the story was surprisingly clear throughout. So with that in mind let us examine the set-up and plot for Dune: the film begins with the Princess Irulan speaking directly to camera and explaining both the characters and the situation, she outlines the various sects and planets, The Haronnen’s, The Atreides, The Emporor, The planet Arrakis the source of the spice and the value it holds for everyone in the known universe. If this were not enough in the following scenes when we’re introduced to Paul Atreides (our hero as played by Kyle MacLachlan) he is working on a computer which outlines in even greater detail the relationships between the various houses; at this point we’ve gone into exposition over kill as information is now being repeated. When we switch locations it is always with the aid of a caption to tell us which planet we’re on and any time an additional element like the Bene Gesserit, the Kwisatz Haderach, the Water of Life or the Sardaukar are introduced they’re accompanied by additional exposition for the uninformed. Granted Herbert’s prose are a tad confusing especially in regards to the naming of unique elements of this universe. For instance Paul Atreides as no less than four names through the entire film and other people, places and objects often have more than one name, the planet Arrakis also being known as Dune as the title takes its name from, but these are exceptions where the proceedings are over complicated, the majority of the time everything remains simple enough to follow. The story can be condensed to a very simple level: house Atreides are invited to take over spice manufacturing for the Emperor, replacing their enemies the Harkonnens as they do. But it is a trap on the part of the Emperor who fears the Atreides leader Leto is becoming too powerful and popular and may over throw him. The Harkonnens return to Arrakis along with legions of the Emperor’s top soldiers; they over throw and wipe out the Atreides except for Leto’s son and wife, Paul and Jessica, who flee into the desert. Whilst in the desert the meet the Fremen, native warriors of Dune who take Paul as their leader, Paul trains them and drinks the water of life becoming a super human, he leads them in a revenge attack against the Emperor and the Baron Valdimir Harkonnen, he destroys his enemies, avenges his father and brings water to the desert. That’s it. That’s the story, it’s no more complex than any other revenge tale or Science Fiction odyssey, it’s no more complex than Star Wars for example. Of course there are additional subplots which pad out the experience, for example the over throwing of the Atredies at the end of the first act is only possible because of a traitor in their midst, Doctor Yueh who has set events in motion in order to get close enough to the Baron to assassinate him as revenge for the death of his wife; or that the Spacing Guild of navigators want Paul assassinated because they can foresee him posing them some danger in the near future; or Bene Gesserit’s fears that Paul will become the Kwisatz Haderach. But in all cases these subplots are either incidental to a full understanding of events or they become clearer as the film progresses.