Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: David Lynch based on the book by Frank Herbert.
Starring: Kyle MacLachlan (Paul Atreides), José Ferrer (Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV), Francesca Annis (Lady Jessica), Brad Dourif (Piter De Vries), Leonardo Cimino (The Baron's Doctor), Linda Hunt (Shadout Mapes), Freddie Jones (Thufir Hawat), Richard Jordan (Duncan Idaho), Virginia Madsen (Princess Irulan), Silvana Mangano (Reverend Mother Ramallo), Everett McGill (Stilgar), Kenneth McMillan (Baron Vladimir Harkonnen), Jack Nance (Nefud), Siân Phillips (Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam), Jürgen Prochnow (Duke Leto Atreides), Paul L. Smith (The Beast Rabban), Patrick Stewart (Gurney Halleck), Sting (Feyd Rautha), Dean Stockwell (Doctor Wellington Yueh), Max von Sydow (Doctor Kynes), Alicia Witt (Alia), Sean Young (Chani).
It’s one of the great ironies about David Lynch’s career that his 1984 Dune is considered his biggest bomb – critically as well as commercially, and is still the highest grossing film of his career. But when the studio sinks at least $40 million (a lot back then) into your sci-fi epic that they are hoping is going to be another Star Wars, and the films barely crosses $30 million at the box office, well, that’s not good. When it was released, Dune was considered to be a disaster – a bomb that could potentially destroy careers. Over the years, the film has gained a cult following, with some insisting that as bizarre as the film is, it’s actually a misunderstood masterpiece. I don’t say this very often but those people are, in a word, wrong. Dune is every bit as bad as people thought it was back in 1984. An incoherent mess of a movie that somehow spends almost its entire runtime doing exposition, and still makes no damn sense. I’ve seen it twice now – the first time I gawked in amazement at the screen. This really cannot be as bad as I think it is, can it? Watching it this time I have my answer – yes, it is. But as colossal a failure as Dune is on every conceivable level, it still stands as one of the most important films in David Lynch’s career. After his independent debut Eraserhead (1977) gained a cult following, and was a surprising success, he was approached by the studios. He did the relatively safe The Elephant Man (1980) – a decent enough film, a critical, awards and box office success (adjusted for inflation, it beats Dune’s gross – but barely - but it didn’t cost nearly as much to make). He then made Dune – taking over a film that had defeated others – like Alejanrdo Jodorowsky (last year’s doc Jodorowsky’s Dune is a must see for what happened there), and Ridley Scott, who walked away to make Blade Runner instead. It’s odd to think now, but Lynch was even considered (along with David Cronenberg, an equally odd choice) to be the director of Return of the Jedi. Had Dune been a great success, who the hell knows what direction Lynch’s career would have gone in. Because it worked out the way it did, Lynch learned a lesson. “I would rather not make a film, than make a film where I don’t have final cut” he would say of the experience. To get final cut, he had to make smaller films – which has led him to make the kind of bizarre films that only Lynch could make.
The plot is a mess – and really takes about 30 minutes or so before it can even start, because it requires so much setup. The film opens with a bizarre introduction by Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen – who otherwise is barely in the film) as she floats in space (and occasionally fades out, for what reason, I do not know) as she tries to explain about the planet Arrakis aka Dune – a desert planet populated by giant sandworms, and an indigenous people known as the Freman. Arrakis is also the only place in the universe where “spice” is mine – which is the most valuable substance in the universe as, among other things, it allows you to fold space, so you can travel great distances without moving. Irulan is the daughter of Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (Jose Ferrar), who rules the universe. He fears that Duke Leto Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow) has grown too popular and powerful – so he decides to give him control of Arrakis, which is a plum assignment, but is really just a ruse. He is going to use the Atreides long-time enemies, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) to kill the Duke, thus eliminating him. What he doesn’t know is that the Duke has a son – Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) – whose concubine mother, Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis), defied her orders to give the Duke a daughter (he’s only supposed to have daughters) – and instead gave him a son, because she loved the Duke so much. This, of course, sets up a war on Arrakis.
That paragraph was probably painful to read – it was certainly painful to write – but it only hints at the entire plot of the film. There are dozens of other characters – played by talented actors like Brad Dourif, Dean Stockwell, Max von Sydow and Patrick Stewart among many, many others. There is talk of a chosen one (gee, I wonder who it’s going to be), a psychic little girl with glowing blue eyes, a psychotic Sting strutting around in weird underwear, strange weapons that use sound to pulverize things, strange body shields that makes it look like the characters are trapped in translucent boxes, cheap looking special effects (even for their time). And there is an awful lot of shots of various characters – especially McLachlan’s – staring blankly off into space, while a voiceover tries to explain what the hell is going on. One of the “rules” of screenwriting is never use voiceovers because they are lazy. Of course, in films like Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1995), and Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. (2002), among others – voiceovers are used to tremendous effect, filling in information and offering commentary in an entertaining way. I think when whoever wrote that “rule” was thinking of a movie like Dune – where it’s simply ridiculous to watch characters star off into space.
I cannot think of a thing about Dune that actually works. The performances are almost all bad – but the actors weren’t really given much to do. Best of all may well be Sting – who is given less to do than many of the other characters, but does it in such a cocksure way that at the very least he’s different than the rest of the characters – you remember his performance, even if you can barely remember what the hell he was doing in the movie. I guess Kenneth McMillan is pretty good as the Baron as well – although making him gay, and covering his face with gross, pulsating sores at the height of the AIDS epidemic was probably not the best idea in the world. Most of the other actors simply look lost – as they probably were.
Apparently, Lynch’s original cut of the film was close to 4 hours long, and he had wanted to cut it down to about 3 hours – but the final version of the film is only two hours and fifteen minutes. I have never seen the longer TV cut – which does run just over three hours – because Lynch had nothing to do with that cut, and took his name off of it. Perhaps a longer film would have been better – but I have to say, I doubt it. Dune is cluttered and overstuffed – too many characters, too much plot, too much strange dialogue to try to parse – too much everything. A longer version of the film would like not be better – just be more.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see why this film didn’t work – and why Lynch was all wrong to direct, and write, the movie to begin with. Ridley Scott may have been able to reign the movie in – although apparently his version would have been two movies long. Scott has excelled over the years in making large scale epics, with large casts and scale. Scott, while not the most imaginative director, excels at this type of large scale storytelling. Lynch, decidedly, does not. Narrative has never seemed to be much interest to Lynch – his films are often complex, but the actual narratives are simple, the casts typically small. Yes, he expanded in the Twin Peaks TV series – but that was a series that allowed him time to explore, and he was working with TV vet Mark Frost, who certainly helped. With Dune, Lynch was basically on his own – and really had no idea what he was doing. You can make some auteur related arguments for Dune – but to what purpose?
I know the film has its fans. Perhaps for fans of Herbert’s novels, all this makes much more sense than it does to layman like myself. Perhaps they simply ignore the plot, and look at the utter weirdness on display throughout much of the movie. I think the movie generally looks bad – the special effects are awful – but the costumes and makeup are, at the very least, interesting, and often unique.
For me though, the film is interesting only because it’s a failed experiment by Lynch, a brilliant director, who was given the wrong project and ran with it. He knows he shouldn’t have made it – he doesn’t often discuss the movie, but when he does, it with regret. But perhaps he shouldn’t regret making the film. The years between Eraserhead and Dune seemed to be taking Lynch more and more into the mainstream – something he was about to depart from – and in the process, make a masterpiece.