In defence of David Lynch’s ‘Dune’

Spice! Sandworms! Sting! What's not to like about this 1984 sci-fi bomb?

Double the Dune, double the nightmare? Director Denis Villeneuve plans to release two films to fully encompass the knotty complexities of Frank Herbert’s epic 1965 sci-fi novel about the battle for control over production of ‘spice’ (essentially ultra-rare petrol, and just as mad to snort) on a desert planet called Arrakis infested with worms the size of tube trains. Much to the concern of anyone with any experience of previous efforts to bring the novel to screen.

Alejandro Jodorowsky aborted his early ‘70s vision of a psychedelic 10-hour version starring Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali and scored by Pink Floyd as its sheer scale and ambition terrified the money men, and David Lynch’s 1984 effort was derided by sci-fi fans and critics for its near comic incomprehensibility and a screenplay seemingly written by a million insane monkeys.

Plot-wise, it’s not easy to explain Dune, but we’ll give it a go. Duke Leto Atreides’ son Paul (a young Kyle MacLachlan) is part of a space-witch plot to create a super-being who can defeat Emperor Shaddam IV’s legions of Sardaukar troops by drinking some sacred water that turns his eyes bright blue and makes him the messiah of the lost tribes of the Fremen who… oh never mind.

Returning to Lynch’s Arrakis over 35 years on, though, hindsight is kind to it. Yes, its special effects struggle to match the grandeur and spectacle of The Adam And Joe Show, making it look – five years after Alien and sixteen after 2001: A Space Odyssey – like a low-budget homage to the Sinbad creature features of the mid-‘70s. Spaceships resemble cheap cigar cases or floating doorstops, personal force fields predict the graphics of Minecraft and there are surrealist dream sequences that look like the end segment of 2001 populated by planet-zapping space slugs. And that’s not to mention the poorly green-screened ‘gigantic’ sandworms with all the magnificent menace of a garden hose, and some of the most ridiculous eyebrows to be found in this or any other galaxy.

David Lynch's Dune
Poster artwork for David Lynch’s ‘Dune’. Credit: Alamy

Add in one of the fastest on-screen romances this side of PornHub (nought to snog inside a few seconds of screen-time) and the mystical voiceovers trying – and often failing – to inject some sense into what’s going on and it’s enough to make Lynch’s Dune a cult curio in the same way that, say, Bowie’s Labyrinth is; a film to leave you chuckling in wonderment that something so expensive (it was a $10 million loss-maker on release) could look so cheap. With his original three-hour edit chopped and altered mercilessly, Lynch himself certainly wasn’t happy, disowning some versions of the film by having his name replaced with the nom de plume of disgraced legend Alan Smithee and refusing to discuss the film in interviews to this day.

But it has more value than as the comic interlude in a stoned Lynch marathon. It might highlight how clumsily Lynch could handle a straightforward blockbuster plot, back in the days when he indulged such outmoded concepts, but it’s also a notable example of his early surrealism too. If Eraserhead was overtly icky, Dune exemplified the more dream-like fantasy tones that would come to characterise Lynch’s work, as Paul became increasingly lost in metaphorical visions of moons, hands and prophesies. It acts almost as a mainstream dry run for the Wizard Of Oz scenes in 1990’s Wild At Heart, and the suffocating atmosphere of Twin Peaks.

David Lynch's Dune
Sting as Feyd-Rautha in ‘Dune’. Credit: Alamy

Dune also upped the game for the sci-fi blockbuster, even if the film itself failed to realise its own possibilities. The original Star Wars trilogy opened the door for the creation of elaborate distant universes and successfully transposed simple Wild West narratives into this ultimate final frontier setting. But Dune, like Blade Runner and 2001, aimed at depth, intricacy and wider socio-political meaning in what was becoming a fairly shallow, effects-led cinematic genre; to use science fiction to echo the complexities of our world, not escape them. In that sense it helped pave the way for more thoughtful and ambitious sci-fi epics – Gravity, Interstellar, Arrival, films based on grand conceits rather than phaser-blasted action. It did what Herbert’s novel had intended it to do – it widened the sci-fi scope.

David Lynch's Dune
Kenneth McMillan as Baron Harkonnen in ‘Dune’. Credit: Alamy

There are moments in it to savour too, most delivered by Kenneth McMillan’s brilliantly bubonic Baron Harkonnen, floating around smothered in blood and oil, as grotesque a villain as ever graced the multiplex. And there’s head-shaking pleasure to be found in a sneering Sting, playing the Baron’s most six-packed nephew, deciding that the best time to take someone on in an unnecessary knife fight is just after they’ve been widely accepted as an all-powerful superhuman deity.

It won’t be hard for Villeneuve’s Dune to improve on Lynch’s original, but it will be tough to match its buried root impact on sci-fi and cinema, which has been rumbling along beneath the sand for decades.

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