`Dune': daunting journey through time and space. Also, `The River' traces struggles of a farm family

David Lynch, the director of ``Dune,'' is the most fiercely original talent in mainstream film today. Which isn't necessarily an asset, since mainstream film doesn't cotton to fiercely original talent. Studios like to play it safe.

Be that as it may, ``Dune'' is no mere splashy entertainment. It's a visionary journey through realms of time, space, and cinema -- plus certain dank corners of Lynch's obsessive imagination that you may not want to visit on a Saturday night, or any other time. It's imposing, intimidating, infuriating, ingenious. Nobody but Lynch could have made it, and nobody but Lynch would have wanted to.

The story comes from Frank Herbert's popular novel of the same name. Set in the future on several planets, it focuses on a young nobleman named Paul whose family has been targeted for destruction by a rival dynasty.

He fights his enemies from a desert planet that produces a mysterious spice called melange, which enables certain people to``fold space'' -- voyaging zillions of miles between between stars without moving. Along the way Paul finds out he's the result of an elaborate breeding program engineered by a cult his mother belongs to, and could be a messiah long awaited by the natives of Dune.

Herbert's novel is strong on exotic ideas, trite when it comes to plot and action. Lynch follows the plot with feverish haste, cramming in so many details it's hard to digest them even if you've read the book.

But what really interests him is finding visual equivalents for the novel's most bizarre concepts. His film is packed with delirious effects, many of them rooted in Herbert's descriptions, others recalling wild-eyed images from his own earlier movies.

To top it off, there's a sound track unlike anything you ever heard: a relentless barrage of noise, music, words, and sounds that fall somewhere in between. Lynch is a generous filmmaker: When in doubt, he's always happy to throw in another jarring morsel to yank your ear and eye from any shred of security they may have found. Favorite devices include deafening industrial roars and random jets of steam piped in from nowhere.

The extravagance of ``Dune'' has precedents in two movie traditions. One is the line of modernist science-fiction epics, notably the pychedelic breed spawned by the climax of ``2001: A Space Odyssey'' and continued in pictures as different as ``Altered States'' and the new ``2010.''

The other is Lynch's own body of work, a small but conspicuous group of movies full of grotesque textures, disturbing visions, oddball humor, and very real compassion. The first shot of ``Dune'' recalls the beginning of his classic feature ``Eraserhead,'' perhaps the most unsettling horror comedy ever made. Other visual strategies go back to ``The Grandmother,'' an early short that mingled animation with live action, and ``The Elephant Man,'' which won Oscar nominations with its brooding portrait of a typically offbeat Lynch hero.

``Dune'' takes the eccentric instincts of these films, runs them through a blender with Herbert's best seller, and splashes the turbulent result across the screen with 70mm, six-track Dolby stereo, Technicolor glee. The effect ranges from startling to shocking to funny to confusing to just plain childish. For all its zany excess, ``Dune'' is a major film achievement in a belligerent sort of way. But don't venture toward this daunting epic unless you're in the mood to be daunted.

``The River'' begins its course with two strikes against it. The names of those strikes are ``Places in the Heart'' and ``Country,'' which beat it to the screen by several months. It's just a coincidence that three movies in one year have chosen the subject of farm families struggling to save their land -- this isn't really a ``dust bowl trilogy,'' as Hollywood-watchers have dubbed it. But even a strong topic wears thin when treated too often in too short a time, and ``The River'' suffers by being the weakest as well as the latest of the bunch.

Mel Gibson, trading his native Australian accent for an American drawl, plays a farm owner in a region troubled by floods. Nature hasn't been kind to him lately, and now a greedy developer (Scott Glenn) wants to buy out all the local farmers and build a hydroelectric dam on their land.

Sissy Spacek, playing the hero's wife, wouldn't mind packing up the kids and moving to a more hospitable place. But her husband won't budge. ``Mah people're buried here,'' he says, in a speech that deserves some sort of Oscar for triteness.

Other scenes are less hackneyed but just as predictable. There's a race against time to shore up the levee; an auction that threatens to duplicate the one in ``Country''; collusion between the sneaky developer and a weak-kneed politician; another race against time to shore up the levee; and an inexcusably hokey subplot about a one-time romance between (you guessed it) the heroine and the man who wants to raze her family's homestead.

Some moments pack a raw cinematic power, especially when humans find themselves pitted against their own tools -- a metaphor for the hardships faced by many people who labor with their hands. Most gripping are a matched set of sequences at the beginning and middle of the story, in which Gibson and Spacek are trapped under tractors. The screenplay (by Robert Dillon and Julian Barry) also gives interesting treatment to at least one complex moral issue, when the financially desperate hero takes a scab job and must later face his conscience and community.

Most of ``The River'' is dry and familiar, though. I'm pretty sure its failings would have stood out just as much if its surprisingly similar cousins hadn't arrived first, and by comparison with those cousins, ``The River'' fares even worse--lacking the political urgency of ``Country'' and the sublime conclusion of ``Places in the Heart.'' Even the cinematography by ace cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond doesn't measure up to images we've already seen this year. Many shots are too picture-perfect, looking like prettified postcards in the Panavision screen's rectangular frame.

Mark Rydell, who directed ``The River,'' recently told me how deeply his cast plunged into their roles during the film's unusually long ``shoot'' -- Gibson learning to drive a tractor and weld, Glenn becoming a helicopter pilot, Spacek moving right into the house where many family scenes take place. Such dedication is laudable, but it's no substitute for a sharp screenplay and incisive filmmaking. ``The River'' doesn't live up to its ambitions.

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