Dunerecommended viewing

Versailles
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1984
Director: 
David Lynch
Starring: 
Kyle MacLachlan, Francesca Annis, Jurgen Prochnow, Everett McGill, Jose Ferrer
The Setup: 
Huge sweeping space epic about a space messiah.
Discussion: 

Ya know, the more you delve into science fiction, the more you realize that Star Wars was just a clever melange of everything that had come before, in easy comic-book form. That's what reviewing this movie again made me come to realize, as it [meaning the novel, which came before Star Wars] also does that whole thing of tossing together all the common myths from world religions and making a big epic "chosen one" story out of all of it.

So I saw this movie when it was out in theaters, and greeted it with pretty much the same 'WTF?' as the rest of the world. It doesn't make much sense, but it does show you a crazy bizarre world, so it was difficult to outright hate, but also impossible to love. So this time I watched the "extended edition," which is a version created for television showings that adds back in about 40 minutes of footage, plus a whole shitload of voice-over exposition [in a shockingly inappropriate voice--it's as though Jesse Ventura is narrating] that explains the whole thing up front, and comes in throughout to clarify certain obscure points. It is VERY clunky, but it suceeded in making the entire thing comprehensible for the first time, and thus ENJOYABLE for the first time.

So there's this whole backstory I couldn't possibly go into [read more here] about how spectaclemeister Dino De Laurentis bought the rights to the novel, and went through a bunch of possible directors [including Andrew Jodorowsky]. They finally settled on David Lynch, who had just released The Elephant Man to great acclaim. The problem, of course, is to boil this 800-page novel with its whole complicated political interconnections down to the two-hour-seventeen-minute movie the studio demanded. So Lynch turned in a three-hour version, the studio took it and cut it down themselves, and what was released was the incomprehensible thing it was. To the point where they distributed "cheat sheets" at theaters explaining unfamiliar terms and who was who. Sounds like moviegoing FUN, right? Although it seems that most people prefer the theatrical version, which at least gets going relatively soon, to this one, with its relentless lectures and explanation.

So we begin with these credits and finally notice the screenplay is credited to “Judas Booth” and the direction to “Alan Smithee,” although we know it was written and directed by David Lynch. He successfully lobbied to get his name taken off this version [and wanted it off the earlier version], because the studio took it away from him and cut it down in order to save time, in addition to what he saw as a series of compromises that ruined the thing. The pseudonym for the writing is a combination of Judas, who betrayed Jesus, because Lynch felt he had been betrayed by the studio, and Booth for John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln, because Lynch felt his vision had been assassinated. I think someone is a little bitter, frankly. Lynch refuses to talk about the film to this day, by the way. OH, and let’s not forget that the music for this film is supposedly by Toto. FUCKING TOTO. Yes, THAT Toto. “AFRICA” Toto.

Okay, so then we get this “prologue” tacked on to the extended version, which uses a painting [of the quality you might find on the wall of an Italian restaurant] to lay out the whole deal between these three major planets, with three major factions, and this whole long complicated political backstory. It is a phenomenally boring way to start a film, you seriously have to sit through like a 10-minute history lecture, but it will pay dividends later when you find you can actually FOLLOW the film. Except that there are points where they have the wrong planet on screen when they’re talking about something else. Then the movie as you remember it starts, and… well, it’s going to be hard for me to summarize the plot here, because it’s so convoluted, but we’ll go through and point out some of the key features.

The first thing you gradually notice—aside from that many of the special effects can look pretty cheesy [they can also look unexpectedly FABULOUS]—is that this film is starting to show you some really interesting, unique sights. One of the first things that happens is these people wheel in a huge sarcophagus-thing that they open and turns out to be a huge tank with a gigantic brain-bug thing that speaks from a vagina-mouth that issues pink smoke. You have to admit that’s not something you see every day. Then we have this whole class of bald women in robes obviously meant to evoke Medieval garb, and they’re freaked that Paul, the son of Duke Leto and Lady Jessica, might just be important, since the brain bug said to kill him. So they give him the ol’ hand-in-the-box test, where he endures more pain than anyone has been able to withstand, making them think he might just be something special. This is one of those WTF? moments, that I totally remember from my very first viewing of this film, as well as, immediately prior, when Patrick Stewart decides on an impromptu knife fight, where they both put op these personal force fields that are all geometrical and translucent, and flat-out LOOK AMAZINGLY COOL. That was definitely one of those WTF moments when I was sixteen, and had never seen anything like that, and it still is, because they still look goddamned amazing. He also has to do one of those Jedi-like fighting exercises against his machine. So around now you realize it’s nearly an HOUR into this edition of the movie and they’re only NOW getting going on the big family trip that essentially sets the plot in motion! I was looking at Dune fan sites and stuff, and I see that a common comment about this movie is that it spends a great amount of time on the novel’s first 40 pages, then rushes through the rest.

So now they head off for the planet Arrakis, which is mostly desert, except for this protected palace. Furthermore, the sand contains Spice, which “extends life and expands consciousness” and, little known fact, gave rise to the Spice Girls. Yeah, it’s true. The planet is also rife with sand worms, which are big and mean and fucking amazingly awesome. Paul gets a whiff of the spice and has a little “woah” moment. After an attempt on Paul’s life from a floating hypodermic needle, they realize there is a traitor in their midst. Okay, let’s take stock. The whole deal thus far is modeled on a Medieval royal family, and it is totally working. Paul’s parents are played by Jurgen Prochnow, who brings an Arthur-like gravity to the proceedings, and Francesca Annis, who nearly steals the picture as Paul’s mother. She just brings an absolutely perfect air of beautiful refinement, creating a character that is very approachable, but also seems completely believable as a member of royalty. The movie also does a good job of replicating the hushed air of a Medieval royal court, with interesting little characters like Linda Hunt showing up and acting suitably weird and wonderful. The movie is also creating this very unusual dreamlike atmosphere, with it’s strange visuals and erratic, whispered voice-overs and soliloquies.

Okay I couldn’t stand it anymore! I was struggling all through writing everything up till now—and finally just broke down and bought this on Blu-ray!

So we finally take a trip out into the desert, where everyone wears these cool-looking black suits adapted for desert-wear that recycle your urine, sweat and feces and turn them into Hostess® snack cakes that you can use to stay alive for a month in the desert. Except I was lying about the snack cake part. They actually turn your feces into General Tsao’s Chicken. Okay? Let’s just leave it at that. Anyway, in here we get out first glimpse at a sand worm and it is suitably fucking awesome. They must have made a big-ass worm, as the sand around it looks reasonably to scale and the whole things seems truly massive and impressive. I personally don’t have a single complaint about any of the sandworm footage, to me, they all still look fantastic, and I would not wish for a CGI worm any day. There is some “adventure” here, best skipped, except to note that they supposedly rescue 27 men from this mining thing, but we only see like three get on board safely!

SPOILERS > > >
Soon after, the traitor enacts his plan, the Duke is killed, the palace is destroyed, and Paul and Jessica barely escape into the desert. There Paul has a vision, and here’s another case where you either get into Lynch’s symbolism or don’t… for example, I really liked the simple archetypal imagery of having an open hand symbolize “Stop,” but maybe that’ll seem simplistic to some. Then they happen into a local Bear club’s beer bust… no, it’s this group of freedom fighters [the “Fremen,” not too far from “Free Men”] and Paul meets Sean Young, who supplies further evidence that she cannot act when not portraying a robot. In here mom pops out a sister for Paul, who will make a notable appearance at the end, and then Paul trains the Fremen to Lambada, as well as use their voices as deadly weapons. Then they learn to ride sandworms, and Paul drinks the water of life—sounds like a prison euphemism, no?—then he REALLY has a vision, and he realizes that the thing to do is destroy the spice, because “He who can destroy a thing controls it.” He realizes this will bring all the other factions running, where he can easily defeat them, and he will then rule the universe. Which goes off pretty much without a hitch. Then he fights Sting, kills him, and that’s the end. He is the chosen one.
< < < SPOILERS END

Frankly, I never quite understood the whole Sting thing, and still don’t understand it now. I figure it is much more significant if you’ve read the novel. In the original film, he shows up in a few scenes, then Paul kills him at the end, and that’s it. Here, he shows up in a few MORE scenes, then he’s killed. He’s the original Darth Maul. I just don’t get it.

Okay, so this movie is a big, bizarre mess, but it is a UNIQUE big bizarre mess, and I think you kind of have to love it for that. For one thing, the decision to hire Lynch paid off in spades [looking back from 25 years later] because this movie isn’t afraid to be abstract and poetic and artful, and that gives it a kind of grandeur and real spectacle that would couldn’t get in a more conventional film. For evidence, look no further than the trailer for the 2000 Syffy Channel remake, which cleanly nipped any desire I had to see that right in the bud. It’s like Teens of Dune [or Dune Kidz! Or Totally Dune’d!] and clearly shows that CGI doesn’t necessarily help matters. Here Lynch is trying to work this whole Medieval thing that draws on ancient art with the outfits and the chambers and the bearded men, and it all looks fantastic and creates a cohesive vision—one that also draws on all our collective feelings about Arthurian legends and suchlike [the remake seems modeled after World War One? Which one is more evocative of heroes and legends?].

There’s also a grandeur to the stuff here, especially the sandworms, which really seem massive and mighty, and create great, unforgettable visuals. The casting is mostly quite good [Everett McGill makes a particularly good impression in the last half], using the cast for their evocative looks as much as their acting talent. Not least of this is Kyle MacLachlan, who is completely convincing throughout, and truly assumes an otherworldly, regal air toward the end. It’s enough to make you lament that his career was ruined by Showgirls, although I think he should have known better than to choose that film.

Finally, there’s just something odd enough about this movie to make it really unique and compelling. For example, one of the last shots is of Paul’s little sister, after announcing that he is the chosen one [and the big rain coming], shown doing an ecstatic whirl of joy, knife in hand, and this expressive, poetic image goes much further to sum up the mood at the end than any big, composed speech ever could. So yes, this may, strictly speaking, be an artistic failure, but then again, it was a pretty herculean task, and if Lynch didn’t produce a perfect adaptation of the novel, at least he made something special, beautiful and poetic that you would never mistake for anything else. A writer on the IMDb summed it up perfectly: "This is the Versailles Palace of Sci-Fi film."

Should you watch it: 

I TOTALLY think so. If you’ve only seen the shorter version, watch this one and understand the story for the first time.