For Your (Re)Consideration: David Lynch’s DUNE (1984)

2014 marks the thirtieth anniversary of one of my favourite science fiction films of all time, director David Lynch’s third feature, Dune. The movie is based on the 1965 novel by Frank Herbert, an amazing book which won the Hugo Award, the first-ever Nebula Award and was at one point the highest-selling science fiction novel of all time. In addition to the movie, Dune has inspired classic video and board games, a song by Iron Maiden (“To Tame a Land”), as well as a pair of Sci-Fi Channel miniseries in the mid-2000s.

Lynch’s film adaptation, though, has never really been appreciated the way it should have been. It was slaughtered by critics upon its release: they found the actors onscreen cold and emotionless, the models and sets gaudy and cheap-looking, and (perhaps most devastating of all) the story to be nigh-incomprehensible. The film didn’t make back its $40 million dollar budget upon theatrical release, and it almost torpedoed Lynch’s career, although luckily as part of his contract he was able to put together his cult hit Blue Velvet not long afterwards. If you are lucky enough to catch the film on a late-night TV binge, Lynch’s name is no longer on it; the honour falls instead to Hollywood fall guy Alan Smithee.

Looking back, I feel as if Dune the movie has been given a bum rap, and that more people should give it a chance. Perhaps it was plagued by the sin of hubris: the 1984 adaptation was the last in a long line of failed attempts, including one by experimental filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky that had as its aim the “spiritual awakening” of the entire planet with fourteen hours of story, a score by Pink Floyd, and appearances by Salvador Dali, Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson (of Sunset Boulevard fame). In the early eighties, then-Hollywood golden boy David Lynch, hot off the success of The Elephant Man, turned down working on Return of the Jedi to write and direct Dune, the rights to which had by this time fallen into the hands of legendary producer Dino di Laurentiis.

Unlike a lot of escapist Hollywood fare, Dune demands close attention and patience from its viewers, but rewards same. The story takes place eight thousand years in the future, and humanity has grown very strange in its expansion across the stars. The galaxy is ruled by “the Padishah Emperor Shaddam the Fourth,” whose daughter Irulan (played by Virginia Madsen) introduces the setup of the movie in her hilariously arch opening monologue. Underneath the Emperor, control of the inhabited worlds is sought by great families, the best of which is House Atreides. In an attempt to rid himself of the goody-two-shoes Atreides, the Emperor gives them control of Arrakis, aka. Dune, the desert planet that provides the Empire with the “spice” that allows long-distance space travel.

What the Atreides, headed up by Duke Leto and his son Paul (Kyle McLachlan) don’t know is that their mortal foes the Harkonnens have been given the go-ahead to swoop in and crush their hated enemies with Imperial backing. When his father dies, Paul must ingratiate himself with Dune’s native people, the hardy guerilla warriors known as Fremen, in order to seek revenge against the Harkonnens, the Emperor, and the whole stinking bureaucracy they represent.

So, while a little bit elaborate, the scene set by Dune is not much more complicated than other genre works that have become very popular, like George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series on HBO or the film versions of Harry Potter. After centring yourself in the world of Dune, you’ll find a rich backstory and characters there. Befitting the far-flung future setting, the actors in the film have a serious and moody affect. The important thing to remember is that they are to us in terms of societal change what we would be to ancient Egyptians. The movie doesn’t spell this out for you, but allows you the pleasure of wondering why this chain of events has come about.

Another fascinating feature of the Dune world is the idea of “mentats”, the human computers who have replaced thinking machines. Brad Dourif as the Harkonnen Mentat Piter de Vries is my favourite, as he really sells the strange rites and litanies this caste must go through at all times to perform their duties. Like the novel, the film invites us to wonder about society’s interdependence on technology, and how we’d function without it. This conflict between modernity and humanity is best personified by House Harkonnen, whose home planet, Giedi Prime, is presented to us as an industrial hellhole, where soldiers wear gasmasks at all times, cows are tortured for seemingly no reason, and citizens are installed with “heart-plugs”, which can spell instant death for those who seek it.

The set design and costumes were worked on by H.R. Giger, whose dark and twisted influence can especially be felt with the disgusting and strange use of animals, sludge and weird science, which elicits a visceral reaction in me that few other films do. It’s easily the equal of something like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and far outpaces the sterile and cold CGI environments of Avatar or the Star Wars prequels. By contrast, the majesty of Arrakis is most explicitly shown in sweeping camera work across the dunes, and the sandworm models found underneath still look great to this day. I can kind of see why some of the spaceship models look out of place against the beautiful matte paintings, but again this sense of unreality works for me to further reinforce the fact that this is not a world that I completely understand.

As you can see, I could talk about Dune nigh-indefinitely. I think the thing about it that has stuck with me the most is the slightly unpolished feel, the jagged edges that surround something that could have easily been as rote and familiar as Lawrence of Arabia in space. I think that viewers who take the risk of seeing something imperfect can often be rewarded, as tactile vistas beyond CGI “perfection” transcend their limited origins, and live on in the mind.

4 thoughts on “For Your (Re)Consideration: David Lynch’s DUNE (1984)

  1. I actually think that the cold affectations of the actors are one of the movie’s strength – they match the tone of the books, as well as the unfeeling, giant world that the characters find themselves in. It always made sense to me that that a book with explicit elements like human computers, controlled breeding, emotional disconnection and dispassionate supremacy of reason would be represented in such a way on the screen.

    Further, while it’s mostly a happy coincidence, I think the anachronistic combination of a futuristic sci-fi setting and the jagged edges of the actual effects feeds in nicely to the actual contradictions of the fictional world itself, where humanity visits the stars and uses drugs to navigate their spaceships between them, but fears computers. That vague dissonance actually matches the world it’s representing, and I think that’s one reason I like the movie as much as I do.


  2. Hi James,

    Yeah, I agree with you on the actors’ “cold” affectation being that way on purpose because of the far-flung setting, and I’ll go one further by noting that it’s also in keeping with a lot of Lynch’s other work, especially Twin Peaks.

    I find it a little distracting sometimes when movies ostensibly set in the future don’t take societal change into account and basically play as if the modern day has persisted in peoples’ mannerisms and speech. Look at a movie set in the Eighties and compare it to now! The future should always be a little alien, a little off-putting, I think. Cloud Atlas also did a good job with this, even if people made fun of the “true true” thing that Future-Hanks kept going on about.


  3. Good points, Matt (though you dont mention the falsity of the ending compared to the point of the novel). But the real problem for me then, & probably now if I see it again, is that it just has to compress (& lose) far too much to fit into the 2-3 hours of film time. It could, with some of th follow=up films, now make a great series like Game of Thrones…


  4. Dune was recently replayed on cable and it hit me that much of the set design and spaceships look very much like Steampunk sets. There is an interesting coalescence of Victorian and other worldly sensibilities in Dune which I believe would make the film interesting to a new generation.


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