Max von Sydow, Patrick Stewart, Kyle MacLachlan and Jürgen Prochnow

Dune. Not Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 behemoth, that pleasure still awaits. But David Lynch’s 1984 version, the only film in his career that he wished he hadn’t made and will not talk about in interviews, except to say he shouldn’t have made it.

And not the theatrical version either, but the “extended” one worked up for TV so it could be shown in two 90 minute chunks. Lynch hated this one so much he had his name taken off the credits. So welcome to another “Alan Smithee film”.

Acutally Lynch originally had a four-hour cut in mind but had managed to get the running time down to three hours. Not short enough for his producers, who were worried that anything over two hours and 17 minutes would mean one fewer showing per day in the cinemas. And so two hours 17 minutes it is, and comprehensibility be damned. Which is why I turned to the TV version, hoping against hope that three hours would fill in some of the gaps.

The vastly sprawling plot can be distilled down to: the Emperor Shaddam IV (Jose Ferrer), anxious that his barons are gaining in power, sets two houses – Harkonnen (boo) and Atreides (hooray) – against each other in a divide-and-rule contest over who will control the mining and trade of Spice, a magical substance with bitcoin-meets-crack allure found only on the planet Arrakis (aka Dune), a sandy waste where killer monster sandworms hold sway.

Think of Harkonnen as the Empire and Atreides as the Rebel Alliance, if you want a Star Wars hook to hang this film on, and young Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan in his debut) as a Luke Skywalker type growing in stature from callow youth to mighty warrior as he faces down the Harkonnen and uncovers the Emperor’s treachery.

On the planet Arrakis, aka Dune
On the planet Arrakis

Both Star Wars and Dune are in hock visually to the 1930s Flash Gordon films but David Lynch seems to have been drinking deeper from the cup than George Lucas ever did. The faintly militaristic look, the art nouveau styling, the hair just so, the way everyone speaks in awed sci-fi tones about concepts that must be everyday to them, that all connects directly to the era of Buster Crabbe’s Flash and Jean Rogers’ Dale Arden.

Lucas, his scrolling preamble aside, found clever narrative ways to explain the who, what and where of what was going on in his film in a way that Lynch never manages. This film is heavy with explication, with a voiceover narrator (some of it added for the TV version, admittedly), internal monologue from characters and a tendency for every new interaction between people to begin with an explicatory preamble contextualising what the characters are about to discuss.

Villeneuve’s film has broken Frank Herbert’s original novel into two halves, and watching Lynch trying to get all of its plot onto the screen in 1984 you can’t help feeling he (or the De Laurentiises, who produced) would have done better to do the same. This Dune is drowning in guff.

Blame Herbert’s book, if you like. Personally, reading it was the moment when I broke with sci-fi, which until then I’d associated with pithy, ideas-driven stories from the likes of Asimov, Le Guin, Dick, Heinlein and Bradbury. Dune, by contrast, was a soap opera in space. And long. The original book was 400 and something pages, with more volumes forming a traffic jam behind. Call it an attention span disorder but I gave up around the halfway mark.

This is not a good film, not at any level. Lynch is not an action director, the look of it is shonky, even with the great Freddie Francis as DP, the sets are frequently wobbly, and though vast amounts of money have clearly been spent on the mostly practical effects (there are some crude early CG moments), it’s been wasted. Toto’s soundtrack is senseless – it brings to mind the vamping Lynch would get from a later musical collaborator, Angelo Badalamenti, which is fine for odd open-ended dramas but does not work here, where a bit of ta-daa and boom is needed rather than airy blah.

There are good things to be found. MacLachlan is fantastic as the wide-eyed youth growing into the nobility already possessed by his father (Jürgen Prochnow). Francesca Annis as his mother has that fatalistic Lady Macbeth thing going on. Siân Phillips is a fantastically swivel-eyed priestess. Max Von Sydow in warrior attire is dignity incarnate. Sean Young, underused but welcome in a Princess Leia-ish role as Paul Atreides’ love interest. Jose Ferrer, not in it half enough, makes a great and commanding Emperor, and Kenneth McMillan as Baron Harkonnen, face covered in pustules and with a tendency to float off into the air, seems to be enjoying himself in his pantomime role.

Imagine if Ridley Scott had made this, as was mooted at one point (he made Blade Runner instead). That would have freed David Lynch up to make Return of the Jedi, which he turned down to make this. Right there, two alternate-reality sci-fi scenarios.

Dune – Watch /buy the theatrical version at Amazon

David Lynch box set at Amazon – Includes Dune, Blue Velvet, Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 16 – Who’s Who???

Lola and Emma in a mind-swap machine

The Nicolas Cage/John Travolta film Face/Off might perhaps have borrowed its central idea from Who’s Who???, a crackingly conceived episode of The Avengers built around the idea of a mind-swap between Steed and the dastardly Basil (Freddie Jones).

There’s a bit plot business before we get to the big central idea – we are introduced to Basil and sidekick Lola (Patricia Haines) deliberately killing “one of our very best agents”, in the words of the original and as-yet-unaltered John Steed, expressly with the intention of flushing Steed and Peel out into the open to steal their identities.

But nothing really held my interest until what looked like an old radar console from a Second World War movie was rolled out and the mind-swap began. Would the valves be up to it? Swap achieved, the bogus Steed is soon back at base, where he is immediately arousing Mrs Peel’s suspicions by addressing her as “Emma”. Not his style.

Who are these guys – Basil and Lola, and the boffin Krelmar (Arnold Diamond) who’s teched all this together? They seem to be some kind of residue of the Nazi era, a gang out to bust the Flower Network of spies, whose agents all have floral names – Poppy, Bluebell, Pansy, Daffodil (played by this episode’s writer, Philip Levene) – by infiltrating it.

So far, so dastardly. Things become slightly more complicated when Lola and Mrs Peel mind-swap and, with wit and originality, the show tries to keep viewers up to speed on who’s who with faux public information announcements after each advertising break. The villains look like this (Steed and Peel) and the good guys look like this (Basil and Lola) kind of thing.

John Steed with a gun
Will the real John Steed please stand up!

The fact that there is something of a relationship between Basil and Lola allows Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg to be a lot fruitier than they normally would – doing the kissing thing, dancing together (in “yeh, baby” Austin Powers fashion) and so on. It’s Haines and Jones who actually embrace the mind-swap idea fully. Neither Rigg nor Macnee seem entirely committed to playing different characters, a bit of gum-chewing (Rigg) and cigar-chomping (Macnee) and they’re about done.

People who insist that TV-land should bear some relationship to the actual world we live in will hate the car chase, which zips from a central London mews location to the countryside and back to suburbia in no time at all.

More importantly, in terms of consistency, neither writer Levene, the actors nor director John Llewellyn Moxey seem to have worked out whether the transfer of “psyche” (as it’s called) involves all aspects of the personality, or whether some of it remains in the body, or whether that’s muscle-memory or some other residual effect.

It’s not really Face/Off in utero, in other words, and for all its ingenious plotting, and performances from Jones and Haines that really zing, it doesn’t quite work.

Apparently (thanks to theavengers.tv for this info), necessity was the mother of this episode. Macnee was off on holiday and Rigg was halfway out of the series – hence the need for a couple of actors who could do a good chunk of the dramatic heavy lifting.

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020