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The Lynch Ledger-Entry Three: Dune (1984)

Fyi, to my current Lynch Ledger fans: I re-watched 1984’s “Dune” almost a full month ago(right at the beginning of May), and I’ve been contemplating ever since just how to cover it. Two things: I want to be fair to the film, and try to avoid bias as much as possible. Plus, I wish to join the list of those rescuing “Dune” from its Reagan-era critical drubbing, while at the same time not dismissing its obvious flaws. This was my third full watch of the film(as close as I can recall, anyway), and it’s a real bummer that I didn’t experience it on the big screen, back when it first opened three decades ago. My first look was certainly on a rented VHS tape, well before letterbox became fashionable, probably sometime in 1985. Roughly twenty years later, I finally saw it in its proper aspect ratio on the solid new DVD that I purchased back then—the one in the nifty metallic box. That’s how I just absorbed it again recently, along with an impressive slate of DVD extras and stills this time. It’s also wonderful timing to be reliving “Dune” in 2014, with the hot, recent documentary release of “Jodorowsky’s Dune”, chronicling the early 1970’s failed attempt, by avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, to bring Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece to the big screen. David Lynch actually succeeded a decade later, but he got far from a rosy reception.

Capsulizing the plot of the “Dune” movie is daunting, so I’m going to give it a bare bones treatment. Centuries in the future, the spice melange is crucial for space travel, along with extending life and broadening consciousness. Among the multiple worlds covered in the storyline, the planet Arrakis(aka Dune)is the only place to mine and obtain the spice. Deception and war erupts amongst the planetary system for control of melange, which results in an attempt to assassinate the son of Duke Leto Atreides. Paul Atreides(Kyle MacLachlan, in his film debut)survives the ploy to end his life, and continues to have visions of his long-term purpose. Paul eventually leaves his home planet of Caladan to seek the mysterious Fremen of Arrakis, who have been awaiting a messiah to lead them to freedom. Endangered by gigantic sandworms, measuring hundreds of feet in length, it becomes apparent that only the true messiah(or Muad’Dib)can overcome the mammoth creatures and gain control of the all-important spice, melange. And that’s about the best brief synopsis I can supply, without getting into massive detail.

“Dune” contains a large, impressive cast, that includes an array of Oscar winners(Jose Ferrer, Linda Hunt)and former and eventual nominees(Max von Sydow, Virginia Madsen, Dean Stockwell, Brad Dourif), but also boasts a small group that either were, or were about to become, David Lynch perennials. Of course, Mr. MacLachlan would go on to star in both 1986’s “Blue Velvet” and the 1990’s television series, “Twin Peaks”(he appeared in the 1992 film adaptation too). But there’s also Jack Nance(the iconic “Eraserhead”, and four other Lynch features), Everett McGill(“Twin Peaks” & “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me”), Freddie Jones(“The Elephant Man” & “Wild at Heart”), along with Mr. Dourif and Mr. Stockwell(both for “Blue Velvet”). And let’s not forget Sean Young(from Ridley Scott’s legendary, and equally misunderstood, 1982 release, “Blade Runner”)and Patrick Stewart(Capt. Picard and  Prof. Charles Xavier)! But do you really want to appreciate how early-80’s “Dune” was? Despite that incredible field of performers, all I remember anyone babbling about in 1984, was the appearance of rock star Sting as Feyd-Rautha. Crazy, huh?

I’ve never read Frank Herbert’s source novel, nor have I plowed through the six-plus hour “Dune” miniseries from the year 2000. And even though I own it, I have yet to lumber through the Lynch-disowned three-hour “assembly” cut of his 1984 beast. But it remains a fact, that Lynch’s 137-minute “Dune” feature is quite dense and very confusing. With a budget of over 40 million dollars, it was a hugely expensive enterprise for its time(compare to the 33 million dollar price tag for 1983’s “Return of the Jedi”—a helming duty that David turned down to create “Dune”!), and Lynch has long lamented his lack of full artistic control of the project. But make no mistake, “Dune” is unmistakably a product of David Lynch, containing easily identifiable touchstones of the director, as well as his familiar imagery. And that’s the main reason to seek “Dune” out 30 years after its initial release—the look of the film is astonishing. The sets are colossal and distinctive, the costumes remain flamboyant and outlandish, and the make-up is garish and disturbing. “Dune” sounds impressive too(its only Academy Award nomination was for sound—it lost to “Amadeus”), but if you want to talk dated 1980’s influence—much of the music was supplied by the rock group “Toto”! The mind boggles.

The special effects are pretty good too. A little creaky maybe, but so is the wonderful 1933 “King Kong”. In other words, creaky has its immeasurable charms. And I was still impressed by those thousand-foot sand worms. David Lynch had to regroup and reinvent himself after “Dune” failed to make its budget back at the box office, and the critics had a field day with its excesses. But its reputation has steadily improved over the years, and it also had distinguished champions, like famed sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison, back in the day. Lynch’s screenplay is far from perfect, but it was an exhaustive attempt to condense the rich novel into mass-market entertainment form. Back then, 137 minutes was considered the absolute cutoff for movies to be able to run the maximum amount of times per day at the local multiplex—just ask James Cameron about his struggles with being held to that restrictive policy. Should “Dune” still be considered David Lynch’s weakest feature? Yeah, I guess that’s fair(but eventually I’ll get to another of his lambasted “adaptations”, in a future entry of The Lynch Ledger). But that doesn’t make it bad, and it shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s not only a visual feast, but it hurtled Kyle MacLachlan into the Lynch universe. We should be grateful for that alone.     Grade:  B

next month’s Lynch Ledger Entry: 1986’s “Blue Velvet”

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2 comments on “The Lynch Ledger-Entry Three: Dune (1984)

  1. Personally i thought this movie was awful! the worst film of his career, such an overlong, boring, poorly written, poorly acted, miscasted, poorly directed and poorly done 47 million dollar mess.

    I think he is a fine director but this was going outside his comfort zone and his attempt at trying an expensive tentpole sci-fi effects blockbuster just isn’t his bag and nearly ruined Lynch’s career. I’m glad this dud bombed at the box-office and with critics as this movie showed an important lesson to Hollywood as it’s an example of how not to make a blockbuster, rule number 1#Do not hire David Lynch and number 2#Never trust a movie that requires a glossary.

    I’m glad Lynch returned back to independent films where he belongs with the excellent Blue Velvet, i don’t consider Dune in his filmography and like lynch i’d rather forget this ever happened.

    • Thanks for commenting, Jon…but it certainly seems that you are thriving in the safety zone of rock-hurling at 1984’s “Dune”. Much of what you mentioned, regarding “Dune”‘s shortcomings, are pointed out in this Lynch Ledger entry. Of course, if you are aware of David’s chronology, “Blue Velvet” will be this month’s feature. I don’t believe that I’m giving anything away by espousing that “BV” is vastly superior to its predecessor. However, I do not believe it is fair to claim that Lynch was “outside his comfort zone”, when its easily verifiable that he was denied final cut, and had a maximum 137-minute run-time imposed upon him. So, honestly, your “overlong” claim doesn’t hold much weight. I’d also love to hear some clarification on the “poorly acted” and “miscasted”(your word)accusations, as I’ve often found that people commenting on performers have never acted a day in their lives. “Dune” is flamboyant and overreaching, and yes—quite possibly—the “worst” film of David Lynch’s career. However, include me in the ever-growing camp of critics who will tell you “it isn’t all that terrible, after all”. ML

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