Dune (1984) – What David Lynch Got Right


People have not been very nice about David Lynch’s Dune (1984). An ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi bestseller, the movie has been described as “impossible to follow” by Empire Magazine, “pointless” by Roger Ebert, and “a huge gigantic sadness” by none other than Lynch himself. Such sentiments were echoed by cinema-goers, leading to Dune bombing at the box office and enjoying little appreciation outside of a meagre cult following.

But its cult status is not completely unfounded; beneath unconvincing effects, a monotonous structure, and what feels like an incomplete narrative, is a science fiction achievement parallel to the works of Stanley Kubrick or Ridley Scott. Lynch’s sadness is illuminating; he knows what Dune could have been were it not for his failures in assuming artistic ownership of the project. There are even a few fans, both those who’ve read the book and those who haven’t, who deem Lynch’s Dune to be the definitive version, warts and all.

With so much hype surrounding Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve’s attempt, earmarked for release in late 2021, Lynch’s interpretation risks being overshadowed and written off as a complete failure. It’s high time we explored what Lynch may have got right, what nuggets of brilliance shine through, and what aspects of the book were given justice on the big screen, in ways that only such a master of surrealism could have pulled off.

So why is there so much anxiety surrounding the filming of Dune?

It is indeed an epic and complex tome, packed to the brim with characters, lore, literary devices, and esoteric science-fiction concepts. The book mostly follows Paul Atreides and his plight to redeem his dynasty, House Atreides. His family are bid by Emperor Shaddam IV, ruler of the known universe, to supervise the desert planet Arrakis (also known as Dune). Paul’s father knows something is amiss, and such suspicions are confirmed when the evil Baron Harkonnen, acting as a pawn for the Emperor, invades Arrakis and kills Paul, the last heir to House Atreides – or so the Baron thinks.

Paul secretly survives, along with his mother Jessica. She knows her son to be the subject of an ancient prophecy; he is the Kwisatz Haderach, the one who will lead the natives of Arrakis to overthrow the aggressors, though this is a campaign at risk of becoming a bloody, horrific jihad. At the centre of all this politics is The Spice, a potent drug found only on Arrakis. Spice extends life, activates spiritual insight, and is even used by navigators to manipulate space-time. It’s what everyone’s addicted to, and what everyone’s fighting over. Spice is what makes Dune such a valuable planet to govern, it being an otherwise inhospitable desert-scape inhabited only by huge sandworms and standoffish natives.

This synopsis misses out a thousand details, and as Villeneuve correctly stated, “it’s a world that takes its power in details”. It can be difficult to grasp one aspect of Herbert’s universe without understanding the universe as a whole. For example, Dune’s philosophical implications are mixed up in its biosphere. Its hero’s coming-of-age story has more than “theological overtones” as Ebert suggests – its theology defines it, encompassing it. And wrapping all this up is The Spice, a complex and occult drug that informs the world’s religions and technologies, and the motivations of every individual character, of every warring faction, of every dumb animal.

How does one fit all this, including the appendices, glossary and map, into a two-and-a-half hour film? With difficulty, it seems.

Plot and structure are the primary failures of Lynch’s Dune, with important lore left unexplained whilst other mundane concepts are hammered home. Herbert’s mantric style of repeating a pertinent phrase (“Fear is the mind-killer”) translates badly to cinema when interrupting scenes in the form of jarring internal monologues. Surreal cutaways ruin otherwise grounded and engaging sequences, a constant shift that leads to a sort of narrative nausea. Then suddenly we’re plunged into a segment of such epic proportions that we feel as if the film is about to end, even when there’s still an hour left on the clock.

But Lynch gets so much right, even in his pacing. Amidst all the chaos, he finds time to let important scenes linger. For example, Paul’s mother Jessica has much political and personal rivalry with the Bene Gesserit, the order to which she belongs. By training Paul in the “weirding ways”, she is attempting to fulfil a terrible prophecy, something that attracts the vitriol of her Reverend Mother. Their interactions, and the subsequent test of pain which the Reverend Mother inflicts upon Paul, are given space to breathe.

A similar slowness is employed when Paul is being informed about Arrakis and the mission of House Atreides. We learn a lot about Dune – its nature, geography, and politics – through Paul’s ‘filmbook’ and his conversations with close confidants. Even interactions between the evil Baron Harkonnen and his red-haired acolytes, or the Emperor and the deformed Guild Navigators, are given time; we learn more than just lore. We see where they live, what they wear, even witness some personal habits. The Baron’s disgusting pustules, maniacal laugh, and quasi-sexual abuse of boys, are not integral to the plot. They are, however, absolutely integral to us despising the Baron, and are arguably more important than many narrative details that Lynch had to leave out.

In these slower scenes, both the dialogue and the space in between are charged with emotion, politics, and smattered with references to the wider world. Not only is the plot developed; the Duniverse is too. Rather than merely speaking about the task at hand, characters and factions are always mentioning one another. Even if we’re not particularly informed about the Spacing Guild, the Great Houses of the Landsraad, The Fremen, and the Order of the Bene Gesserit, hearing these names indicates a rich wider world. It throws us, a little scared and confused, into a universe we don’t fully understand, leaving us hungry for more.

When it comes to casting, everyone has a different image of a book’s characters in their heads, but Lynch’s casting choices are nonetheless sophisticated and wise. Kyle MacLachlan, later used by Lynch as the star of Blue Velvet (1986) and the TV show ‘Twin Peaks’, has the deep eyes and stoic gaze of our Paul. Much like his literary counterpart, Paul begins as an observer, carefully watching the plot pass him by, and ends up as a warrior, bringing about change with that self-same humility and strength of character. His interactions with his father are strangely stilted and sentimental compared with the rest of the film – in a similar vein to Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) but with less depth. Otherwise, however, Paul’s father Leto (Jürgen Prochnow) is a commanding presence, and his concubine Jessica (Francesca Annis) is dutiful, intelligent, with eyes that genuinely express fear for her son’s life. Lynch, in what little time he affords it, finds soul in this family unit.

The evil Harkonnens are also well cast. Kenneth McMillan’s Baron may be a little overly-manic, a little comic-book, but such criticisms are overshadowed by his great successes; the Baron Harkonnen is a revolting, drooling, leering creature, with a shrewd glimmer in his eye. More contentious is the casting for the Baron’s nephew Feyd-Rautha, played by none other than Sting of The Police. Seeing the pop icon in Dune breaks immersion for some, but it’s nonetheless an example of Lynch taking on board one of Frank Herbert’s primary aesthetic tenets: not everyone nice has to be attractive, and not everyone evil has to be ugly. Herbert describing Paul’s most loyal friend Gurney Halleck as a “rolling, ugly man” is just one example of the believability that Lynch took to heart, unashamedly giving good guys unattractive qualities – like Thurfir’s drug-induced rashes and inhumanly long eyebrows – wherever he felt fitting.

In addition to his casting, Lynch expertly uses the visual medium to differentiate between factions. The Harkonnens are perhaps least faithful to the book; rather than being Romanesque, barbaric, and above all functional, Lynch appears more inspired by psychosexual artists like Giger, resulting in the Harkonnen aesthetic being unexpectedly stylish and shiny, albeit surreal and funny. Nonetheless, he expresses well a planet blighted by industry, and individual rooms in the Harkonnen Headquarters are appropriately cold and metallic.

The design choices for the Harkonnens are probably the most contentious. If we’re discounting poor digital and practical effects, such as the sandworms that look like Muppets from the wrong angle, there’s little else to fault. The planet Arrakis is just as vast and orange as one imagined. The Atreides’ castles and ships are grandiose but functional; the Fremen hideouts are ancient but futuristic, sporting a minimalist, art-gallery-style smoothness in contrast to the rugged climate of their planet; and, towering above the design of all other factions, is the palace of the Emperor. The first set we see, it blows us away. Adorned with blocky gold and turquoise allure, it’s like futurism, art-deco, and Aztec lustre all rolled into one. It’s alien and strange, stunning and beautiful. Courtiers mill about in strange costumes, accompanied by pugs in equally strange costumes, and those of us who’ve read the book immediately know where we are.

Much like with his conversations, Lynch lets us enjoy these set pieces. We’re given long shots and sweeping pans of the universe and its environs, rather than the handheld action that seems to permeate much of modern cinema. After all, so much of Dune is in the world, in the details. These achievements in pacing prove that Lynch’s film was not too long, and that in fact the two movies he initially fought for could well have spelled success for the adaptation – considering that Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mid-1970s attempt was intended to be twelve hours long, the fact that Lynch fits so much into just over two is astounding. As a result, Lynch unfortunately leaves out large chunks of the story, including the jihad that is so central to Paul’s spiritual journey. To his credit, though, he keenly explores some fundamental elements of the book rather than squeezing everything in at the expense of depth, a brave and admirable stance to take in the face of baying Frank Herbert fans.

Lovers of “Dune” are not as other sci-fi readers; “Dune” is their Bible, and Herbert something of a messiah. Its universal truths have resonated with a portion of every generation since its release, and its literary devices for exploring theology, psychology, philosophy and addiction credit “Dune” much literary merit over many other soft science fiction and fantasy novels. Lynch, rather than shying away from these integral elements, dives right in with numerous surreal segments, many of which are confusing, poorly written and badly executed. But, as absurd a claim as it seems, Lynch had the right idea. To ignore these themes, expressed in the book through a mixture of internal monologues, passages of scripture, and descriptions of mystical visions, would be to ignore the very soul of the book.

Lynch is equally brave in his attempt to represent the technologies of “Dune”, with varying success. The voice, a psychological vocal technique that Jessica (and later Paul) use to command enemies is shown to us via an alien-like, low-pitched filter over the actor’s speech. It’s symbolic rather than realistic, but no doubt memorable. The same can be said for the personal shields that block fast-moving objects, facilitating knife combat over gunfights. Lynch employs some blocky CGI effects, dated and comical enough to break immersion, but once again memorable. One could have used much more subtle effects for each of these technologies, but Lynch makes them strange and unforgettable rather than allowing them to sink into mundanity. Whether or not they’re well executed is a different matter.

In conclusion, it’s hard to decry many of the criticisms levelled at David Lynch’s adaptation. He blames studio interference, and an admission that he sold out, claiming Dune (1984) to be his career’s only failure. Despite many agreeing, there is undoubtedly something special buried in its flaws. With intellectual and cinematic majesty akin to Forbidden Planet (1956) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Lynch’s defective masterpiece goes lengths to capture the mature, mystical, psychedelic qualities of “Dune” in a way that sets it apart from bog-standard science fiction. Lynch doesn’t want to think about it, or talk about it, and will not be seeing Villeneuve’s interpretation, but those of us who see genius in this much maligned flick can enjoy the film, seeing it as a valiant effort, a near-success, and a lesson learned.

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Written by Louis B Scheuer

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