*. David Lynch’s Dune is widely regarded, correctly I believe, as an epic failure. Lynch doesn’t like to talk about it now, aside from considering it a film he never should have gotten involved with in the first place, describing the process of making it as “a slow dying-the-death, and a terrible, terrible experience.” And yet it was Lynch’s most successful movie, at least in terms of the box office on its initial theatrical run.
*. It’s not credited as Frank Herbert’s Dune, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Stephen King’s It. It’s been years since I’ve read Dune, so I’m not sure how faithful an adaptation it is. I reckon a lot of it came out of Lynch’s imagination. When he was first contacted by Raffaella De Laurentiis to direct he hadn’t even heard of the book. But these freestyling elements may be the best parts. The pug? The Holstein cow they’re cutting up? Paul’s weird little sister, who seems to have wandered into things from the red room? The really unhappy looking cat, taped to a rat, that Thufir Hawat is supposed to milk?
*. As for Sting’s Art Deco Speedo, that was serendipity. He was supposed to be nude but at the last minute they had to give him something to cover up. I’d say they did pretty well. It goes with his troll-doll look and the way the whole House of Harkonnen are played way, way over the top.
*. Given that this movie is, as I say, an epic fail, let’s start off with highlights like these, and the fact that this movie has such a wonderful look. The art design here is terrific: we wouldn’t see anything approaching this kind of originality in a big-budget SF movie again until The Fifth Element. They could have gone with a more traditional swords-and-lasers look, as Denis Villeneuve would nearly forty years later, but instead mixed in a bunch of 1920s and ’30s costumes and décor. Ridley Scott was originally tabbed to direct and I think he would have done a great job but I like a lot of what Lynch brought to the table.
*. Alas, when I say I love the look of the film what I mean are the sets (of which there were eighty, built on sixteen soundstages), costumes, and props. The effects have dated badly. Overall, I think the personal combat shields still look cool and the sandworms hold up pretty well, though the business of the Fremen riding them at the end is laughable, especially with their shouting out the ki-yahs! and pew-pews! as they imbue their weapons with words of power. Furthermore, all of the space scenes are awful and the blue screen work very much of its time. The scenes where the giant slug opens the portals for interstellar travel are just garbage. I couldn’t understand what the hell was going on. Though the slug in the tank at the beginning was great.
*. And there are many other problems. Instead of breaking the movie into two parts, as Scott intended and Villeneuve would do, Lynch had to bring it all in at just over a couple of hours (which was an hour shaved from his director’s cut). Good luck with that. Given the amount of information that has to be introduced it seems like almost every other scene is given over to expository dialogue (“explain the stillsuit, please”). That still more of this is added by way of irritating voiceovers only makes a bad situation worse. Then there is the fact that Lynch isn’t a great action director, and none of the big action scenes feels connected to the rest of the plot. They just feel dropped in as a way of maybe waking people up.
*. The credits had great promise. Lynch is a genius. Freddie Francis shot the movie. Music by Toto and Brian Eno (well, it was 1984). A cast filled with scene-stealers. But none of it works because all of these people feel like they’re in the wrong place (except maybe for Sting, and Siân Phillips as the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam). I mean, Patrick Stewart (apparently not the Patrick Stewart they wanted), Max von Sydow, José Ferrer, Brad Dourif (here comes the crazy!), Dean Stockwell, Sean Young . . . they just don’t work. Perhaps no one could have pulled their characters off given how overwhelmed they were by the script and the production, but they all feel totally out of place. And Kyle MacLachlan just isn’t Paul. Even Timothée Chalamet did better in the part, and I was not impressed by Chalamet’s performance one bit.
*. In sum, this Dune is something terrible, but it’s not the total disaster it might have been. Lynch makes something of it, especially in the early going. But the difficulties they were having with the material are glaringly obvious, the ending is way too rushed, and the sandworm assault is a colossal joke.
*. Such a debacle, combined with the failure of Jodorowsky’s project to get off the ground, branded Dune as unfilmable for decades. In fact, there were only a couple of developments necessary to make it happen. Once they got them figured out, blockbusterdom would be automatic. Though the results would not be as inspired. I don’t really see this as a cult film so much as a very silly one, but all the same I wonder if it might end up being the Dune that lasts.