David Lynch’s Dune | A Critically Damaged Classic

Last month culture magazine Vanity Fair gave the world a first look at the upcoming Dune movie – directed by Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) and starring Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name, Little Women) as the protagonist Paul Atreides. Of course, levels of excitement went stellar with all thoughts of another adaptation from the pages of late writer Frank Herbert.

His first book in the series, Dune, was published in 1965, and was later followed by five sequels- Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune. So, if Villeneuve succeeds in bringing to the cinema screens a well-executed version of Herbert’s first book, it could potentially open the floodgates for an epic franchise larger than Lord of the Rings.

In 1971, the first attempts were made to bring the story of Dune to life on a cinema screen. Although never getting off the ground, the closest in the 70s it got was with director Alejandro Jodorowsky in 1975. With music by Pink Floyd and set design by H. R. Giger of Alien fame, everything looked promising. The cast itself was to consist of Orson Welles, Salvador Dalí, Gloria Swanson, David Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Alain Delon and Mick Jagger.

This outing turned shambolic due to Dali’s demands, production costs and a tome of a script that would have ended up being a 14-hour feature. Although it was temporarily shelved, there was still enough interest in the books to classify Dune as a movie that ‘had to be made’. That is until 1981 when David Lynch’s movie The Elephant Man was released. The success of the strange historical drama inspired the rights owner Dino De Laurentiis to approach the filmmaker.

Without reading the book, liking sci-fi or knowing the complex narrative, David Lynch agreed to bring Dune to the big screen – at the same time turning down George Lucas’ offer of working on Return of the Jedi. However, in December 1984 Dune arrived and bombed both financially and critically. That said, Herbert said of Lynch’s adaptation: “They’ve got it. It begins as Dune does. And I hear my dialogue all the way through.” The latter is a trait not often present from novelists when their work hits the big screen. For instance, Stephen King famously hates Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining. Another example is Bret Easton Ellis in regards Mary Harron’s adaptation of his yuppie classic American Psycho.

Taking into account that Lynch is a master at filmmaking and following Dune revolutionised cinema with surrealist masterpieces like Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, as well as TV with his two iterations of Twin Peaks, the question remains: What is actually wrong with David Lynch’s version of Dune?

In truth, there is nothing predominantly wrong with Dune the movie. It’s the novel itself which is complex and sprawling, with multiple major characters and a dense multi-layered planet sized story. Therefore, the film is more appealing to fans of the source, with an understanding of the plot needed before viewing. In a simple summary, it is the quest of a young man, growing in maturity as he gains courage and power – part Lawrence of Arabia and part King Arthur.

Set in the year 10191, a spice called ‘melange’, a type of drug that extends life and enhances mental abilities, is the most valuable substance known in the universe. Its only source is the desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. Duke Leto Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow) of Arrakis banishes his bitter enemies, the Harkonnens. However, when the Harkonnens seize back control by killing Duke Leto, it is up to Paul (Kyle MacLachlan), Leto’s son and the planets messiah, to lead the Fremen, the natives of Arrakis, in a battle for control of the planet and its spice.

With many references to religion and ecology and a subtle critique of the 20th century’s ‘age of oil’, the story of the book and thus, the film is massive in scope. Trying to fit the source’s complete tale, logically and respectively within 136 minutes of running time was and is a near impossible task. There are simply too many aspects to it. The aforementioned failed 14-hour attempt by Jodorowsky suggests a more realistic time scale to tell the story properly.

With a cast consisting of future Lynch regular Kyle MacLachlan, Sting, Patrick Stewart, Brad Dourif, Dean Stockwell, Virginia Madsen, José Ferrer, Linda Hunt and the recently passed away Max von Sydow, everything was in place with 1984’s Dune to create something interesting. I’d argue it does ultimately work, though while the acting is flawless, the pacing is questionable. One senses Lynch reveled in the idea of creating a world and not simply rearranging the one we already exist in. With a decent amount of pre-digital CGI, and impressive locations, the film gushes with life which washes over the audience.

Perhaps marketing is to blame for the film’s poor reception. How does one promote a sci-fi epic that’s extremely complex? Dune is not a children’s fairytale or a family movie. It is the anti-Star Wars. Faced with a quandary, Universal Studios tried promoting it as something it is not.

Some scenes in Dune are unnerving such as when Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) has his facial sore drained. In fact, it is nightmarish. However, this did not stop the roll out of the obligatory Panini sticker album (I had one), the board games and even the grotesque action figures.

The truth is this marketing gave Dune an unfair sheen of juvenile status, which is far from what the movie really is. There were reviewers in 1984 who viewed the film from the perspective of it being child friendly, and without knowing the novel and its intricacies fully.

It is also worth noting there was no preview of Dune for critics of the day. Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison stated in 1989 that after several cancelled screenings, critics were already reacting negatively towards Lynch’s adaptation. Even the filmmaker himself unfairly distanced himself from the project, with five cuts of the film in circulation including the extended 1988 television version. Only some of these carry the director’s name.

Now 36 years after its release, Dune should be viewed as a classic, and here is why. David Lynch accomplished what he intended. He created a movie set in space and made it feel truly other-worldly, something less relatable but somehow more realistic. Lynch also executed a film that others failed to deliver. and crammed almost all the aspects from the original novel into his version of the tale.

Yet, it is the very ending of the movie which is the money shot – the sequence where Paul Atreides engages the sneering assassin Feyd-Rautha (Sting) in a duel to the death. As he dispatches the assassin, Paul lets loose his new-found power. It is a supremely cool ending, bolstered by a slick Toto and Brian Eno soundtrack that forms the exquisite backdrop. Dune is a movie that deserves a more open-minded evaluation, certainly given the upcoming reboot.

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