“It has to be something to do with the spice.”
When I was in high school, I tried reading Frank Herbert’s legendary 1965 doorstopper of a sci-fi novel, Dune. I got maybe a couple of chapters in – I distinctly remember the bit with the box, which I think is at the very beginning – before realizing that it wasn’t my brand, at least not at that time, and never coming back to it.
Being active in and adjacent to nerd circles over the years, however, I absorbed lots of secondhand info about Dune via osmosis. I knew about sandworms and stillsuits, I knew that “the spice must flow” and “fear is the mind-killer.” I knew the names of most of the main characters, even if I didn’t know what role they served in the story.
This means I also never watched any of the various attempts to bring Herbert’s epic vision to the screen. Not David Lynch’s ill-starred 1984 adaptation – which we’re here to discuss today and which I will eventually get to, I swear – nor the 2004 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries. Not even the 2013 documentary about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s abortive 1974 attempt at filming the material.
In point of fact, prior to watching Arrow Video’s fancy new 4K release of Dune, I had never seen a film by David Lynch – though I have seen a few episodes of Twin Peaks, over the years. It’s one of those glaring blind spots in my cultural education that has always seemed too daunting to try to systematically correct, so it has remained all this time. Maybe Dune will be the tiny hole in the dam that brings on the whole flood. I suppose only time will tell.
Which is all to say that I came to Lynch’s Dune about as much like a newborn babe as is possible for someone in this day and age and in the circles in which I run. My spouse, who knows (and cares) almost nothing about film but who was a big fan of the book Dune, watched it with me. She had also never seen it before.
It is almost impossible to render a movie like Lynch’s Dune down into a single reputation. I can say that it was a bomb at the box office, returning less than its estimated $40 million budget, and that it pretty much guaranteed that Lynch would never be handed such a big-budget production again. I can point out that Roger Ebert gave it only a single star and singled it out as the worst movie of the year, calling it “an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.”
At the same time, any film as bold and weird as this one, any film with this one’s pedigree, is bound to attract enthusiasts over the years, and it’s not just to cash in on people excited about Denis Villeneuve’s forthcoming adaptation that Arrow would release a top-tier collector’s edition like this.
That said, I think the reputation of Lynch’s Dune can best be summed up as not an especially rousing adaptation of the novel, even if Frank Herbert himself was reportedly pleased with it. “They got it,” he has been quoted as saying. “There are some interpretations and liberties, but you’re gonna come out knowing you’ve seen Dune.”
So, nearly forty years later, in a world with a very different cinematic landscape, on the cusp of a new, much bigger-budget adaptation, did I come out knowing that I’ve seen Dune?
I mean, more or less. Dune is, by now, one of those stories, like Frankenstein or Casablanca or North by Northwest, that is going to feel familiar, even if you haven’t seen it. The fingerprints of Dune are all over countless other instances of contemporary science fiction. In my case, specifically, I grew up with Warhammer 40,000, and Dune is to Warhammer 40K much as Tolkien is to just about all contemporary Anglophone fantasy.
For the film’s first half, especially, Lynch’s Dune is also remarkably good. And, perhaps more to the point, feels like a remarkably good evocation of at least what little I know about Herbert’s novel. Here is a science fiction universe that feels feudal and baroque and massive and strange, peopled with characters whose lives are equally feudal and baroque and strange, with all of the strangeness rendered in a way that is convincing, if not necessarily realistic.
Numerous little touches – such as the way the film handles the hearing of its characters’ thoughts, or the aural subtleties of the echoes that continue when one of the Bene Gesserit uses “the Voice” – are deployed with authority and tact, and that “most confusing screenplay of all time” doesn’t engage in a lot of hand-holding.
You are dropped into this massive baroque world and expected to swim, rather than sink, and I think the early parts of the film are all the better for it. Which is not to say that there are not missteps aplenty, even here. Fan-favorite character Duncan Idaho (to be played, controversially, by Jason Momoa in the new iteration) has barely two lines of dialogue, while countless ideas and concepts are brought up never to be addressed again.
But, for the most part, the first hour or so of the film’s two-hour-and-twenty-minute runtime is surprisingly sound. By the time the Harkonnens attack Arrakeen, however, the film’s descent has begun. The battle is chaotic – fair enough – and difficult to follow – perhaps less fair. Everything that comes after it, even more so.
Worse, the second half of the movie feels rushed to the point that almost everything that occurs is stripped of any weight. Paul and Chani fall in love basically offscreen, and she is barely in the film at all. The character has more screen time in the trailer for the new movie than Sean Young enjoys here. Paul’s ascent to messiah of the people of Arrakis literally happens offscreen, while most everything of significance that occurs is underexplained to the point that you have to trust to the very serious expressions on the characters’ faces that things of significance are happening.
It is, in other words, “a real mess,” as Roger Ebert said. Yet, even as a mess, it is a fascinating time capsule. A glimpse at a moment in cinematic history that would probably be less profound had it been more successful. It is fascinating for the talent both behind and in front of the camera. Fascinating as Lynch’s only real foray into big-budget tentpole filmmaking, fascinating as an attempt at replicating the Star Wars formula on more “serious” material, fascinating for Toto’s score, for Carlo Rambaldi’s (of E.T. fame) creature work.
And it’s fascinating for its cast, a cornucopia of faces both up-and-coming and well-established. While Sting’s wild-eyed portrait of the deranged Feyd-Rautha may be the thing most often pulled for publicity stills and the like, the whole cast is something else. There’s Captain Picard and Brad Dourif, Paul Smith and Linda Hunt, Dean Stockwell and Sean Young, Max von Sydow and Jurgen Prochnow and Dame Sian Phillips and even Scary German Guy from Monster Squad. Ironically enough, given the weekend I watched it was also the weekend I caught the new Candyman in the theater, there’s also Virginia Madsen giving us our voiceover as Princess Irulan.
While Gene Siskel may have “hated watching this film,” looking back at it from 2021, it feels like – love it or hate it – it’s impossible to be mad that I’ve now seen such an odd time capsule of a movie. We’ll see if the same can be said of Villenueve’s take in forty years.