01 June 2006

Spiceworld: The Movie

On Monday night I watched David Lynch's Dune for the first time in roughly twenty years. I'd forgotten how bloody good it was.

Wikipedia tells me that Dune made huge losses, and my Encyclopedia of Science Fiction opines moreover that "seldom has a big-budget genre film been so execrated by fans and film critics alike", adding that "its narrative is confused to the point of incoherence" [p357]. Which is odd.

If anything, I thought the film erred on the side of telling us too much -- the access we were given to the characters' secret thoughts in voiceover (an odd approach in itself, when shared across quite so many characters as this) was overdone, to the extent that I wondered if it might have been a late afterthought following studio panic. Very likely Frank Herbert's novel is more coherent (certainly it has the space to be, being over 600 pages long as opposed to just over two hours), but I had no problem following the complex, factionalised politics, the deep and complex history or the technological innnovations.

As for the occasional impressionistic storytelling... well, it's a David Lynch film. Compared with Mulholland Drive or Firewalk with Me it's a masterpiece of lucidity.

What really impressed me, though -- and I know this is exactly what you'd all expect me to say -- was the worldbuilding. In this Lynch is assured, deft and totally coherent, creating a faceted, intricately-etched galactic society where the numerous factions (each with their own cultures, costumes, histories, technologies and in some cases languages) relate to one another as parts of a convincing, utterly vivid whole. He's helped in this, presumably, by the deep and detailed background of the novel -- but he transforms it into something wholly visual, told through architecture and landscape and costume and colour and artwork and (inevitably, this being Lynch) body morphology.

It's a full-immersion world, one which takes you in and, for the space of two hours, allows you to walk around inside somebody else's imagination. There are moments (the personal forcefields, the Spacer Guild control room) when the special effects in retrospect look rather... well, improvable, but the magnificent visual imagination of the film persuades the eye to accept them at face value. The set pieces -- the Sandworm scenes particularly -- can only be described as Star Wars with brains.

(The film's also, as I've only now realised, an enormous visual influence on Babylon 5, and in particular the culture of the Centauri. The palaces, the uniforms, the bald prophetesses -- even the visual content of the latter's prophecies -- are lifted pretty much entire. Well, I suppose Lynch wasn't using them any more, and it does make the culture in question far more convincing than just another set of generic aliens.)

It's the only work of media SF which has truly managed to convince me that long historical millennia have elapsed since everything I was familiar with passed away. That's a magnificent trick to pull off. (The one point on which it sadly falls down is that almost every member of this galactic society -- even those called things like "Shaddam" and "Yueh" -- is noticeably white, whereas the world they live as part of is clearly derived at a great distance from Arabic-Islamic culture.)

In the face of the sheer intelligent spectacle of the film, the achievements of the cast become largely irrelevant -- fortunately, as many of them aren't all that good. It's entertaining to see young Sting ogling young Kyle McLachlan, though, and even more so to see a slightly pre-Next Generation Patrick Stewart with long flowing hair... at the back.

When I first saw Dune I would have been thirteen: I have the January 1985 reprint of the book (with an image from the movie on the front), which I must have bought after watching it for the first time. I can't remember now how far I managed to get into it -- not very far, I imagine, despite how much the film had thrilled me. To the thirteen-year-old me it seemed dull and wordy, and for years I was convinced that this was actually the case.

Seeing the film again -- and having so many of my adult SF-reader buttons pressed by it -- has convinced me to give it another try. I may even seek out the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries and see how it measures up.

I may not go as far as reading all the prequels, though.

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