After-Image: ‘Dune’ (1984)

After-Image looks at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry. This week: ‘Dune’s Guild Navigator.

Sometimes we get so caught up in world-building, or narrative that we forget that cinema is a visual medium. In this occasional series we look at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry. This time: The Guild Navigator.

What makes a good film? Does it have to be coherent? Does it need to make narrative sense? I’m about to argue no. And the reason is Dune. Dune, as I’m sure everyone is aware, was a novel written by Frank Herbert. A mix of ecological treatise, sociological examination of religious fanaticism and a damning indictment of the politics of scarcity, Dune is an intricate, internal book. Most of the narrative occurs inside people’s heads; their external actions are only a tiny fraction of what is going on. Unsurprisingly, the book was regarded as unfilmable.

But a little thing like that never stopped Dino de Laurentiis.

The rights for the book staggered out of the flaming wreckage of Jodorowsky’s quixotic attempt and Dino snapped them up. For directing duties he tapped a hot young talent, fresh of an Oscar winning turn: David Lynch.

The movie is not faultless; far from it. Anyone unfamiliar with the book will find themselves somewhat adrift; the motivation of many of the characters is murky, at best; and the use of voiceover is clumsy, actually confusing issues where it is supposed to clarify. So why does it live on in my mind?

This is the Padishah Emperor of The Known Universe facing a Third Stage Guild Navigator. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what those things mean. You don’t need to.

Lynch has always worked in a liminal space where dream logic rules. In partnership with Mark Frost he revolutionised TV in the 1990s and he’s doing it again in 2017. He is, first and foremost, a painter; he thinks in images. Like all good surrealists he juxtaposes images and lets the audience draw their own conclusion. So in this this column, let’s not talk about narrative. Let’s just dive into the image.

The gold of the building immediately shows the wealth and grandeur of this person; the jagged teeth motif speaks to his animalistic cunning and untrustworthiness. That sickly green on the floor – and it’s such a telling shade of grey-green, so unlike the sea-green we’ll see later – gives everything an unhealthy tint. Something is rotten in the state of Demark. We are behind the Emperor* and the camera is low. Normally this would emphasise his power: but not here. No, here the frame, the space and the image is all controlled by the Navigator.

Carlo Rambladi is probably best known for his design of the friendly turd with Einstein’s eyes, ET: but don’t forget he also designed the tentacular sex beast of Possession and the mechanism that made Giger’s phallus headed Alien snarl and throb. Here he invests the Guild navigator with pathos; those baby blue eyes and pathetic little flippers, flailing in his cloud of spice? Awwww. But the bloated cranium and distended head suggest an unholy mating of John Merrick and Moby Dick and then the whole thing is topped off with a double lipped mouth that would make a Vervoid blush. The orange of the spice gas contrasts with the green of the floor and is nicely framed by the black of his transport/prison/life support and the black of the Emperor’s SS-ified version of a British Imperial governor.

You could throw in a word about the other guildsmen here; diseased and mutated, dressed in rubber slicks that would fit in quite well around Ming’s palace in Dino’s other SF Magnus Opus, Flash Gordon (1980), their pallid and crusted skin suggests the very human cost of space travel. The way these black clad mutants face down the Emperor clearly establishes that for all his power, all the gold of his walls, he is not a sole agent. He is bound to these creatures at they are to him.

From a pure filmmaking point of view, the amount of design effort that goes into this film is breath-taking. The investment of time and money in this one shot alone – remember, this tank and the full-size navigator never appears again after this – is staggering. Again and again as the film unfolds before our eyes, relationships and allegiances are established through colour and texture: not with the brutal simplicity of Star Wars with the monochrome empire versus the earth-tones rebels, but with shades and materials. Here the matt black of the Emperor trimmed with the gold that reflects his throne room is contrasted with the slick, glossy wetness of the guild. There’s a very visceral, tactile sense to this film; the grittiness of the sand, the oiliness of the Harkonnen. And alongside this there’s the same use of single images to try and advance the story and our understanding: whether it be the repeated ripples of Paul’s dream, Baron Harkonnen washing the blood of his victim off his diseased face with oil or the orange palette of the desert battling with the greens and blues of civilisation before the balancing at the end: Lynch’s dream logic pulls us further and deeper with every shot.

Does Dune make narrative sense? Is it coherent? No. But it is an entirely realised world and it does make sense within the bounds of that world. And every step of the way there will be single images that will stay with you for a long, long time; afterimages burned into the retina of your mind’s eye.

And that’s a win, isn’t it?


* the magnificent Jose Ferrer who later on earns his place in the Pulp Hall of Fame with his gonzo delivery of the line: “This is genocide – the deliberate and systematic destruction of all life on Arrakis!” This film is ripe with glorious, operatic performances.

 Herbert West – when he’s not reanimating the dead – teaches at a secondary school in the north of England. He is the host of the Trial of a Timelord podcast which can be found on Twitter at @WhoTrial

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