Reeling Backward: Dune (1984)
David Lynch's grand, deeply flawed take on the Frank Herbert contains moments of sci-fi/fantasy glory intermixed with a ton of stilted acting and not-very-special effects.
This classic film column is free content for everyone. If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting Film Yap with a modest subscription, now at a huge discount!
In preparation for the remake/reboot/reimagining of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction/fantasy novel into a new film adaptation by Denis Villeneuve out this week, I thought it time to revisit David Lynch’s much-derided 1984 film. I do not believe I have seen it in its entirety since it came out.
It was a critical and commercial bomb, and sent writer/director Lynch — who had turned down the opportunity to helm “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” — back to his world of weirdo independent films like “Eraserhead” and “Blue Velvet,” which is where he belonged anyway.
A personal anecdote: I remember walking out of the theater after seeing “Dune” with two of my best friends, both of whom were fans of the book, which I had not read at the time. I complained about the nigh-incomprehensibility of the movie, which attempted to cram Herbert’s dense universe of varying factions and political subtleties into a standard sci-fi action movie box.
The result is a contemplative (read: slow-moving) experience that registered as just plain bizarre to the average filmgoer. In particular I remember the high sing-songy voice of Paul Atreides’ little sister, Alia (Alicia Witt), who was born with a fully formed consciousness and powers of a Bene Gesserit witch, who at the very end of the movie proclaims Paul to be the prophesied messiah: “For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!”
“For he is the kumquat Häagen-Dazs!” I repeatedly mimicked in a mocking falsetto. My buddies (eventually) forgave me.
I won’t attempt a detailed summation of the plot of “Dune,” since one could spend a whole article trying to parse out the various characters, rivalries and backstories. The most important thing to know is that the royal Atreides clan is given control of the desert planet Arrakis aka Dune, the sole source of the “spice” melange, the most valuable substance in the universe.
Seemingly a plum, the move is actually an attempt to destroy the Atreides, a conspiracy between the rival Harkonnen clan and the emperor of the known universe (José Ferrer). Both are really subservient to the Guild of mutated navigators who require the spice for their ability to “fold” space and travel vast distances instantly.
Duke Leto Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow) is killed along with nearly all of their house, leaving son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) and his mother, the Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis), to join with the desert nomad Fremen and oppose the Harkonnen. Paul, trained by his Bene Gesserit mother, is suspected of being the first male capable of wielding their mind powers, and is foretold to overthrow the spice-dependent empire and bring freedom to Dune.
Even that incredibly spare wrap is quite a mouthful. And that’s the inherent problem with “Dune,” the movie: a 2+ hour film is just not enough time to fully capture all the nuance and emotional weight of a journey so epic.
There have been other screen iterations of “Dune,” including a failed attempt by the French in the 1970s that became the basis of the 2013 documentary, “Jodorowsky's Dune,” and a 2000 television miniseries, “Frank Herbert’s Dune,” which tried to make a more faithful version that ran to 265 minutes (unseen by me).
Frankly, I’m surprised they’re making another feature film, as it seems this material would be better served by an 8- or 10-episode streaming series. Though I see that “Dune: Part Two” is already listed as being in production, so perhaps Villeneuve is wise enough to learn the errors of others’ ways.
There have been various edits of “Dune” throughout the years, some with Lynch’s name on them or not, including rumors of a four-hour version. The bonus materials that have been included with the home video release allude to this, claiming Lynch rewrote the scene where Paul drinks the Water of Life (basically, the bile of the newborn worms that dominate the desert sands) and achieves his full powers to replace large sections of the story as shot.
Seeing it again, the flaws become more clear. The movie follows a more or less straightforward narrative up until the time of the Atreides’ fall — about halfway through the film’s 135 minutes — and from there essentially goes into CliffsNotes mode, where developments are described in overview rather than directly experienced.
The second half is mostly a bunch of transitions and montages, broken up with dream sequences where Paul is haunted by visions of an open hand, lakes of water hidden below the surface of Dune, and other stuff. Then we’ll get a scene of the emperor or Harkonnens reacting to the attacks by Paul’s Fremen army, and so on.
The special effects and battle scenes are glaringly awful. They look like what they are: an attempt by a young director with only two small movies under his belt to paint a huge universe using a combination of live actors and sets, special effects, matte paintings and creature puppets.
People can rap on George Lucas all they want, but the disparity between the visual coherence between this movie and the first “Star Wars” trilogy, which had just completed a year earlier, is startling.
Lynch’s visuals seem crabbed and crimped, with no sense of what’s happening just beyond the frame. Spaceships exist as toys floating in the sky or hunks of metal anchored to the ground. Melee combat seems more like choreographed ballet, with one warrior using his outstretched hands to flip another over his head.
Even the mammoth worms, which Paul and the Fremen eventually ride into battle, seem too much like the puppets or poseable miniatures they were, badly inserted into shots where they are close to or interact with humans. Lynch seemed obsessed with shots of them emerging from the sand, their heads splitting into gaping maws — almost like male genitalia morphing into female.
As with his fetishistic imagery in “Eraserhead,” a little of that goes a short way.
The actors seem bewildered by the material, not sure if they’re supposed to ham it up or play it straight. MacLachlan is a stiff, reading his lines like biblical pronouncements, unhelped by a massive feathered ‘80s hairdo that is fully resistant to raging desert winds.
Sting as Harkonnen princeling Feyd, much remembered in the movie for his blue metal bikini scene, seems to have no motivation or reason for existing other than his single-minded intent to kill Paul — despite the two never meeting until the last scene in the movie. He’s visually arresting but there’s no there there.
I hadn’t realized until this viewing that Virginia Madsen plays the emperor’s daughter, Irulan, who narrates the movie. My boys asked afterwards why she should be the one to serve in this capacity, since she’s never present during any of the events that take place, and I had no good answer to give.
I will say that Kenneth McMillan still retains all his power and revulsion as the main villain, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen . He’s a grotesque figure, a man so fat he uses a gravity suit to propel himself around, with a variety of disfigurations and diseases that result in a face that is constantly engorged with pus-filled lesions.
Beyond this horror-show ornamentation, I think what makes McMillan so great is the mad desire in his eyes, a man so completely filled with lust — for power, food, inflicting pain — that it defines his very essence. The Baron is a black hole who exists to consume.
One thing Lynch attempted in the movie was the depiction of Herbert’s interior thoughts of his characters in the middle of dialogue scenes. So they will say something, and then we hear the character speaking to themselves, which can reinforce, subvert or alter the meaning of their spoken words.
This technique has rarely been employed in cinema, for a variety or reasons I can surmise. In a sense it makes characters and scenes both more and less complicated, since we have to follow these additional lines of thinking. But since we’re privy to what’s going on inside their heads, it also makes them less mysterious.
The basic problem is the old truth of storytelling, that it’s nearly always better to show than to tell.
I think it works well enough for Paul, the main character. But having most every single supporting figure going off on their own little interior monologues is distracting. It’s almost as if the filmmaker doesn’t trust his own actors and script to convey the key information without everyone just blurting it out.
I still don’t think Dune is a terrible film, despite my long-ago mockery of it. There’s definitely a grand vision there, one that tried to take this huge beast of a multifaceted story and tame it into submission.
Ultimately, though, I think Lynch became enslaved by Herbert’s knotty novel, and the studio desire for a simplistic whizzbang adaptation of it, rather than its master.