Earlier this year, I set out to read Frank Herbert’s Dune for the first time. This was for two reasons: 1) to be ready for Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation that comes out this December, and 2) so I could finally watch the 1984 David Lynch film. I’d heard legends of this strange, bloated mess, with fish tank sperm monsters, political intrigue, and Patrick Stewart holding a pug. I’d been told it was something to behold. They were right.
This movie is a weird, baffling mess based on one of the most famous sci-fi novels of all time. Dune stars Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides, the noble son of a duke and a sorceress who must rise up to become the hero of Arrakis. Following a great betrayal that destroys his home and family, Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis), team up with the planet’s native inhabitants to seize control of the planet’s valuable spice production and free everyone from Harkonnen family control.
Seems like a slam dunk, especially coming on the heels of Star Wars; however, it was anything but. Lynch’s Dune was a critical and commercial disaster, and plans to turn it into a trilogy (a “Star Wars for adults,” as actress Virginia Madsen once put it) were scrapped. There have been attempts to rewrite history, with some folks arguing that this version of Dune is better than we give it credit for. Those people are wrong. That said, there are enjoyable things to take away from it. Here are some of them.
There’s one thing you can hand Lynch’s Dune: It looks really nice. The sets are beautiful and intricate (when you can see them, as there is a major lighting issue throughout the film). In addition, the costumes are a thoughtful brand of chaos, covering everything from 18th-century noble garb to modern military regalia. Combined, the sets and costumes do an excellent job at conveying the inner thoughts and motives of the characters within them.
This was Kyle MacLachlan’s first major role, but you wouldn’t know that from watching his performance. MacLachlan successfully conveyed Paul’s youthful swagger (despite being an adult) and otherworldly intensity, making us believe he truly was the chosen one the Fremen had been waiting for. His constant inner monologue did him no favors, but he still managed to carry a challenging film on his shoulders with aplomb.
The sandworms are cool. I dug the sandworms.
Adapting Dune is no easy task—especially for a director with no experience (or interest) in science fiction. But for all the weird additions, changes, and Freudian slips that Lynch made to fit his vision, the film still managed to bring a pretty daunting book to the big screen with, well...I guess we can call it success? It covers the whole book in two hours and you walk away knowing the gist of what happened, including its myriad of names, beliefs, and politics. It may not have gone deeper than that, but at least it got the main stuff right.
This may be the biggest mystery of David Lynch’s Dune: What’s the deal with the pugs? Why are they the “du jour” creatures of this world? The Emperor’s got a bunch of them and Paul has one too, which he brings to Arrakis. It’s a strange world-building detail that’s never expanded on, but it totally works. Pugs haven’t evolved in 8,000 years but that’s okay because they’re perfect just as they are. And clearly they’re of great value to these people. During the battle with the Sardaukar, Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart) is seen holding Paul’s dog like it’s a small child and team mascot all in one. But then it’s never seen again.
Alia Atreides (Alicia Witt in her debut role) is a tough character to portray onscreen. She’s a preschooler born with the wisdom of the ages, and her very presence is enough to send her fellow Bene Gesserit into a spiral. The film’s version didn’t really achieve the “wisdom of the ages” part, but Witt as Alia did manage to creep the fuck out of all of us. The combination of this expressive young actress with an adult’s voice, one that was never quite in sync with her facial movements, made us feel Alia’s weirding factor times a billion.
Sorry I got distracted. Where were we?
This is not a dig on the actors. Kenneth McMillan brought a lot of oomph and energy to Baron Harkonnen, and both Sting and Paul Smith were fine as Feyd and Rabban, respectively. The problem was how they were written. All of the Harkonnens’ intelligence, scheming, and doublespeak was replaced with thoughtless boasting and debauchery. Baron Harkonnen is not supposed to be the Emperor’s dumb lackey, he’s a conniving beast who always knows the precise moment to strike (and let’s not even get into Feyd, whose role as Paul’s antithesis was erased completely). It’s all made worse by the film’s disgusting and violent homophobia, which was criticized by writer Dennis Altman for how it used AIDS imagery that was prevalent in the 1980s.
The Spacing Guild Navigator folds space by ejaculating into it. The Bene Gesserit “box” test ends with the Reverend Mother basically having an orgasm. And oh yeah, all that shit with Baron Harkonnen bathing himself in a young boy’s blood. I don’t know what Lynch was trying to achieve here. Maybe he was trying to make his own 2001: A Space Odyssey, using primal imagery to feed on our basic instincts. But it never works, because there’s no rhyme or reason for it. It’s just grotesque for the sake of grotesque.
It takes a rare film adaptation to make inner monologues work. This is not one of them. The monologues were added last-minute to explain all the missing pieces after the four-hour rough cut had been edited down to 140 minutes. They’re usually random and always awkward. Plus, they were all whispered. It felt like someone was sitting next to me explaining everything super quietly so I wouldn’t get lost. They may help keep the audience informed but they take away from the enjoyment of the story.
The Han Solo of Dune deserved better than to be onscreen for two minutes and then die.
The pacing in this movie is bananas. It takes about a third of the movie to get from Caladan to Arrakis—a process that’s only 70 pages of an almost 800-page book. Then, after the Harkonnen invasion, the rest of the novel is rushed through at breakneck speed. It felt like Lynch didn’t care about the Fremen, because they’re barely given any time or attention. Instead, it’s extra-long sequences of a sperm-looking fish dude jacking off in space.
There were plenty of changes made from the book, but the worst had to be the addition of the “weirding modules.” In the book, the Bene Gesserit have mastered the art of the Weirding Way, a form of martial arts influenced by Prana-bindu physical and psychological training. Lady Jessica taught Paul how to fight in this way, and she teaches the Fremen how to do so as well. Here, it’s replaced with wrist devices that turn shouts into laser beams. It looks stupid, and it’s ridiculous once you remember how almost all of the Atreides’ modules were destroyed in the invasion...only for the Fremen to have a bunch of them later with no explanation.
There’s a reason the final line in Dune is Lady Jessica’s, with her telling Chani: “History will call us wives.” The female characters in Dune are powerful and important, even in the face of insurmountable odds. Not everything about them holds up over time—no surprise, considering the book is half a century old and written by a man—but it’s amazing how much these characters were ahead of their time. You wouldn’t know that watching this movie. Chani (Sean Young) has been reduced to a love interest with no screen time, and Lady Jessica’s influence over Paul and the Fremen is non-existent. The entire Bene Gesserit order had its wings clipped, coming across as a group of helpless nags instead of the most important religious order in the universe.
Paul is god now. A voiceover tells us that he’s issued an era of peace—instead of a terrible war that everyone hates and turns him into the awful dictator he always feared he would become. He also makes it rain. This is a bad ending.
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is set to arrive on December 18. The spice must flow.
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