DUNE (1984)

  • Director: David Lynch
  • Writers: David Lynch, based on the novel by Frank Herbert
  • Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Francesca Annis, Jürgen Prochnow, Kenneth McMillan, Sean Young, Freddie Jones, Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell, Sting, Paul Smith, Richard Jordan, Jose Ferrer, Virginia Madsen, Everett McGill, Brad Dourif, Sian Phillips, Alicia Witt, Linda Hunt, and Max von Sydow
  • Accolades: 1 Oscar nomination (Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and Apple TV

The top movie in theaters (and on streaming) at the moment is a big-budget adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal 1960s sci-fi novel, Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring sort of all of the currently popular actors. It was honestly the most fun I’ve had with a movie in quite some time. Actually, the new movie adapts only the first half or so of Herbert’s book, with a sequel already planned. This means that it sets itself something of an easier task, from that perspective, from previous adaptations of the very thick volume, including the original film version. 

That is the version directed by, of all people, David Lynch, and has been, since it came out, something of a legendary disaster. I found multiple references to it as the “Heaven’s Gate of Sci-Fi.” Certainly it was a financial disaster for Universal, which thought it was making “Star Wars for adults,” right down to releasing a very incongruous line of action figures. Lynch, for his part, never made a big budget movie like this again, either because nobody would give him the money or because he would never consent to not having “final cut” again, or a combination of the two. Critics were entirely flummoxed, and Lynch himself completely disowned the finished product, even on some cuts replacing his name with “Alan Smithee” (a pseudonym sometimes used in the film industry after someone asks that their name be taken off of a movie).

But, in my sci-fi/movie nerds bubble, I have seen several people lately either revisiting the Lynch version or watching it for the first time, and they have almost universally enjoyed it. I also really had a good time. Sure, it is a very imperfect movie. The studio’s desperate attempts to make the movie into whatever vision of mass marketability it had at the time are fully visible, right alongside a series of truly bizarre choices by Lynch. Yet, with the weight of being the one movie version of this popular story now off its shoulders, that weirdness makes this version all the more interesting. If you’ve seen the new version, you’ll be surprised how much the two movies share, not just in terms of general plot points, but straight dialogue. Yet this version also has giant, crazy-looking space navigators, insane eyebrows, and a scene where Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) presents Thufir Hawat (Freddie Jones) with a hairless cat and announces that he must “milk the cat’s body” every day for the antidote to the poison he’s been given or he’ll die. There is also a rat just taped to the cat. No explanation for this is ever given.

Outside of Star Wars (which owed no little debt to Dune, the novel, given its space politicking, evil emperor, “young hero rising” narrative, and partial desert setting), Dune is perhaps the best known of the “space opera” narratives. It is the story of Paul Atreides (played here, in his first movie role, by Kyle MacLachlan), a young man who is heir to one of several feuding “great houses” within a galaxy-spanning empire in the year 10,191. It is a sci-fi world of space travel, but without any computers or robots. Rather, humans have trained themselves, with the help of “the Spice,” to engage in complex calculations at the speed of a computer, and even to “fold space,” enabling interstellar travel (none of the screen adaptations explain this at any length, but in the book there is a backstory where a conflict with AI called the “Butlerian Jihad” resulted in all “machines in the likeness of a human mind” being banned thousands of years earlier). Due to shield technology that stops any fast-moving object, hand-to-hand sword fights have come back into fashion (again, not something either of the movie versions feels much of a need to explain). The only source of the Spice is the planet Arrakis, a hostile, desert world dominated by enormous “sand worms.”

Against this background, the story follows Paul as his family takes over Arrakis at the behest of the Galactic Emperor (played here by the great Jose Ferrer), but this turns out to be a trap. Most of Paul’s family is slaughtered by the evil House Harkonnen (pronounced in the Lynch version, distinctly from every other source I’ve come in contact with, with the emphasis on a second syllable with a long “o,” rather than a short “o” and emphasis on the first syllable), but he and his mother Jessica (Francesca Annis) escape to the desert, where they fall in with the natives, called the “Fremen.” He ends up as sort of a messiah figure to the Fremen and ends up leading a rebellion against the Harkonnens and the Empire. In the book this ends with Paul forcing the Emperor to abdicate, Paul marrying the Emperor’s daughter Irulan (played here by a young Virginia Madsen), and becoming the new Emperor of the Universe. In the Lynch version, it ends with Kyle MacLachlan stabbing Sting to death in a knife fight and then making it miraculously rain on the desert planet before the movie abruptly cuts to the credits.

So I am obviously a Dune fan, and in some ways I think that Lynch’s film version works fairly well. The special effects are generally really good, I like most of the sci-fi-type designs, and the expansive cast (of which we have not even talked about Sean Young, Brad Dourif, Sian Phillips, Linda Hunt, Dean Stockwell, and, oh yeah, Patrick Stewart, among many others) is pretty universally great. But the movie suffers from some pretty massive flaws, too. For one, it very much feels like a kid’s essay on an exam where they realize at some point that there’s only 15 minutes left so they have to rush through to get to the end. The movie’s run time is 2 hours, 12 minutes, but it gets there by spending the first half or so of the movie trundling along at a fairly normal pace, before it starts skipping over large chunks of story, some of which are replaced with a few lines of Virginia Madsen narration, some of which are condensed into montages. 

The movie’s primary romantic plot, between Paul and Fremen girl Chani (Young), seems to mostly take place off-screen. Other plotlines fail to make any sense whatsoever. For example, Virginia Madsen’s Princess Irulan, Paul’s eventual wife in the book, opens the movie by narrating directly into the camera (imagine if Cate Blanchett’s opening narration in Lord of the Rings was just her staring into the camera and talking for like five minutes), and appears a few more times throughout, but in the end is never actually given anything whatsoever to do in the movie, so why is she even here? Similarly, Max von Sydow very randomly makes an appearance as “Planetary Ecologist” Liet Kynes, but is in only the one sequence and, without explanation, never appears again. Few movies I have ever seen feel more like there were hours and hours of movie left on the proverbial cutting room floor.

Plus, the movie’s very strange choices extend far beyond the unexplained cat with an unexplained rat taped to its side. It is an oft-remarked-upon problem with book adaptations that in books we can often hear the inner monologues of the characters, but in movies we usually have to receive information visually, including through the performances of the actors. This movie just cuts out the middleman and, all the way through, just has the various characters narrating their own thoughts. If this sounds like a very unimaginative way to adapt a novel, well, it is, in a way that never lets us forget we’re watching a movie about a book, and that the book is probably better. That is made all the more strange because this is hardly a movie that feels especially beholden to be faithful to Herbert’s novel.

The other big choice that doesn’t necessarily work is this movie’s portrayal of the Harkonnens. Kenneth McMillan portrays Baron Harkonnen as a gleeful, cackling pantomime villain. Sting, playing his nephew Feyd-Rautha, gets dialogue almost entirely about how he wishes he could just murder all the Atreides himself. The book is not subtle about how evil these guys are, and includes the implications, picked up here, that the Baron is a pederast. The movie goes a step further and both gives the Baron bizarre, gross pustules all over and has him force everyone on his planet to wear “heart plugs” so he can… spray their blood everywhere when he wants I guess? It’s very weird. I would not be the first to point out that this movie, presented with a possibly homosexual villain at the height of the AIDS crisis, takes things one step further and has him literally in a state of physical decay and, you know, spraying blood everywhere. It is one of those things that feels nuts out of context and feels way more nuts in context.

I could keep going on this movie. There are the giant mutant navigators, which have no resemblance to anything from Herbert’s book, or the way the “Weirding Way” has been changed in this movie to a sort of weird sound-channeling box thingie because Lynch didn’t want “kung fu on the sand dunes” (WHY NOT). Yet for all of its faults, I think that the 1984 Dune likely plays much better today than it did at the time. One reason for this is that it is no longer burdened with being the only screen version of what is supposedly the best-selling science fiction novel of all time. It can be its own thing, and other people can make other movies, and they can each be interesting in different ways. Another reason is that this movie’s failure to actually explain its world to the audience, despite constant, intrusive, expository voiceovers, seems far less egregious a fault in 2021 than in 1984. Consider that the new movie does away with straight exposition almost altogether (there is no opening monologue, certainly), and yet still seems to make more sense than Lynch’s version. Some of this is that Villeneuve’s Dune does a great job of showing rather than telling, but I have a theory that it is also partly because, in 2021, if a viewer doesn’t get something they can just google it. In 1984, if you didn’t understand why they were sword fighting in the year 10,191, you were out of luck. In 2021 there’s an app for that, which means that movies may be able to make the choice to tell the story they want to tell and let you fill in the gaps to the extent they feel necessary.

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