American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"It's like a dream," my friend from Hollywood was explaining. "It doesn't make any sense, and the special effects are straight from the dime store but if you give up trying to understand it, and just sit back and let it wash around in your mind, it's not bad." That was not exactly a rave review for a movie that someone paid $40 million to make, but it put me into a receptive frame of mind for "Dune," the epic based on the novels by Frank Herbert. I was even willing to forgive the special effects for not being great; after all, in an era when George Lucas' "Star Wars" has turned movies into high tech, why not a film that looks like a throwback to Flash Gordon. It might be kind of fun.
It took "Dune" about nine minutes to completely strip me of my anticipation. This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time. Even the color is no good; everything is seen through a sort of dusty yellow filter, as if the film was left out in the sun too long. Yes, you might say, but the action is, after all, on a desert planet where there isn't a drop of water, and there's sand everywhere. David Lean solved that problem in "Lawrence of Arabia," where he made the desert look beautiful and mysterious, not shabby and drab.
The movie's plot will no doubt mean more to people who've read Herbert than to those who are walking in cold. It has to do with a young hero's personal quest. He leads his people against an evil baron and tries to destroy a galaxy-wide trade in spice, a drug produced on the desert planet. Spice allows you to live indefinitely while you discover you have less and less to think about. There are various theological overtones, which are best left unexplored.
The movie has so many characters, so many unexplained or incomplete relationships, and so many parallel courses of action that it's sometimes a toss-up whether we're watching a story, or just an assembly of meditations on themes introduced by the novels (the movie is like a dream).
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