There were many attempts to get Dune to the screen on the wave of its popularity. The version that finally came through was David Lynch’s 1984 film, made after both Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott tried their hands at the project and ran short on funding and dedication respectively. Lynch was asked to direct and write the screenplay with no knowledge of the book and no particular interest in science fiction.
You can see where this was all destined to go wrong, can’t you?
Look, David Lynch has formally denounced this film and been forthcoming about all the mistakes he made in creating it, including his lack of say in the final cut. (Yes, there are other cuts, but Lynch was not involved in them and they do not make the experience better enough to justify their existence.) The film received largely negative reviews, went on to become an undisputed cult classic, and has received the “deep down it’s genius” treatment that gets offered to every film affording that staying power and status. The fact that David Lynch wrote and directed it helps. The fact that it contains genre film and television darlings like Kyle MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell, Brad Dourif, and Sean Young also helps. There’s very little point in dragging David Lynch for making something that he has long been unhappy with, and even less point in arguing for its hidden genius. Dune is an awful film, and what few merits it has are eclipsed by its bloated excesses in every aspect of story, performance, and effects.
But the fact remains that this film is a perfect example of what happens to an excellent science fiction premise in the hands of someone who has no particular love for the genre.
While Lynch prefers not to discuss Dune in interviews, there was one telling quote in Extrovert Magazine back in 2012 that perhaps gives an indication as to why he took the job:
“I started selling out on Dune. Looking back, it’s no one’s fault but my own. I probably shouldn’t have done that picture, but I saw tons and tons of possibilities for things I loved, and this was the structure to do them in. There was so much room to create a world.”
So David Lynch was excited at the prospect of creating a world, and Dune offered him the ability to do that. The problem is that while the design of the film was incredibly meticulous, the overall creation of that universe is alarmingly homogeneous. The viewer is either in the desert or in any number of grim, muted palette locales that can only be differentiated from one another by noting who occupies the space. The outdoors barely exist; Caladan is black sky filled with lightning and the sound of rain, Giedi Prime is a great big warehouse district with practically no windows and darkness surrounding its mechanized exterior, Arrakis is carved from stone and sparsely accommodated, the people surrounding the Emperor are monochromatically dressed. Everything is in permanent twilight for no discernible reason, and what’s worse, the deliberate juxtapositions of all these locales is largely lost. And when you can see the immense work that went into detailing the costumes, the carvings, the mechanisms, the fact that it all serves more as background noise than focal material is a damned shame.
The Atlantic’s celebration of the film on its thirtieth anniversary dubbed it “the anti-Star Wars,” suggesting that Lynch was responding to George Lucas’s crowd-pleasing epic full of easily pronounceable words with something impenetrable and surreal and dangerous. That is… a generous summation at best. Given Lynch’s typical milieu, it is hard to believe that he has ever had the slightest interest in conversing with Lucas’s highly brand-able entertainment. It’s easier to say that Dune is a poor man’s 2001 (made by Stanley Kubrick, a filmmaker Lynch deeply admires) mashed together with a poorer man’s Blade Runner (which Ridley Scott left Dune to direct and found far more manageable). It takes the spectacle and the pacing of both, but does not ascend to the mindfulness of either, and therefore says nothing at all. The first hour is tedious explanation and repetition of the plot, and that last hour is a speedy push toward resolution that never pauses to communicate anything of relevance.
For a movie that clearly blew its sizable budget on effects and set pieces and dressing, complete thoughts fail to come through in the visuals that Lynch was so keen on creating. The Atreides uniforms are starched and a bit British-looking at first glance, which is all well and good until we reach the Harkonnen livery… which are essentially black hazmat suits with green vizors?
Any attempt at cohesion on a more granular level, which is where worldbuilding is most essential in science fiction, is shrugged off in favor of another inexplicable style choice that brings a bit of form and zero function. With the exceptions of military collars and crests, there is nothing that communicates how these things and people connect—some have tried to christen it “noir-baroque” which is a cute thought, but it’s hard to believe that any detailed reasons for the aesthetics were considered beyond “this looks cool.”
Dune wants to be phantasmagorical and it wants to be offensive to your senses, and those things can work in cinema, as Lynch’s career communicates incredibly well. But this film does not carry off that off-kilter creepiness as anything more than a parlor trick. It fails to be authentic because these cues are not entrenched in the universe projected on screen. They are there to shock the viewer, to disgust them, but they don’t mean anything. The Guild member floating in its chamber of gas is strange and otherworldly and grotesque, but communicates nothing besides that. It is not integrated into its setting, its surroundings. It exists to be gawked at, to unsettle us, and then it disappears from view and we go back to the part of the narrative that needs to hold our attention.
Everyone whispers all the time in Dune. Well, not everyone, as the Harkonnens prove, but anyone that the film dubs properly mysterious, which are most of the characters. It does not make them seem more mysterious, but it does make you wonder how armies can be expected to follow House Atreides when no one in the house can project or enunciate. I guess they spend a lot of time sending memos.
Attempts at distilling the story down to a manageable two-ish hour piece results in a deluge of bad voiceover exposition, and the added irritation of hearing the characters’ thoughts inside their heads to explain suspicions, actions, and motivations. Not only is this goofy device poorly used, it’s also terribly executed—because everyone whispers all the time. It’s impossible to tell whose thoughts we’re listening to for the majority because these segments were clearly added during post production as the film was being cut, precluding the chance of focusing shots on the characters doing the thinking.
In the distilling of the plot, every other branch of the story becomes superfluous—and many of the characters do too. This results in the Harkonnens doing nothing in the film besides being despicable to the grandest extremes Lynch can summon. Forget any semblance of intelligence and scheming, the Baron Harkonnen has been reduced to a rabid dog of a man who screams and spins and bounces to and fro like a punctured balloon. The movie also has the distinction of branding the character in an explicitly homophobic light by heightening the Baron’s actions and displaying them all at once: in a single scene we watch the man have his facial sores drained by a doctor (which gay writer Dennis Altman has pointed out appears to be part of the pervasive AIDS imagery that suffused pop culture in the 80s) before abruptly sexually assaulting and brutally murdering a young male servant, bleeding him out while his relatives observe. The choice to connect these moments visually in one savage blow cannot be overlooked or underestimated… particularly when the very next scene shows a flash of Lady Jessica and Duke Leto making love. It is a very literal Point-A-to-Point-B association of homosexuality with perversion, violence, and sickness, contrasted immediately with heterosexuality signifying loving, caring bonds and relationships.
I’m on the fence about how David Lynch presents female characters at the best of times, but in Dune, he treats all women as byproducts of the environment he has created. Gone is the strength of the Bene Gesserit, their plotting ways and millennia of manipulations. No one fears their influence. Instead, they are bald women concerned with breeding, and they live to serve at the beck and call of the men around them. The Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim goes to test Paul on Caladan because she is told to do so. Jessica agrees to teach the Fremen her method of fighting only for Paul to teach them instead. Alia kills Baron Harkonnen because her brother wishes it. One of the original reviews of Dune highlights the problem quite well, though it is mistakenly framed as a positive; Time’s Richard Corliss stated “The actors seem hypnotized by the spell Lynch has woven around them—especially the lustrous Francesca Annis, as Paul’s mother, who whispers her lines with the urgency of erotic revelation.” The Lady Jessica is effective because she sounds erotic, a proverbial avalanche of male gaze projected by both the reviewer and by how the film frames her character, her power.
The worst offense of all are the “weirding modules” that Paul teaches the Fremen to fight with. Lynch claimed that he conceived the devices because he didn’t want to have to deal with “kung fu fighting on the sand.” This not only speaks to a remarkable lack of care for the philosophies that Herbert pulled into the story—the eastern concepts of prana and bindu, exacting focus and control over ones body—it also robs an all-female order of their own particular methods of fighting and surviving, and turns that into a piece of technology that anyone can use. The idea of the weirding modules on their own are quite clever, particularly their use of sounds and words as a manner of concentrating fatal force, but that does nothing to ameliorate the damage done to the singular position that the Bene Gesserit take up in the story of Dune, and how they are cast out of it with less than a thought.
Better yet, it causes hilarious plot holes that a ten year old could spot. The weirding modules owned by House Atreides are destroyed in the attack that leads to Duke Leto’s death. Somehow Paul finds one he can use to train the Fremen. He then, somehow, finds hundreds more to arm them with, and they’re all wielding them by the final battle. The entire endgame is predicated on use of a weapon that Paul’s forces shouldn’t even have access to anymore. (Commenter hammerlock has pointed out that he’s given the schematics for the modules from Yueh, which seems even sillier; where is he getting all the raw materials to create these things, and if they’re that easy to manufacture, why doesn’t everyone have them?) And that’s just one place where the simplest logic fails to bare up—such as the fact that “wormsign” is now communicated through lightning running across the sand, yet we’re somehow meant to believe that Fremen can ride something that creates horizontal lightning, and also clearly meant to ignore the effect that lightning can have on sand when it strikes, aka How Do You Like Your Desert Full of Glass?
Did I mention that the stillsuits don’t cover your head, and that they’re also black? You know, the absolute worst color you could possibly wear into a murderously hot desert, and even funnier when you consider that the Fremen are supposed to be a relatively covert group of people who would stand out spectacularly on the sand in their black leather fetish gear.
Here’s the funny thing, though—Frank Herbert had very little problem with the movie, at least publicly. His introduction to his own short story collection Eye had words on the subject, where he praised it as a “visual feast” that you could “hear my dialogue all through.” But he did have a few issues, mainly the most egregious alteration in the entire film, the true nail in the coffin of its awfulness:
Paul Atreides makes it rain on Arrakis at the end of the movie. Because he’s actually a god.
Not only does he make it rain, but there is another useless voiceover that tells us that Muad’Dib will bring peace where there’s war and love where there’s hate. So not only did David Lynch not really care much for science fiction, he completely passed over the entire point of Dune. Which is that Paul is going to help the Fremen remake Arrakis as they see fit using methods that they have perfected. Paul is made into a god in the minds of men, not that he truly was one. And the belief in this godhood, the worship of him and his cause will actually bring endless war to the cosmos, something that he fights to prevent and is eventually forced to succumb to; his terrible purpose. If David Lynch had truly intended to create the anti-Star Wars, he did so in the most Lucas-ean way possible—by having a reserved young man reveal his chosen status and save the universe with his special powers. It is a spectacular letdown of the highest order.
So while I understand the cult status of 1984’s Dune, it is impossible to grant it clemency due to passage of time. It can be entertaining to watch, to examine like an odd bit of ephemera, but it does not deserve laurels for failing creatively. There are better ways to manage that feat.
Come back next week for either the Sci-Fi miniseries version, or the Jodorowsky Dune documentary! I haven’t decided which one to tackle first….