The first time I saw "Dune" in a theater I was with a friend who was a big fan of the Frank Herbert science-fiction novels. He had to explain things to me all through the film; I really didn't have a clue. I'm just glad I wasn't sitting behind us.
Based on the first book in the series, "Dune" is a big, sprawling, complicated, almost unwieldy picture, filled with far too many characters with far too strange-sounding names to digest in one sitting. Still, thanks to its visual splendor, fine special effects, and bizarre style it holds one's attention perhaps more than it deserves to. Maybe it's just fascinating to see how quirky director David Lynch's next scene is going to be. In any event, the film has developed a cult following of its own, quite apart from the books on which it is based.
Now that it is on DVD, I suspect its popularity will rise another notch. After all, it is now possible for a person not only to get a print almost as detailed, albeit not as clear, as the one shown in theaters, but for a person to quickly and easily go back and view again a scene that didn't make sense the first time around. At long last, "Dune" is revealed!
The plot is hardly what matters, but let it suffice that the year is some eight thousand years in the future, and transportation to and from any spot in the universe is accomplished by special space jockeys who can bend the fabric of time by means of a spice mined only on the desert planet Dune. Needless to say, control of this spice is a pretty important matter, and several royal families, controllers of the known universe, are battling it out for the rights. Among these combatants is the hero of the story, young Paul Atreides, played by Kyle MacLachlan, who may be the man legend says will unite the families, bring peace to the galaxies, and, of course, command the spice.
Actually, this bending of time and space business isn't quite as formidable to understand today as it was a decade and half ago, what with increased speculation on black holes, worm holes, and the like, and recent movies featuring similar topics, like "Contact" and "Event Horizon." Still, the subject matter is engaging, if no longer so controversial.
The overriding impression one gets of the film is due largely to its tone: It is relentlessly grim. It is not depressing, per se, but it does take itself extremely seriously; indeed, too much so. Nowhere in the picture does anyone ever utter a witticism or a jest, laugh a warmhearted laugh, or even smile a lighthearted smile. I suspect this is why there were no sequels to "Dune" as there were to "Star Wars" and "Star Trek."
What's worse, there is little for most of the actors to do with their roles except mouth the words. MacLachlan is stoic and wooden, as are most of the performers, and through no fault of their own. They are at the service of a deadly-somber script that merely puts them through their paces. Only the villainous Baron Vladimer Harkonnen, played by Kenneth McMillan, and the loyal Gurney Halleck, played by Patrick Stewart, rise above the situation as creations of individual dimensions, no matter how clichéd. It is no coincidence, I'm sure, that Stewart was shortly to be given the role of Captain Picard of the Starship Enterprise.
Still, the film is strange and fascinating to watch again and again and continue to feel a sense of wonder. It's an odd duck, but most of the time it works.
It is, however, the visual splendor of the film that will continue to win over new audiences on DVD. Things like the burnished golden hues of the Emperor's throne room, the vast desert panoramas of the planet Dune itself, and the amazingly gigantic sand worms that come riding to the rescue in the final scenes are images that stay long in one's memory. Too bad this early DVD is not available in enhanced, anamorphic widescreen to render the imagery all the more breathtaking. It is, however, in wide enough screen, measuring an approximately 2.17:1 ratio across one's set, and the colors are quite splendid. The relatively low bit rate doesn't help matters, so moiré effects, jittery lines, and some fuzzinesses creep into the scene.
The original stereo sound is refurbished decently for Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, with the occasional odd noise filtering into the rear speakers. Mostly, though, the sonics are dynamic and loud, with a wide frequency spectrum and strong transient attacks. It's also bright, which may or may not complement one's speaker system.
Not many bonus items here. We get some production notes, some cast and crew biographies, and a widescreen trailer. There are sixteen scene selections, a four-page booklet insert, English and French spoken languages, and English and Spanish subtitles.
Not to compare it favorably to a genuine masterpiece like "2001, A Space Odyssey," but like that film, "Dune" is more a visual experience than it is a work of words or ideas. Too bad it doesn't have the thought-provoking themes of the Kubrick film.
In the end, "Dune" is a worthwhile purchase on DVD, whether one is already a fan or not. The detailing is good; and, as I mentioned earlier, the ability to repeat scenes that one may not have understood completely the first time around is instantly accessible. Heck, it's better than having to bring an interpreter to the theater.