Written & Directed by David Lynch
In the early 1980s, David Lynch was a hot commodity. His cult film Eraserhead had gotten the attention of producers in Hollywood. This led to a life-changing opportunity with Mel Brooks to make The Elephant Man. The critical acclaim from that movie made sure to cement Lynch’s name, and he was afforded more significant offers. In the early 1970s, there had already been efforts to make a Dune adaptation, directed by Alejandro Jodorwosky. That famously fell through, but a lot of pre-production work was done that would find its way to this 1984 release. Lynch was chosen to helm what producers thought could be the next Star Wars. George Lucas had just wrapped his monumentally successful film series with 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Dune was all set to take the mantle. And then audiences saw the movie…
Dune is adapted from the novel by Frank Herbert. It tells the story of humanity 8,000 years or so in the future. As expected, society and cultures are entirely alien to what we know, with some universal themes finding their way in. The Imperium is ruled by the Emperor of the Known Universe, but he, in turn, is held in check by other parties. You have the Landsraad, a collection of noble houses whose armies combined could challenge the Emperor. There’s the Spacing Guild who controls faster than light travel. The sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit are clandestine nuns that seek to shape humanity from the shadows. Even the Sardaukar, the Emperor’s elite warriors, are volatile enough to frighten him. The biggest threat at the opening of the film is House Atreides.
Duke Leto leads House Atreides and has become quite popular among the noble houses. So it’s decided to set up Leto for assassination by ordering him to move his house and take control of Arrakis, aka Dune. On Arrakis is the spice melange, a psychoactive substance that has expanded the human mind beyond anything we could comprehend in our modern context. The Freman, the people of Arrakis, are enslaved by the brutal House Harkonnen, who currently runs the spice operation. The Harkonnens are forced out with the promise that they’ll get it all back once Leto and his House are destroyed. But there’s one snag, Leto’s son Paul….he’s sort of the Messiah.
David Lynch’s Dune is a nearly incomprehensible mess. From the opening scene, where the Emperor’s Daughter (Virginia Madsen) attempts to tell the entire backstory of this world, you know things aren’t going to go smoothly. Lynch is clearly not a lore & plot-focused creator. Instead, he prefers to communicate through visuals and metaphors. This means a property as dense as Dune is just never going to mesh well with his sensibilities. Even Lynch knew almost right away it was miserable making this movie, which led him to stay true to the types of stories he worked best with. I don’t think this version of Dune is a complete disaster, but around the halfway point, the movie becomes so overwhelmed with characters and plot beats that it just falls apart.
The visuals aren’t terrible, though. This is clearly a world unlike Star Wars, so it strikes me as so strange that anyone thought Dune would capitalize on that popularity. Dune is very much about intrigue amongst nobles and the tension that exists between powerful factions. The prequel trilogy is closer to a match for Dune with its Trade Federation-fueled wars. The story of Dune is clearly informed by Frank Herbert’s thoughts on ecology and the future of the planet & humanity. It touches on the ways religion is used to justify and fuel war and doesn’t tread in the stark black & white of Star Wars. The obvious villains of the piece, the Harkkonens aren’t just bad; they are sadistic sexual deviants. Darth Vader is a cold stoic, while Baron Harkkonen gets off on murdering his servants.
There’s a lack of emotion in the film, and I think that’s a challenging element to bring with such lore-heavy material. Lynch obviously felt like he had so much exposition to explain the aspects of the world that his characters play stiff & cold. Kyle MacLachlan is a great actor, so he can bring something out of Paul, and many of the actors are doing their best. The problem is that there just isn’t much room for character development. Take, for instance, when Piter (Brad Dourif) is introduced to the story. He’s the Mentat for House Harkonnen. First off, it needs to be explained what a Mentat is. He’s reciting a chant and drinking a liquid, both of which are never clearly defined or even hinted at for the rest of the movie. Piter appears to be a functionary for the Harkonnens, but it’s difficult to determine what exactly he does. He appears a couple times in the movie and then dies. That’s just one character in a massive cast of them, and when you add in all the organizations, planets, and history, you just have to throw your hands up and surrender. Denis Villeneuve has quite the challenge ahead for himself.