Dune On Film: Dune (1984)

The other day, in a burst of nostalgia, I decided that I would begin watching all of the adaptations of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel, Dune, and its sequels.

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This isn’t a particularly difficult task since there have only been a handfull of adaptations — one feature film, Dune  (1984), and two SciFi channel mini-series, Frank Herbert’s Dune  (2000) and Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune  (2003).

I used to own the 2000 Dune mini-series on DVD and remember watching it when I was much younger. I remember being totally engrossed by the epic scale of the story and fascinating sci-fi world. Unfortunately, after only one or two viewings, I lost the DVDs and never saw the series again. Years later, I finally read the novel and fell in love with the story all over again, but I never got around to watching David Lynch’s much-maligned adaptation or the sequel mini-series Children of Dune. Now, the time has finally come for me to revisit the story in all its different incarnations.

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I went into watching Dune (1984) already aware of Lynch’s work and unique style. His first film, Eraserhead, was actually my first exposure to avant-garde cinema in high school film class. The movie was incredibly disturbing, but also fascinating in a nightmarish kind of way and unlike anything I had ever seen before. Years later, in college, I watched Lynch’s Blue Velvet which also blew me away with its nightmarish beauty. I was excited to see how Lynch’s aesthetic and sensibilities would translate to a sci-fi epic like Dune. However, I knew enough about the film’s troubled history and criticisms to lower my expectations. It was an infamous bomb in theaters in 1984, but later found a cult following on home video. Depending on who you talk to, the film is either a horrendous mess that defiled its beloved source material or a flawed and generally misunderstood sci-fi masterpiece. In my opinion, the film actually falls somewhere in between those two extremes.

The Good

  • Dune is a masterpiece of world building. The production design is amazing and is perhaps the strongest aspect of the film. Even when I’d get bored during the slow stretches of the movie, the production design alone would hold my attention and I’d just sit there marveling at it. Each world and faction has its own unique look while still feeling part of the same universe. The costumes, architecture, and spaceships are all very different from other sci-fi epics and give the film its distinctive retro-future aesthetic that borrows heavily from art deco and steampunk. The Atreides family, dressed in formal militaristic suits, look like European nobility from the 19th or early 20th century. The design of their elegant palace on Caladan takes aesthetic cues from palaces of that era, but with a futuristic twist. The Harkonnen homeworld, Geidi Prime, is harsh, industrial, and factory-like, while the Emperor’s ornate palace seems to draw much of its architectural inspiration from the Middle East. Clearly, great care was taken in creating these detailed worlds.

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  • I also loved the Lynchian weirdness of the film — from the grotesque navigators and Borg-like Spacing Guild, to the birth of Alia, and bizarre dream sequences. There’s plenty of Lynch’s signature nightmarish imagery here and I wouldn’t be surprised if it contributed to the film’s difficulty finding an audience. I would probably have been terrified if I had watched this film as a child. It is definitely a much darker and less family-friendly sci-fi world than the contemporaneous Star Wars series, but that’s one thing that I love about the movie.

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The Bad

  • The story, although significantly abridged and altered in places, is still powerful, but unfortunately lacks the punch of the novel. I’ve read that many people think the film is too confusing. As someone already familiar with the source material, I did not have any trouble following the narrative, but I can definitely see why a newcomer would be confused. Lynch tries to streamline and simplify the story, but it all moves too fast. The movie feels incredibly rushed and keeps introducing important new concepts (such as the Water of Life)  with hardly any context or explanation. On the opposite end of the spectrum, awkward voice-overs often over-explain character motivations, such as when we get a voice-over from a minor character, Dr. Kynes, saying, “I think I like this duke.” Most of the characters also feel very undeveloped, which makes it more difficult to care about them. These are all inherent problems in trying to adapt a story as epic and complex as Dune into a two-hour movie and you can almost feel Lynch struggling with it. Although Lynch hits most of the major beats of the story, he unfortunately loses much of its heart and complexity in the process. Apparently the original cut was almost 5 hours long, so there was also a wealth of material left on the cutting room floor that may have helped the narrative flow more smoothly.
  • Much of the acting is competent, but not particularly good. I found Kyle MacLachlan to be kind of bland as Paul and the Harkonnens are also really over the top and cartoony.
  • The scene in which Feyd walks into a room in a blue jockstrap and his uncle, Baron Harkonnen, lusts over him was just kind of awkward…

  • Surprisingly, the action scenes were pretty disappointing. The shield fight near the beginning of the movie looks absolutely ridiculous, even by 1980s standards, and the final knife fight between Paul and Feyd feels rushed and anti-climactic. Even the big battle in which the Fremen attack the palace with fancy laser guns while riding giant worms somehow did not feel exciting at all. This is a major problem with the film, which really needed more of a Star Warsian spirit of adventure.

Verdict: David Lynch’s Dune has a lot of problems, but it is far from a disaster. The film retains the core of Herbert’s fantastic story and mixes it with a number of Lynchian elements to create a startlingly unique sci-fi vision that is a marvel to behold. Unfortunately, however, it loses much of the nuance, heart, and excitement of the source material in the process.

Rating: 6.5/10

Next up: Frank Herbert’s Dune (2000)

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