“He who controls the spice!”: In defense of David Lynch’s “Dune.”

Before I begin this essay/review of David Lynch’s 1984 science fiction epic Dune, let’s get the one issue out of the way that I suspect will pop up like a stepped-on rake to hit me in the head almost before we even begin: Jodorowsky. Yes, I have seen Frank Pavich’s 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, detailing the failed attempts by visionary Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky to bring Dune to the screen in the 1970s, and yes, I’m certain that version would have been mind-blowingly awesome–perhaps the greatest film ever made. Salvador Dali as the Emperor, Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen, and special effects by Dan O’Bannon–yes, it would have been great. I agree. This article is not about that movie that was never made, but another movie that was made, and which is surprisingly good…if you give it a chance.

I love the David Lynch version of Dune, which came out in December 1984 and was widely panned as not only one of the worst films of that year, but possibly the worst science fiction film ever. (Come on, it’s really worse than Robot Monster?) When I first saw it in the 80s, I hated it too and swore off it for years. I’d read Frank Herbert’s visionary 1965 novel as a teenager and didn’t really understand it, but I knew I hated the film. Then one very late night in the early 1990s I watched it on cable and found myself oddly mesmerized. It’s a movie of fascinating contrasts, both beautiful and ugly, crude and sophisticated, epic and shabby, corny and poetic. I’m convinced it was made that way on purpose. That alone sets it apart from many other films, especially of that era, that would not have dared to be so avant-garde.

In a nutshell, Dune takes place 10,000 years in the future when a hallucinogenic substance called “spice” is the most important commodity in the universe. The Atredies clan, headed by the Duke (Jürgen Prochnow) is ordered by the Emperor (Jose Ferrer) to administer the planet it comes from, Arrakis, also known as Dune. The Duke’s enemies, principally Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan), ambush him, kill the Duke and send his son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) into exile in the desert, where he joins a band of groovy space Bedouins and eventually realizes he is the messiah they’ve been waiting for. That’s an extremely abbreviated description of a very complicated movie.

Despite most viewers and reviewers finding its script muddled and incomprehensible, what’s amazing about the film, written by Lynch himself, is actually how coherent it made Herbert’s story, which has got to be one of the most confusing novels of the 20th century (excluding Finnegan’s Wake). Lynch had to set the stage for a totally alien world of mind-numbing complexity and with which all viewers would lack any frame of reference. The fact that he managed to do it in only half an hour is pretty admirable, if you’ve read the book. The opening narration by Virginia Madsen (later famous for Sideways) is hokey, but consider what she had to work with.

The 1984 film’s explanation of the “weirding way” of battle is actually an improvement, I believe, on the Herbert novel. Here is a scene involving it, which also shows Kyle MacLachlan’s approach to the role of Paul.

The scenes on Caladan are visually arresting. I love how the Atredies castle is all full of ancient tile floors and old carved wood, almost Gothic and medieval. Lynch’s vision of a largely non-technological future is a unique take on science fiction. Although he’s not onscreen long, Jürgen Prochnow’s performance as Duke Leto is pretty compelling, as is his chemistry with Francesca Annis who plays Lady Jessica. The moody wood interiors and crashing waves of Caladan contrast eerily with the sand dunes and vaguely Moorish-looking settings of Arrakis, where the family moves to in the first third of the film.

The cameo roles in Dune are also played well. Herbert’s novel is full of rich characters, and Lynch does a surprisingly good job making them interesting in the movie. There’s Thufir (Freddie Jones), a human computer with eyebrows from hell; warriors Duncan (Richard Jordan, one of my favorite actors) and Gurney (a pre-Star Trek Patrick Stewart), who at one point holds a staple gun in one hand and a pug puppy in the other; Shadout Mapes (Oscar-winning actress Linda Hunt) as a creepy maid; and turncoat-or-is-he Dr. Yuweh (Dean Stockwell), a minor character but on whom the whole plot hinges. Also noteworthy is Sean Young, a talented actress who never had the career she probably deserved, as Paul’s Fremen girlfriend Chani.

Dune and Lynch got the most flak for their over-the-top portrayal of the villains, the depraved carrot-top clan known as the Harkonnens. The Baron, Kenneth McMillan, is actually an awesome villain. His bellowing delivery and hideous visage show an actor having a great deal of fun with the role, and he’s the most colorful characterization in the picture. Despite that, the scenes involving the Harkonnens are the film’s weakest point. Lynch couldn’t resist adding some random bizarreness for which he was famous (Eraserhead, for instance), resulting in some pretty pointless scenes of random sadism, including corpulent underling Rabban (Paul Smith, Bluto from Altman’s 1981 Popeye film) eating a horse tongue raw. Icky, to be sure, and nowhere in the book. These scenes definitely have a homophobic vibe, but I don’t think it’s as bad as Braveheart‘s casual bigotry, and after all, these are villains.

The infamous scenes involving Baron Harkonnen are usually Exhibit A in anyone’s attack on this movie. Here is one of them. Definitely NSFW!

In its final 45 minutes, Dune manages to squirm its way into epic territory, showing us giant worm-like sand monsters hundreds of feet long which are pretty convincing, a guerrilla war on the desert planet to shut down the spice mines, and Paul’s conversion from rebel leader to religious messiah. Dune is surprisingly environmental in its consciousness, focusing on hidden caches of water–which are shown in almost black, softly-moving ripples–as the instrument by which Paul and his tribe, the Fremen, will ultimately come to conquer the universe. Kyle MacLachlan as Paul is forgettable in the early scenes but grows into the role very well by the end. You’re astonished that you actually believe he could be a messiah. Lynch also simplified the weapons technology used by the Fremen; in the movie the “weirding way” involves manipulating sound waves, which is pretty spectacular in the film; in Herbert’s book the mechanism was so hopelessly metaphysical and convoluted that I never understood it. Thus, credit Lynch for one small improvement on the book.

Some of Dune’s special effects are pretty shoddy, surprising for a movie that cost $40 million (about $92 million in today’s dollars). The spaceships are laugh-out-loud bad, with obvious matte effects even worse than the 1960s TV Star Trek. It’s bad, but consider what Dune would look like if it was made today: a lot of knobby CGI ships that all look the same. I really doubt the film would be that much more spectacular if it was made in 2014 instead of 1984. The sets, colors, and especially the costumes are far superior in the 1984 Dune to anything that you’d be likely to see today. It probably should have gotten at least a nomination for an Academy Award for costume design. Today the automatic tendency would be to paint everybody with CGI. I hate CGI, and I’m glad Dune was made in the world before it.

This is not a perfect film. I understand why people hate it. It’s long, it’s complicated, and it’s the opposite of the popcorn-munching escapist entertainment that most people probably expected when they bought a ticket in December 1984 for a big-budget science fiction movie. But science fiction does not exist merely as a toy for the eyes. It should challenge us, intellectually, artistically and perhaps even morally. Dune may not succeed on all of those levels, but Lynch, for all his faults, gave it his best shot. I think this film deserves another look. And let’s leave Jodorowsky out of it, m’kay?

I do not know the provenance or copyright status of the header image in this blog, though I suspect it is copyrighted by Universal Pictures, the distributor of the 1984 Dune film. I believe my use of it here constitutes fair use under copyright law.
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9 Comments

  1. I remember seeing Dune in the theater. Didn’t love it, but strongly liked it. EXCEPT for the sonic-blaster revision of the “weirding way,” which I thought was an unnecessary tangent that greatly diminished the importance of this fighting technique. The weirding way was more akin to transcendent kung-fu, and the point of it was that it was a mind-body discipline. Making it a technology subverted that plot device, I thought. I know wire-work and special effects then wasn’t as good as it is now, but they could have tried.

  2. Last time I watched Dune was about a Decade ago. I did however see that Jodoworsky doc and it was incredible. It reignited my Dune interest and I still have the DVD of the David Lynch film. I’ll put it on my re-watch list.

  3. I liked the film and this critique was bang on. I just wanted to mention the different versions of the film. There exists a longer cut (four hours). It’s worth looking for. It has lot more from the book.

    1. Thanks! I’ve seen the 4 hour cut, which is usually referred to as the TV version, though I’m not sure that moniker is accurate. It’s mostly terrible, with one quite startling exception. There’s an opening narration, done with still-picture illustrations, that explains the universe of Dune and gives a lot of the back-story, which is priceless and would have been pivotal if they’d chosen to use it in the theatrical cut. The rest of the TV version is total tripe–so bad that Lynch took his name off it, replacing it with the pseudonym “Allen Smithee.” So far as I know the only version endorsed unequivocally by Lynch is the theatrical cut. To be sure, I’ve also heard that certain accounts of other versions of the film are apocryphal–that there really are only two versions, and there’s a lot of mythology out there about supposed other cuts which everyone has heard about but no one has ever seen. I’m not sure where the truth lies, but it’s fascinating there’s so much buzz about the various versions!

  4. OK. I have a THREE hour Alan Smithee version on my hard drive that I just watched yesterday. It has the intro alluded to above, but an hour less. I was too young to catch this when it came out at the cinema, but have read th book a couple of times. I agree that the theatrical version is better than any of the Alan Smithee versions.
    Anyways, I think your review pretty much captures my thoughts on this great 80’s sci-fi epic

  5. The three hour cut is the “four hour cut” the previous poster is alluding to as when WGN ran that in the late 80s it was full of commercials and went on for four hours. We went to Giordanos, had a stuffed pizza cooked for a whole hour, ate it, came home and the movie was still in it’s first act.

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