David Lynch passed on directing Return of the Jedi to wrestle Frank Herbert's mammoth '60s meta-epic to the screen for Dino De Laurenttis, though the result may be closer to Star Wars than it first appears -- Lynch's sci-fi is as uncompromisingly squishy as Lucas' is crowd-pleasingly spotless, yet both display similarly Manichean attitudinizing and reactionary impulses. The year is 10,191, presumably in a galaxy far, far away, as hordes of characters battle each other over four planets for control of the cosmic traffic of mind-altering "spice;" it is Lynch's most narrative-bound film and, even if the story is structured as the shaping of a conscience (Kyle MacLachlan's, the callow Skywalker-Messiah hero), it clunks along like a freight-train of smoky tumult, stilted inner voices, and Toto's electric guitar riffs. The overall feel is less of compression than cramming, plot oozing out of the sides of the picture, a parade of terminology (Landsraad, Sardaukar, Harkonnen, Muad'Dib, et al) further muddying the waters. What saves it from becoming just a mega-budget "Just say no" ad for the Reagan era, complete with some outrageous homophobia thrown in (Kenneth McMillian's puss-covered Baron slobbering at smirky Sting in a codpiece), is Lynch's artistic paradox, the fascination for the repellent energized with a vitality missing in the wholesome, to say nothing of his unparalled feel for the painterly-sinister. An immense black tank slides into the Emperor's (José Ferrer) Jules Verne-Babylon court to reveal a labia-faced brain floating in slime, residue moped up by leather-trenchcoated henchmen; subway-sized sand worms spreading vulva-maws; the Dali dab of a double-chinned chimney belching black smoke; Brad Dourif longingly playing with the spit that's just landed on Francesca Annis; "The tooth! The tooth!" chanted over a close-up of Dean Stockwell's mustached lips -- syphilic visions heightened, rather than straitjacketed, by the project's commercialization. Cinematography by Freddie Francis. With Jürgen Prochnow, Max von Sydow, Sean Young, Freddie Jones, Richard Jordan, Virginia Madsen, Sian Phillips, Silvana Mangano, Patrick Stewart, Linda Hunt, Everett McGill, Paul L. Smith, and Alicia Witt.
--- Fernando F. Croce