Frank Herbert’s classic Sci-Fi Novel, Dune, has been adapted for the big screen once again. In light of the praise that Denis Villeneuve’s film has received, it is perhaps worth reflecting on the first, and much maligned, attempt to adapt the book. The near-universal contempt for David Lynch’s Dune (1984) may be surprising for those who’ve not seen it. On paper it has a lot to offer, given its stellar cast (including Kyle MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart, and Max von Sydow, among others) and well-loved source material. In 1984, sci-fi was having something of a golden age, with films like Star Wars and Blade Runner making their mark on the culture, and director David Lynch was full of promise, coming off the back of some of his best work.
And yet, Dune famously flopped. It is generally considered Lynch’s worst film, and Lynch himself has expressed his regret about making it, despite being attached, at the time, to direct its sequel. So, what went wrong? And is there anything of this film’s legacy to be salvaged?
The problems people have with Lynch’s Dune are complex and varied, but there are few central issues that set it back. The first is the contrast between the intricacy of the content and the film’s campy aesthetic and tone. Dune’s plot involves a lot of elaborate world-building, being set on the backdrop of clashing galactic feudal estates, ancient religious organisations, and mystical prophecies. With the baroque set and costume design, as well as some admittedly cheesy dialogue, audiences are often not motivated to take the film seriously enough to concentrate on its finer details.
This problem is made worse by the pacing issues that inevitably come from trying to squeeze Herbert’s mammoth novel into 135 minutes of screen time. The film begins slowly but begins to rush about halfway through. By the final act the film is relying heavily on voiceover to dish out exposition. This leads to scenes, such as the one where Paul drinks the water of life, that are clearly of some significance, but which a lot of people will neither understand nor care about.
Nevertheless, the glaring structural flaws of the film should not let us overlook its stronger elements. Despite some shoddy effects, the set and costume designs are striking and original. Much of the special effects are in fact quite good, having a kind of rough DIY quality that is characteristic of Lynch’s work.
Many of the performances are also underrated; Kyle MacLachlan brings out his winning mix of earnestness, confidence, and sensitivity, which would later serve him so well in Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990). Speaking of Lynch, while there aren’t many of his directorial trademarks, those that do appear – such as the surreal humour, use of dreamlike montages, and industrial sound design – really add character to the film.
Finally, while the impenetrability of the film may initially be a turn off, like with much of Lynch’s best work the film’s difficulty and complexity is what gives it a rewatch value that many similar films simply don’t have.
Though Villeneuve may have succeeded where Lynch failed, we shouldn’t dismiss his adaptation as simply worthless. Lynch’s Dune is a valuable artefact from a very different period of film history that deserves to be fairly assessed, both for its role in sci-fi history and as a part of Lynch’s progression as a filmmaker.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons