Welcome to Close Reads! In this series, Leah Schnelbach and guest authors will dig into the tiny, weird moments of pop culture—from books to theme songs to a single television episode—that have burrowed into our minds, found rent-stabilized apartments, started community gardens, and refused to be forced out by corporate interests.
Everyone knows that David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Dune is bad. Hell, this film—dubbed “worst movie of the year” by Roger Ebert—was such a disaster it basically drove Lynch from mainstream films. It’s one of SFF’s most famous flops. A disaster. So please believe me that I’m not trolling or looking for a controversial “hot take” when I say that Lynch’s Dune is one of my all-time favorite science fiction films, and perhaps the SF movie that influenced me more than any other.
When I was a child, there were no streaming networks and my parents eschewed cable. What we did have was a handful of movies on VHS tapes—most recorded from TV—that my brother and I watched over and over and over. One of those was Dune. I remember laying on the gray couch in our basement, watching gigantic worms and rotoscoped armor and strange fish monsters float across the screen. Honestly, I’m not sure I really followed the plot. More than a few times I fell asleep halfway through. But I remember the images seeping into my dreams.
So certainly, my love of the film is influenced by these circumstances. And yes it was a mess, but it also was a film that felt strange in a way I wanted science fiction to be. With alien worlds that seemed alien, and a space opera that actually felt beamed from a far region of space.
It’s not that the criticisms of the film are all wrong. The awkward pacing, the confusing plot, the big exposition dumps in dialogue. It’s a mess. But it’s a beautiful mess that’s far more memorable than the average aesthetic-free, polished-to-dullness blockbuster SFF films of today. So while we all wait for Denis Villeneuve’s version of Dune—one I have some hopes for, I should say—to be released and replace it in the pop culture consciousness, I want to praise David Lynch’s Dune for keeping science fiction strange.
To say that Lynch made a weird film is like saying water is wet. But put Dune in context. It was released one year after Return of the Jedi, a film more concerned with corporate toy sales than otherworldly visions. Science fiction literature was still full of mind-expanding ideas and boundary pushing concepts of course, but Hollywood was successfully turning the genre into something safe, kid-friendly, and prepackaged for the masses. In this context, Dune was a breath of fresh spice in a mutated human’s space-folding aquarium.
Compare Star Wars’ stick-wielding teddy bears or Star Trek’s actors with pointy ears or forehead makeup (The Search for Spock was released the same year) to Lynch’s guild navigator. It’s not just that the guild navigator looks alien—plenty of Star Wars characters have cool costumes—but he also feels alien. (Even while technically a human who has been deformed by ingesting the “spice.”) This bloated newt-baby with cheese-grater cheeks, puffing orange dust into strange aquarium as its attendants scrub the floor with black vacuums, somehow isn’t comic. Watching the scene, even with its clunky dialogue, feels far more mythic and mysterious and estranging than the SF blockbusters of its day.
Star Wars might have had the dark side of the force, but Dune had actual darkness. Dangerous occult trials and villains who stitched shut the ears and eyes of their servants while squishing tiny hippo-bugs in sci-fi juice boxes for refreshment.
Even when Lynch’s Dune gets a bit absurd—as it most certainly does—at least it’s in a fun and memorable way. Yes, Sting in a dystopian speedo is goofy, but you sure as hell remember it. In general, the film is a visual feast, with sets and costumes that still look spectacular nearly 40 years later. Just look at the eerie grandeur of the emperor’s palace in that guild navigator scene.
Poking around the internet for this piece, I read the same complaints over and over again. The “worldbuilding” doesn’t make sense. The details aren’t fully explained. Why do the Mentats have bushy eyebrows? Why are the Bene Gesserit bald? And why on earth are there so many pugs in space?
Well, why not?! Why is science fiction—especially far-future space opera SF—supposed to be explicable and contained? Lynch is a director who famously works with the Surreal in the truest sense. He adds images that appear to him in dreams and in transcendental meditation. He takes accidents on set and adds them to his scripts. The resulting details might not all be technically faithful to the book, but they are faithful to the spirit of Herbert’s otherworldly creation. (Herbert himself apparently was pleased with Lynch’s film.)
Plus, do you really want concerns about “worldbuilding logic” to stop us from seeing the absurd glory of Patrick Stewart charging into war with a pug in his arms?
I’m not saying there’s no place for Star Wars or Star Trek of course. I love both. (Well, some of both.) Steven Spielberg’s contemporaneous family-friendly SF films are fun too. Science fiction is a big tent and needs all sorts of modes. But watching Lynch’s Dune as a kid provided me with the expansive vision and strange concepts that captivated me in the novels I was reading by authors like Dick, Le Guin, and, yes, Herbert. It’s a film that imparted in the young me the sense that science fiction is a place for strange ideas, disturbing visions, and mind-expanding concepts. (This is something that I certainly tried to achieve in my own novel, The Body Scout.) If science fiction can’t be a home to weird and the new, what can?
Lynch might not be a science fiction scholar. But Lynch understood the mystic and strange side of Herbert’s creation, and of so much brilliant science fiction literature that gets scrubbed on its way to a film adaptation. So yes, Lynch’s Dune is a mess with many flaws. But science fiction cinema would be a poorer place without it.
Lincoln Michel is the author of the story collection Upright Beasts and the science fiction novel The Body Scout, which is out this month from Orbit. His short fiction appears in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Paris Review, Granta, and elsewhere. You can find him online at the newsletter Counter Craft and @thelincoln.