Dune (1984)

Director: David Lynch

By Roderick Heath

Frank Herbert’s Dune, published in 1965, is my favourite science fiction novel and a clear contender for the greatest of the genre. A vast and complex work of neo-mythic imagination, it marked a bridging point of the literary scifi form, linking the mind-bending modern genre with the zesty spaceships and stellar princesses of so many early adventure tales. David Lynch had only two feature films to his credit—Eraserhead (1976) and The Elephant Man (1980)—when he was chosen to direct Dino de Laurentiis’s huge-budget adaptation of the novel. Lynch’s film of Herbert’s novel hardly lived up to the stature of either artist. Instead, it signaled Lynch’s retreat from a mainstream career and the beginning of the end of the cinematic scifi boom of the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Why was Dune such a big bust? There are a few standard answers that can be offered: the book was too long and complex to adapt; the FX demands too great even for post-Star Wars Hollywood; the cinema is inimical to much of what the novel was about—metaphysics, moral complexity, speculative physics, political intrigues, oh my! As far as Lynch’s career goes, Dune is sort of a black hole these days—too weird for fanboys and not weird enough for fans of Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks. Dune surely needed the love, running time, and technical wizardry Peter Jackson gave to The Lord of the Rings. It needed to encapsulate a huge amount of geek expectation while selling itself to a mass audience.

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In essence, the plot of Dune isn’t that complicated. In the distant future, computers are banned. We who are fed up with Windows XP might sympathise. The Goodies—the Atreides family—take over the planet Arrakis, where spice is mined. Spice is really cool shit that lets some people who make up the Spacing Guild fold time and travel through space, lets others live really long, and inspires many to develop incredibly bad fashion sense. The spice is produced by giant worms that infest the sands of Arrakis. The Baddies—the Harkonnen clan—used to run Arrakis, and they plot, with the help of the Emperor (Jose Ferrer), who fears the Atreides’ growing popularity, to take over again. Plots unfold. The Duke of the Atreides, Leto (Jurgen Prochnow), is betrayed and killed; his wife Jessica (Francesca Annis) and son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) escape and meet up with a Merry Men-like mob of wild freedom fighters, the Fremen. Paul meets a hot desert chick, Chani (Sean Young), and soon confirms that he is the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy and the product of generations of selective breeding by the weirdo, quasi-religious, scientific sect called the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. Paul is a potential superhuman who can read minds, kill with a shout, and see the future. He leads the Fremen in a guerrilla war to halt spice production, avenge his father, and bring the universe to its knees.

Boiled down to essentials, it reads like a fast-paced adventure yarn, not so far from Star Wars. Indeed, Lucas borrowed elements from Herbert—a universe ruled by feudalism and pseudo-scientific religion. The Force, like the Spice, is a metaphysical trope that contradicts the generally technofascist drift of scifi. De Laurentiis undoubtedly thought he’d be making an upscale Star Wars. But it’s the endless story digressions, background folklore, and implicit and overt ideas fuelling the narrative which distinguish the novel. Working out what to stress and what to render inconsequential always separates a good adaptation from a bad one. Peter Jackson, for instance, never let Tolkien’s goobledygook get in the way of sword fights and battles, trusting that an intelligent audience will absorb a new glossary in the experience. Lynch, writing his own script, fell down badly in this challenging experience, for he insisted in trying to outlay every small point, like, for instance, having the voice-overs that explicate the characters’ unspoken thoughts point out repetitive and obvious things, or things that aren’t elucidating or necessary. His efforts to get these details across are often infuriating, and he was not at all helped by the forcefully hacked-down release version that most people initially saw. Dune, a novel filled with complex manoeuvres not just of plot but also of thought and philosophy, is not so much an action story as a tale of characters thinking of how, why, and when to take action. The story’s nature inevitably changes on the big screen.

But Lynch’s film is rife with intriguing aesthetic choices that can seem excessively eccentric and inspired all at once. Lynch’s breadth of imagination and comfort with alien imagery undoubtedly landed him the job of making the film, and Lynch is indeed most at home with the novel’s most difficult aspect—the webs of vision, prophecy, and mysticism that beset Paul. Lynch’s most arresting work comes in the associative, psychedelic montages that reveal Paul’s prescience, and indulge familiar tropes of his visual imagination, such as alien planets, falling stars, and perverted births. However, Lynch’s approach elsewhere is a pasteboard affair, shunning the detailed realism Lucas, Kubrick, and Ridley Scott worked so hard to give to the genre, in favor of a broad, almost cartoonish atmosphere. It’s hard to tell the degree to which Lynch conspired with or was undone by the shoddy work of his special effects, set design, and costume departments; de Laurentiis’ associates seem to have thought they were still working on the parodic Flash Gordon (1980). A good illustration of the wild swings between good and bad ideas can be noted in two prominent costuming choices. The Fremen’s Stilsuits were inspired by Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man, a smart concept that’s both eye-catching and appropriate, considering that the Fremen represent the innate possible strength of the human form. But they combat the Harkonnen’s men who, improbably, wear ’50s style anti-radiation suits, intended to render them chilling and alien, but the visual effect of this is simply clumsy and self-conscious.

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Possibly Lynch, a true surrealist, was delighted with the pastiche, matching his thinking that film should be flagrantly unreal. If The Matrix was a selection of systematic, market-driven images—techno chic, leather jackets, and drugs of choice—without a narrative to match, Dune is the opposite, offering an absurd proliferation of Austro-Hungarian and Stormtrooper uniforms, big bushy eyebrows, and toy spaceships. The effects, despite being the work of masters Albert Whitlock and Carlo Rambaldi, are startlingly unconvincing in comparison with the contemporaneous work in Alien (1979), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Blade Runner (1982). The action scenes suck, from the lame-o ray gunfire to the cheap battles of the extras from a leftover sword-and-sandal movie. But that’s still a part of Lynch’s chosen style, something that works more confidently, for instance, in the way he establishes the Atreides’ home on the planet Corrino, where their home fortress is a Roger Corman-style model castle above a thundering sea. When the black-clad Bene Gesserit matriarch Reverend Mother Mohiam (Sian Phillips) and her entourage arrives, lashed by rain and howling winds, Lynch stages it with all the aplomb of a midnight visitation in a horror film. For a film that offers a vision of a future run by feudal government, religious orders, and unimaginable homunculi, Lynch then made it his prerogative to render it often much closer to a kind of perfervid gothic nightmare than a bright and shiny space opera.
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One aspect of this film that is definitely Lynchian, and yet bugged genre critics and fans most, are the grotesque villains. Lynch’s manifestations of evil are often leering, caricatured, extreme visions (think Frank in Blue Velvet or the old couple at the end of Mulholland Drive), and the Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth MacMillan) and his progeny Feyd-Rautha (Sting) and Raban (Paul Smith) fit right in. Lynch’s hobgoblins are slightly different to Hollywood patent villainy; Lynch tries to evoke the weird, threatening people who inhabit the corners of adolescent nightmares, like escaped pieces of the Id. That’s not Herbert; the novel’s Harkonnen is monstrous and a sadistic homosexual to boot, but he’s also a wily tactician and intellectual villain, a figure fit to be a Roman Emperor. Lynch’s Harkonnen viciously slaughters toyboys and drools over Sting’s oiled pecs, has boils weeping from his face, and rants a lot, a step away from a Popeye opponent. The cumulative effect is one of Lynch’s major miscalculations, removing from the story the necessary sense of the overwhelming difficulty of effecting any kind of change in this bottomlessly corrupt, cruel, even obscene future. And yet here, too, Lynch can offer the odd effective touch, as when Harkonnen gives a captive a cat and a rat that had been stitched together to form an unholy hybrid, from which the captive has to milk the antidote to a poison in his body each day, in a vision that communicates a truly memorable variety of futuristic, utterly contemptible malignancy.

Dune was edited down by De Laurentiis, destroying much of the potential texture and clarity. I’ve seen both Lynch’s original cut and the extended network television edition he took his name off, which sports a long prologue and new voiceover explanations in addition to extra footage. That version is rather more fluent and achieves a far more confident dramatic pace and texture. But it did strip the original cut of one masterful, quintessentially Lynchian quality—the dreamy tone, set by Virginia Madsen’s Princess Irulan’s appearance at the start (echoing the final image of The Elephant Man), and continuing to infest the subsequent narrative’s entire structure. The TV edit, on the other hand, is far more literal.

Disappointingly, Dune fails to come to grips with Arrakis as a place, for the most part. Where the novel captures a sense of vastness and infinite possibility, Lynch’s often setbound action reduces epic scope to some tinny cavorting, and hordes of Stilsuited extras running across sands without any more suggested sophsitcation to the action than what you would have once seen in a ’50s matinee flick. If the stygian tilt to much of Lynch’s imagery is fascinating, it works against the very core of a film that is built around the necessary sense of the physical grandeur of the desert, which is barely apparent. But Lynch, aided by the striking photography of Freddie Francis, still offers a rich proliferation of engaging scenes. The opening, when the Emperor (Jose Ferrer) is confronted by one of the mutated, bizarre, prescient Guild members, is keenly handled, with a sense of drama and foreboding immediately implied, and the settings appropriately colossal, as is the Guildsman himself. Likewise, the first appearance of a worm during which a huge machine is swallowed from below, and Paul and Jessica trying to survive in the desert under a worm’s attack. The gory placenta shots of Paul’s embryonic sister Alia being transformed by the Spice’s influence carry a real charge of the forbidden, and the sequences in which Paul learns to conquer the worms and lead the Fremen and then drinks the potentially poisonous Water of Life in order to conquer the unknown, are rhythmic and intense. On the other hand, Lynch, surprisingly, fails to convey some of Herbert’s gorgeous perversities, like the orgies of the Spice-drunk Fremen, and the deeply transgressive notion of the wild Alia as a fully sentient infant (played here by Alicia Witt) who cavorts on the battlefield, slaying soldiers and the Baron alike, with primal glee.

This inadequacy leads to another failure. Herbert’s novel portrays a future whose most genuinely alien quality is a lack of contemporary morality. Herbert provokes us with notions—Paul’s victory bringing on a reign of bloodshed, Alia as a child housing a sexually knowing and psychotically violent adult—that upend idealistic expectations and easy identification, and are poisonous to the type of melodrama Lynch finally made. In Dune’s universe, modern liberalism and democracy have been replaced by a nascent medievalism, Byzantine webs of loyalty, intrigue, power mongering and servitude. The universe is infinitely corrupt, and change will be brutal, as Paul, in his visions, realises his ascension as the “Kwisatz Haderach,” the great male witch and messiah, will bring on a cosmic-scale slaughter, his “good” distinguishable from “evil” only in being dedicated to collective renewal rather than self-interest. In this way Herbert evokes the undiluted pagan strength of classical myths like those in Die Niebelungen and the Trojan cycle, where the forces of history, identity, and spirituality warp and overwhelm petty human concerns. Lynch, trying to provide the Lucasian blockbuster, can’t come anywhere near this type of monstrous catharsis, with the end merely promising love, order, and peace, as Paul brings the rain to Arrakis by magic tricks.

For all this, the film is watchable, even enjoyable, and looked at from a slightly different angle, its apparently egregious failures often seem like intriguing possibilities—a notion any Bene Gesserit would appreciate. If the film is not as triumphantly weird and mythic as the novel, it is bold, original, and odd in its own, distinct way. Lynch’s anarchic design, which evokes long-discarded technology (for example, a translation device with the large, round head of a vintage microphone), and including all that bizarre costuming and set design, is authentically New Wave in attitude. Lynch embraces rock-accented music in trying to make a new-age kind of epic, and the score, by progressive-pop legends Toto and Brian Eno, is perhaps the film’s most truly, inarguably fine feature. The film’s flourishes, I think, sank as deeply, but more stealthily, into the zeitgeist as the more widely appreciated Blade Runner, providing visual counterpoints and inspiration for the then-embryonic cyberpunk genre, graphic novel illustration, and music videos. I sense the special influence on the early films of Jeunet and Caro. The film still has the heft of a mega-production, and the casting is, for the most part, perfect. Kyle MacLachlan, Lynch’s discovery for the movie, makes a pretty, dashing hero. Further down the cast list, Patrick Stewart as the Atreides’ steward Gurney Halleck, probably won his role as Jean-Luc Picard with his nobly hammy diction, and both he and Sian Phillips, who plays the Bene Gesserit leader, came out of the TV production I, Claudius. Yes, Dune is a strange and frustrating experience, but it’s one I’ve become doggedly fond of. l

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    10th/12/2007 to 12:16 am

    Fantastic article, Rod. My opinion of Dune has diminished as I’ve gotten older and my patience has thinned.
    I think the most telling aspect is that Lynch has refused to go back and retool a “director’s cut” of this movie, even though it would probably be a very profitable seller on DVD. Lynch does not seem very fond of the film or anything he was forced to trim from it.

  • gautam spoke:
    12th/12/2007 to 2:08 pm

    A fascinating read! I never had the chance to watch this film, and have never really stumbled onto it in the Lynchian filmography. The 80s were a great time for sci-fi movies, in fact, I personally believe that sci-fi films of the present are just pale in comparison to the ‘personality’ of an authentic 80s sci-fi film.
    Films like ‘Dune’ should be handed over to filmmakers who are well ahead of their time. Like how Fritz Lang gave us ‘Metropolis’ (1927), a film so timeless and still as exciting today as ever.
    As you pointed out so well, one good thing about the failure of this film is that it saw Lynch’s return to arthouse cinema. I recollect a similar episode happening to the great Wim Wenders with his huge-budget sci-fi failure ‘Until the End of the World’ (1991).
    Thanks for a great read!

  • falseadvertiser spoke:
    11th/12/2008 to 6:56 pm

    A fair assessment on the whole… I’d have to agree with you on the point about the soundtrack as well. Despite the film’s egregious shortcomings however, I love it. It’s just so damned strange. I find that it remains more alien than the novel. There is a point at which, in reading Dune, I find myself inhabiting the alien future Herbert depicts. As a reader, my horizon and that of the novel merge. That moment does not occur in watching the rather disjointed, dream-like film. It remains alien and inaccessible, even after re-watching.
    Despite Lynch’s fragmented, snapshot storytelling (which has the narrative fluidity of a child playing with action figures) there are moments in the film that I genuinely appreciate –in particular, the prescience sequences, Paul’s worm ride (which, let’s be clear, would be worthless if not for Eno’s brilliant music), and that great moment after Paul has consumed the water of life where he shouts “Father, the Sleeper has awakened!” Goosebumps.
    There are also moments which make me cringe –the montage in which Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen??) says “Paul and Chani’s love grew,” and a shot of the two smooching is imposed overtop desert warfare… GAG ME.
    All in all though, I have a soft spot for this one.

  • Lee spoke:
    5th/07/2009 to 4:40 am

    great review. i absolutely love this movie. i think it might be my favorite. a little girl who kills bad guys…a crazy drug…the year 10,000…Chani…folding space…a baron who loves disease…heart plugs…a supreme being…giant worms…blue within blue eyes…harkonnens…machine planet…a cat who keeps Thufer alive…betrayal…sound as a killing medium…mind in motion…and the music! what else could you possibly ask for?

  • Dave spoke:
    7th/07/2009 to 6:56 am

    Excellent review. Dune has become one of those movies that has grown on me over time. When you first watch it (if you haven’t read the novel), the story is rather difficult to follow. However it still leaves an amazing impression. I agree with Roderick that the casting is spot on for this movie – all of the actors give brilliant performances. And the one-liners! Who can forget the Baron screaming out ‘he who controls the spice controls the universe!’ or ‘long live the fighters!’ or even the chilling ‘Father the sleeper has awakened!’ as mentioned by the previous poster.
    This review identifies the problems the movie quite well, but I will disagree on the matter of the villains. The Harkonnens are not copy perfect versions of Frank Herbert’s novel, but if you made them this way for a movie, it just wouldn’t work. The Sci-Fi channel’s version of Dune shows this well, where the Baron’s character is spot on, but ultimately comes across as a boring schemer. David Lynch’s version of the Baron just plain creeps me out, which I believe Frank Herbert intended all along.
    If anything else just watch the movie for the soundtrack – there are few movies out there with a better one. Definitely a favourite part of my movie collection.

  • Rod spoke:
    7th/07/2009 to 9:44 am

    The trouble with the set-up here is if someone makes an engaging comment like falseadvertiser’s, I don’t know about it until months later.
    Lee: well, I can’t call this my favourite movie by a long shot, but it’s built out of great material. And, as Dave points out aptly, it has its own fine qualities. It definitely has a quality of epic weirdness which these quotes all bear out, something stark and memorable. For me what makes it worthwhile as an adaptation is the casting; I love these actors and the care with which they were cast, and the intensity and originality of much of Lynch’s imagery. Whatever the overall shortcomings, it’s at least admirable that Lynch tried to make a real movie and not a spit-polished, lifeless blockbuster.
    I couldn’t stick through the Sci-Fi Channel’s version. If Lynch’s film is at once too cluttered and abstract, I’m never a fan at the best of times of TV-made literalism; it just looks cheap and, yes, boring. I was faintly interested in what Peter Berg’s proposed version might look like, but that seems to have been 86’d already.

  • Gerard spoke:
    1st/07/2010 to 1:43 am

    Whenever someone has to go to such lengths to explain why a movie is bad that his or her review ends up sounding like a film major’s senior thesis, I’m inclined to think that the movie in question MUST be pretty damn good.

  • John spoke:
    30th/12/2010 to 4:40 pm

    Awful adaptation of a great book, you consider this great. I think Lynch is a very bad choice of a director when it should have been Alejandro Jorodowosky or Ridley Scott as intended for a 10 hour big screen movie like they wanted but Lynch was a gun-for-hire and he wasn’t very happy making the movie since he’s unconfortable with Sci-fi filmmaking and mainstream movie making but his Elephant Man was great.

    I’m glad this turd flopped at the box-office and got the bad reviews it deserved even from fanboys of the book like myself, it’s nothing but a bad disgusting parody of the novel and it’s a cult classic for the WRONG reasons, it’s like one of those cult movies like Showgirls that gets often watched alot for people to laugh at how bad it is. Perfect casting my ass? your on fucking drugs, Kyle can’t act.

    I hope the big screen new Dune movie will erase the memories of this abortion as Lynch tries to erase it from his memories for it’s too painful for him.

  • Rod spoke:
    30th/12/2010 to 9:22 pm

    What a childish and obnoxious comment, John.

  • Chris spoke:
    11th/09/2011 to 4:08 am

    In spite of the protestations of some commenters I appreciate your lucid and thorough examination of this movie. I was bowled over by Dune the first time I saw it because of its dream-like quality. I never thought it was perfect and still don’t but too clear a vision of a different part of the universe at a completely different time just wouldn’t have rung true to me (can you guess I’m not a big SW fan?). So whether its the movie Lynch intended it to be or not is irrelevant (to me anyway) because the Dune he created is like some long lost tablet; fragmented, scratched, chipped and incomplete, pieced together by archeologists and presented in its compromised state. We know that this means this and that means that but the missing pieces allow our imagination to create its own links, the way we do when we’re dreaming and our internal narrative leaps from one thing to another, seemingly unrelated, thing. When the film ends I feel as though I’m waking up, not reaching the end of a movie.
    In my humble opinion the music is the films one significant drawback. Electric guitars? To me the music was the one obvious marketing ploy that marred an otherwise (nearly) great film. Okay, Sting was a marketing ploy too, but to his credit he inhabited his role convincingly.

  • s spoke:
    7th/03/2013 to 7:04 pm

    Hallucinatory and dreamlike is right. When I first saw the film I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but I was carried away by the imagery and the sheer weirdness. It was a “trip” to see this on a big screen ( I even remember a smattering of applause at the end).

  • André Dick spoke:
    21st/09/2014 to 12:59 am

    Roderick, amazing! Great review! I invite you to read my commentary on the film:

    http://cinematographecinemafilmes.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/duna-1984/

    Congratulations!
    André

  • Roderick spoke:
    21st/09/2014 to 10:16 am

    I had to read your piece via translation, André, which was undoubtedly harsh on your writing, but I like your comments about the coding of the different environments see in the film, and yes, you’re right, there is a creep similarity of the worms to the baby of Eraserhead. As a work it is definitely of a unit with Lynch’s oeuvre.

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