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.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Sick of Die-Hard Fanboys

Lately, I've really been having it up to my saggital suture, with the nerdiest of the sci-fi nerds. Namely, the guys and gals who are so entrenched in their personal interpretations of their favourite movies/TV shows/sub-genres, that anyone coming in with a different view can meet the business end of the Martian Death Ray. To a certain extent, I saw a lot of this when Pacific Rim came out (shortly before it became obvious that only ten people in the US saw it). Not only did I see the fanboys pile on anyone who said they simply weren't blown away by it, even when said reviewers said beforehand that giant robot movies aren't their thing... but when I simply said that I disliked the filmmakers, on an article about their premium ticket packages, I was accused of calling Guillermo Del Toro a sell-out just for making a big robot movie in the first place.

At which point I firmly explained to this person, that if he had any grasp whatsoever of English, he would have been able to tell that I was referring to Del Toro continuing the trend of charging people $60 just to go to a freaking movie theatre. Because that was the entire focus of the article being commented on.

More recently, the build-up to the upcoming Star Wars sequel trilogy has attracted no shortage of JJ Abrams bashers. You know, the guy who has produced and written some of the hottest TV series in recent memory? The guy who actually made Star Trek successful again, cool, and maybe more popular than ever? (more on that, in a minute) Yeah, for some reason, this guy is getting more fan hate, than the borderline sell-out of a creator who has made nothing but boring and ugly schlock for the last decade and a half (some would say more), and has personally insulted the very fans who gave him the freedom to do this, for not wanting him to constantly tamper with the few good movies he's been associated with.

Just to be clear, even though I don't have a clue why anyone would find the prequel trilogies awesome across the board, I'm not trying to attack them for having these views. To be fair, I can find the prequels tolerable... when I'm watching at home and can hit the mute button. And skip the scenes that just look like a cheap video game. More to the point, I find the prequels to be more a source of unintended humour, than truly awful films. If you think they are the best things since sliced bread, I reserve the right to ask you why this is (I'll do my best to be tactful about it), but I certainly will not call for a Butlerian Jihad.

To get back on topic, seemingly just because Abrams is directing these new movies -- with scripts written by established and very accomplished other writers, I might add -- the die-hards are just being vicious towards him about any rumours whatsoever associated with the film. Big names in the cast, the return of certain characters, the return to physical effects as much as possible, you name it. I mean, heaven forbid that Abrams actually try to make a movie THAT A LOT OF PEOPLE WILL WANT TO SEE!

Unfortunately, I'm not sure if my earlier courtesy applies to the current branch of die-hard Star Trek fans. To the confusion and embarrassment of many, a poll at a big Trek convention in Las Vegas last week, revealed that the currently decided Worst Trek Movie Ever is this year's Star Trek: Into Darkness. That's right, worse than The Motion Picture, worse than The Final Frontier, worse than Insurrection, and worse than... Galaxy Quest?? (seriously how did that even get on the list?)

Clearly I've been aiming this article at nerdy people, but for once I'll try to explain this to the uninitiated. The Motion Picture was as slow as continental drift, and ultimately didn't go anywhere. The Final Frontier was a visually hideous egotrip that made very little sense.Insurrection was a morally questionable lark that tried to make people care more about 600 lazy cowards, than about billions of people dying in a major war that is conveniently left off-screen. I don't pretend for a second that Into Darkness was a masterpiece, but the worst that I can say about it off the top of my head was that it was overly repetitive of The Wrath of Khan, they wasted some serious opportunities with the villain, and that the so-called stumbling blocks for Kirk got undone in about five minutes.

Yet to hear the die-hard Trekkies bitch and whine about it, you'd think that JJ Abrams had turned the thing into Hostel-like torture porn. I'm dead serious, they are THAT mad about it. To date, when I've confronted them about it, the fans have never explained what he did that was so horrible. The most coherent explanation I can get is something about action over ideas. Okay, fair enough, there is more that can be done with Trek than simply being a shoot-em-up. But first of all, there were ideas in Into Darkness -- much of it was very obvious commentary on the War on Terror, specifically the trend towards drone warfare. Second of all, the TOP RATED movies on this list -- The Wrath of Khan and First Contact -- were very much action films, themselves. First Contact in particular, barely bothered with ideas at all, and spent much of the time being a knock off of Aliens. There is simply no logical reason why mindless action should be praised in one movie, and eviscerated in another.

If you're going to get on an ideological high-horse, at least be consistent about your principles, or you stop being a fan, and become a fanatic. And then no one will want to see those movies you love so much, and no more will ever be made. Much like Anakin Skywalker, you will turn into your own worst enemy.