A Duke's son leads desert warriors against the galactic emperor and his father's evil nemesis when they assassinate his father and free their desert world from the emperor's rule.
After two failed attempts to bring Frank Herbert’s epic novel Dune to the screen (most famously in the early-1970s with Alejandro Jodorowsky, then in the late-’70s with Ridley Scott), legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis renegotiated the rights to the story and its sequels in 1981. His daughter, Raffaella, then suggested they hire David Lynch to direct after seeing The Elephant Man (1980), which is an intriguing marriage of filmmaker and material. Now an acclaimed director of disturbing movies like Blue Velvet (1986), Lost Highway (1997), and Mulholland Drive (2001), it’s worth remembering that Lynch had only made two features at the time, and one of those was the relentlessly bizarre Eraserhead (1977). Nevertheless, his obvious visual talent had even resulted in George Lucas famously courting him to direct Return of the Jedi (1983), so David Lynch was a hot commodity.
Despite never having read the book or having much interest in hardcore science-fiction, Lynch agreed to write and direct Dune after being approached by De Laurentiis. He worked on two drafts of a screenplay with his Elephant Man writers Eric Bergren and Christopher De Vore, before creative differences led to them parting ways after six months. Lynch toiled alone on a further five versions, which resulted in a 135-page final draft. Dune was entirely shot in Mexico to the tune of $42M, requiring 80 sets built on 16 sound stages, with scenes of the desert planet Arrakis filmed at the Samalayuca Dune Fields in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua.
Now remembered as a critical and commercial disaster (grossing just $27M domestically), the reason was artistic disagreements over what Lynch had put together. His assembly cut was four hours long (without VFX) with an intention to trim down to three hours, but Dune’s financiers wanted a leaner two-hour version to maximise profitability with more screenings per day. De Laurentiis took it upon himself to cut scenes, added new ones to simplify the story, and had many characters vocalise their thoughts using awkward voice-overs to tackle the issue of Dune’s complex lore. These changes angered the perfectionist Lynch, who disowned the film on release and in subsequent re-edits (like an extended 186-minute version for TV), he’s credited as “Alan Smithee” or “Judas Booth”.
It’s customary to side with directors when things like this happen. And with Lynch now a recognised genius of his craft, it’s tempting to imagine his three-hour cut was a masterpiece early-’80s audiences just weren’t ready for. But I’m not so sure. Dune’s a difficult novel to adapt and Lynch is hardly known for his ability to communicate tangled things in simple ways. Almost all of his movies are intentionally tough to grasp because they’re open to multiple interpretations, and he always avoids giving answers to questions they raise when interviewed. He’s therefore a bad choice to adapt Dune in order to make it comprehensible for general audiences, as most people will have watched the film without knowing too much about Herbert’s literary work. So it’s easy to imagine Lynch’s ‘Director’s Cut’ would have been impenetrable to most people, as even De Laurentiis’s altered version isn’t easy to follow, and that’s with characters literally speaking their thoughts so we’re not left to assume their motivations.
Dune’s fundamental problem is the screenplay, which does a poor job of explaining this universe and why we should care about anything. It also fails to foreshadow things that become important later and doesn’t spend enough time with the characters to make us fully understand the journey they’re on. The trailer for the 2021 remake of Dune does a better job explaining the story in two minutes than this 1984 version manages in two hours. Maybe it was just a bad idea to give one of sci-fi’s masterpieces to a director who doesn’t care too much for the genre?
Lynch’s skill with bold visuals and off-kilter sensibility is certainly one redeeming quality of Dune, as he created some memorable sights. The costume designs are great and you can spot familiar Lynchian flourishes throughout, in how weird images are put together to create an unsettling tone. Dune still looks visually striking, even if what $42M bought you in the early-’80s is now eclipsed by most television shows, and the VFX has obviously dated over the decades. But there are still some excellent moments of filmmaking craft here, like the enormous sandworms and the film’s baroque style. But it’s unforgivable that a desert planet never once looks or feels bright or hot!
A dumb prologue with Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) comically fading in and out of a starfield tries to explain the backdrop to Dune, but also makes us assume this character will be an important one to follow. Instead, the princess barely appears again. In the far future, a drug called melange (or “spice”) is used to power spaceships and expand people’s consciousness, but it can only be mined on the desert world of Arrakis. This planet is controlled by House Harkonnen, a dynasty led by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMullan), but Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer) wants to cede control to rival House Atreides, led by Leto Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow), with a view to having the Atreides family ambushed and killed by the Harkonnens to prevent Leto’s popularity from growing and threatening his rule. Matters are complicated by a strange being known as the Guild Navigator asking that Leto’s son, Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan), be assassinated as part of the plan, after psychically sensing that he’s destined to threaten spice production.
There’s actually a lot more woven into that core idea, but chances are you won’t fully understand a lot of it while watching Dune. Paul is part of a breeding program of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood to produce a super-being called the Kwisatz Haderach, but important details like this aren’t anchored to the story well. So by the time things begin to pay off regarding Paul’s arc, in particular, you’ll likely be scratching your head trying to remember if any of this had been mentioned beforehand. It doesn’t help that Lynch decided to squeeze the entire book into a single movie, which is a problem the remake’s avoiding by keeping the second half back for a sequel. (Although if that doesn’t get made, one may feel Lynch had the right idea to just go for broke while you have the chance.)
Without much clarity to the story, or likeable characters to identify with or understand the motivations of, Dune becomes little more than a chance to gawp at stylistic choices being made. It mostly looks industrial and murky, which is a shame considering how high Blade Runner (1982) set the bar for sci-fi world-building. There are definitely highlights I’ve mentioned earlier, but it does seem a little drab and behind the times.
At least some of the actors make an impression, even if most have nothing to sink their teeth into. Kyle MacLachlan comes out of Dune the best, managing to make it feel like Paul changes and grows over the course of the movie, even if you may not even realise we’re even on a hero’s journey until late in the story. I also enjoy Kenneth McMillan as the gross Baron Harkonnen, having his facial boils drained by subordinates, while occasionally floating into the air like a blimp. The presence of Feyd-Rautha (Sting) is also memorable, as I think the popular singer did a good job with a small role, giving his flame-haired character a wry smirk that sold me on his nastiness immediately. Everyone else is swallowed by the large sets, with the possible exception of Jürgen Prochnow, although it’s fun to spot genre stalwarts like Max von Sydow, Dean Stockwell, Brad Dourif, and Patrick Stewart. A few future stars of Twin Peaks (1990-91) also join MacLachlan on screen, in Everett McGill and Jack Nance.
Dune is a movie that’s been reassessed in recent years, culminating in this glossy 4K Ultra HD release by Arrow Video on the eve of the remake’s premiere. I don’t begrudge people looking at things with fresh eyes, far removed from whatever might have influenced opinions back in the ’80s, and because Lynch is now a celebrated genius it’s hard to imagine him making a total dud. However, I don’t think Dune is a successful adaptation, and beyond some aesthetic choices and memorable costuming and make-up, not much about it is unequivocally great. It’s a compromised vision because Lynch bit off more than he could chew, too early in his career, when Dune needed a more commercial filmmaker who could distil the essence of the novel into something welcoming to newcomers instead of offering a chilly embrace to Frank Herbert fans.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider buying me a coffee to support more writing…
USA • MEXICO | 1984 | 137 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
David Lynch shot Dune on 35mm film (and 65mm for VFX shots), which Arrow Video has scanned the original camera negatives of to create this 4K Ultra HD digital presentation with Dolby Vision (the latter of which I can’t take advantage of, but the HDR10 downgrade felt sufficient). This is an old movie now, so don’t expect miracles, but I was a little disappointed nothing about the new audio-visual presentation popped for me. Dune is dark and drab for the most part, but the blacks weren’t particularly inky, and while details are fine I just wasn’t impressed by this disc.
It’s also a shame there’s only the original theatrical version here, as Limited Edition releases from Arrow typically include every version of a movie. So we’re missing the 1988 extended cut for TV, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘Alan Smithee Version’. Maybe Arrow thought it was best to stick to a version of the film Lynch didn’t feel aggrieved by enough to remove his name from, but it’s a pity the three-hour TV cut isn’t here to compare against.
There’s no Dolby Atmos or DTS:X track here, just a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, which barely disturbed the rear speakers and didn’t do much to envelop me in the world of Dune. All the dialogue is clear and it’s not an awful experience to listen to, but it also felt like a stereo mix most of the time.
Many of the extra features will be familiar to anyone who bought the 2010 Blu-ray, but Arrow has made their 2021 release a little more desirable with the addition of some new featurettes and interviews.
director: David Lynch.
writer: David Lynch (based on the novel by Frank Herbert).
starring: Francesa Annis, Leonardo Cimino, Brad Dourif, José Ferrer, Linda Hunt, Freddie Jones, Richard Jordan, Kyle MacLachlan, Virginia Madsen, Silvana Mangano, Everett McGill, Kenneth McMillan, Jack Nance, Jürgen Prochnow, Paul Smith, Patrick Stewart, Sting, Dean Stockwell, Max von Sydow, Alicia Roanne Witt & Sean Young.