Sunday, August 25, 2013

Dune: The Alternative Edition -- Redux (Fan-Edit Review)

After many ill-fated attempts in the 1970s, a feature film of Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic Dune hit the theatres in 1984. The most expensive movie of its day, and intended to be the first in a trilogy, the David Lynch/Dino De Laurentiis production instead bombed at the box office, mutually alienating casual viewers and fans of the novel. Today, it stands as a cult classic; more of a cerebral guilty pleasure, than an overlooked masterpiece. This is especially so, given the infamous extended television cut, disowned by Lynch, and long lost until finally released on DVD a few years ago.

Sure enough, the fan-edit community took it upon themselves to attempt to salvage the troubled and haphazard production. One of the best-received ones, comes from Spicediver, whose "Alternative Edition -- Redux" is his final word on the subject. For the sake of fairness, I will review the film itself, and his cut, as separately as possible.

Some ten thousand years in the future, humanity has spread across the galaxy, ruled by the paranoid Emperor Shaddam IV (a horribly miscast Jose Ferrer). Behind the scenes, mystics and corporate interests pull various strings, all dependent on the mind-expanding Spice -- a substance that is found only on the desert planet of Arrakis. Shaddam, threatened by the rising popularity of Duke Leto Atreides (Jurgen Prochnow), sets a trap for him on Arrakis, by sending him there to supposedly take over Spice production. In reality, the Duke's mortal enemy, Baron Harkonnen (the freaking absurd Kenneth McMillan) ambush and murder him, driving into exile the Duke's son Paul (Kyle MacLachlin) and concubine Jessica (Francesca Annis). They are left to join the desert nomads, the Fremen, and exploit their messiah legends to seek revenge against the whole Imperium.

Frankly, reviewing this movie is a lot like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube, but I will do my best. When I first saw this movie, ten years ago, I really hated it. Not only were many performances from somewhere beyond Mars, but the special effects looked like something out of an old Thunderbirds episode, and someone decided that EVERY -- SINGLE -- THOUGHT needed to be narrated to the audience. I've watched movies with blind people, who didn't have this much of the movie described to them. Additionally, I first saw the theatrical cut; whether or not it's even possible to tell the Dune story in just two hours, is debatable, but this attempt tried to do so at the expense of the key Fremen people. In the book (and later miniseries), the Fremen are a fairly complex and highly spiritual culture, yet the theatrical version presents them as little more than cavemen with mild technological awareness.

There was also the utter pillaging of some of my favourite elements of the books -- a unique martial arts fighting style, called The Weirding Way, is inexplicably turned into people firing ray guns, by shouting certain words into a microphone... or something. Then there's the ending -- this ridiculous, emotionally unjustified, and narratively sacreligious denouement, where Paul not only becomes Space Jesus (when the novels depict him as something closer to Osama Bin Laden), but somehow makes it rain all over Arrakis. This is not only never set up, or particularly well explained, but the novels make it explicitly clear that this would actually HARM Arrakis, rather than help it. Suffice it to say, it was one of the few things that Herbert utterly loathed, about the movie.

Yet, there were still elements of the movie that I liked; the art direction had its moments, it's quite beautifully photographed, I think that Paul's own spiritual journey was presented reasonably well (including MacLachlan's performance), a lot of the dialogue is surprisingly pretty, the action scenes were fairly good, and despite occasionally dating itself, the score by Toto and Brian Eno works quite well. When I later rented the Extended Edition, it went on to remedy the issues with the Fremen, and as much as I still disliked the movie overall, I was willing to concede that it was a fair adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel.

Then, along my web surfing, I'd heard about this fan-edit, and decided to give it a look. It takes various scenes from the theatrical cut, extended edition, and deleted scenes, and basically does its best to make them play nice with each other. Effect scenes are completed, where needed, scenes are shuffled into a new structure (including a clever use of the infamous animated opening, that made Lynch take his name off the Extended Edition), the ending is now much closer to the novel... and THE VOICE-OVER WAS GONE!!! (well, about half of it, but Boy Howdy did they axe the worst of it!)

Honestly, that simple deletion alone, did a surprisingly large amount to improve my opinion of this film. Without every single nuance constantly interrupting the movie, I can finally digest and appreciate the performances, and actually reflect on what's going on. WhileDune is a challenging story, at the best of times, at least the novel and miniseries generally acted as if the audience had an average IQ. Now, the film does as well. Unfortunately, while some of the deleted scenes needed to be restored, for the sake of the narrative, it's also quite obvious when the viewer is watching them -- the normally pristine picture quality, suddenly drops like a stone, and it feels like you're suddenly watching a Quicktime video instead of a movie. I also think that some more of the voice-over could have been removed, without damaging the storytelling, and I think that some odd or pathetic moments concerning The Baron should have been cut out as well; namely, the completely out of place doctor character, his increasingly random and annoying cackling, and this butt-f*ck-out-of-nowhere fixation he has with Duke Leto's ring.

I know that last part seems random, but it just really irks me in general, how the Harkonnens were turned from clever sadists, to erratic-as-hell Looney Tunes characters. Kenneth McMillian's performance already comes off as this cross between a stereotypical Texas oil tycoon and John Wayne Gacy, but this contrived and quickly abandoned obsession with the ring TURNS HIM INTO FREAKING GOLLUM. This would have been VERY easy to remove, and frankly I don't get why Spicediver didn't do so.

Then there are things that, to be fair, would have been impossible to fix with a fan edit -- the visual effects that would embarrass Asylum Pictures, the aforementioned Harkonnen Clowns (and no, this isn't made any better with Paul Smith or Sting, though the latter has a couple of moments), many of the supporting actors in general just being way too over the top, and Alicia Witt's REALLY distracting dub job (honestly, if it wasn't for the deleted scenes I would never have been convinced that that was her own voice we hear). That's not Spicedriver's fault, but anyone thinking of watching this for the first time should be warned about that.

So, my final verdict on The Alternative Edition: Redux... If we're honest, this was an exercise in turd polishing. However, it did work. While this version of David Lynch's Dune is by no means a sudden masterpiece, but it does make this an average movie. In a lot of ways, it's still trash cinema, but the soul and intelligence beneath it can actually come through, now. If this had been commercially released by Universal, I would have gladly bought it -- I think that's the best compliment you can give a fan-edit.

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