Published on September 22nd, 2015 | by Craig Silliphant0
In Defense of Dune
No one could really recommend this movie to someone, yet David Lynch’s Dune remains a favourite cult hit for science fiction and weird movie fans.
If you’ve seen it, you either love it, or you hate it. Or maybe you were just plain baffled by it. I was first introduced to David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune on VHS at a sleepover in grade nine or ten, around 1989. It has since become one of my favourite movies of all time, and yet, it’s a movie I can’t recommend to anyone while still keeping my professional credibility as a movie critic. Dune was a pretty colossal flop; it’s one of the most off-putting, confusing, and dense films of the last 50 years. It didn’t make back its budget on its initial theatrical run and was denounced as one of the worst movies of 1984 by more than a few film critics, including Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.
It took me seeing the movie about five more times and reading the book twice before I truly understood the entirety of what was going on. Most people wouldn’t put that kind of time into studying a piece of entertainment, because most people aren’t pasty basement dwelling weirdos. But I found something worth studying in Dune, worming my way like Shai Hulud into all the cracks and crevasses of meaning and subtext. Too bad my obsession is with movies and not astrophysics or something that would have made me a rich brainiac. But over the years, Dune has given me endless hours of entertainment, quotations, jokes with like-minded friends, and philosophical food for thought. So that’s worth something, right?
While the 2001 Sci-fi Channel mini-series version of Dune (and its sequel, Children of Dune) is a workable version that’s much easier to understand, I would have to argue that Lynch’s version feels much closer to the source material in its breadth and its weirdness. From the hellish chambers of the diseased, evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen to all the strange visions and whispery internal monologues, Lynch’s Dune sets the stage for an epic sci-fi film that was just too unique for its own good. Lynch turned down the chance to direct Return of the Jedi to make Dune, which might have been a heck of an interesting movie with his sensibilities (instead of following a bunch of teddy bears giving the Empire a good thrashing). As a side note, you can see the embers of what would have been an even more insane version that never came to pass in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, about filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to adapt the book.
If you’re not familiar with the story of Dune, it takes place in the year 10,191, where ‘spice’ is the most sought after substance in the universe. It not only makes space travel possible, but also expands consciousness and extends life. The spice can only be found on a desert planet called Arrakis (aka Dune). The Emperor of the Universe sends the Atreides family to Arrakis to manage the spice production, but it’s all a big double-cross and their nemesis Baron Harkonnen and his minions are given permission to eradicate House Atreides. Paul Atreides, played by Lynch mainstay Kyle MacLachlan, is thought by some to be a prophesized messiah, and he ultimately leads a jihad against The Emperor. “He who controls the spice, controls the universe!”
Lynch came up against problems delivering Dune when his script and first assembled cut came closer to three hours in length. Producer Dino DeLaurentiis and his cronies wanted a two-hour multiplex film, so it was hacked down to theatrical length. As evidenced by the Sci-fi Channel miniseries, you really do need more than two hours to tell this story. Here’s a movie that would have benefited from two films, as opposed to the drawn out Hunger Games or Hobbit finales of today’s cinema. Anyway, these days, Lynch all but refuses to talk about Dune in interviews, and has repeatedly turned down the opportunity to finally make his own Director’s Cut. For years it was rumoured that there were longer cuts out there, but there’s no truth to this. There was only the bizarre made for TV cut that Lynch took his name off (it became an Alan Smithee film, a movie term for a film disowned by it’s director).
To defend the film, I have to first acknowledge that it’s an incomprehensible piece of storytelling. But the flipside of this is that the movie doesn’t pander; much like The Wire, another show that begs serious study. Lynch keeps all the weird terminology and culture intact without stopping to explain what everything means. This drops you into the world with a heightened realism, because in real life, people don’t stop to give exposition on everything. Heck, even the book itself has a glossary in the back.
The production design of Dune makes it one of the most beautiful and insane sci-fi films ever committed to celluloid. Most of the effects hold up well (though admittedly, not all), and even when they don’t, the matte paintings are incredibly well done. It’s all backed up with a heady score by Toto and Brian Eno that is both futuristic and classic at the same time.
What else looks and feels like this universe, besides other David Lynch movies? To take that thought a step further, why is Eraserhead seen as brilliant and Dune as a colossal failure? Contrary to how they tried to market it in 1984, Dune was never going to be the next Star Wars. It’s not a fun space opera; it’s a dense treatise on Godhood, agriculture, economics, family, and war. And even with its mangled edit, Lynch’s version still brings the most spine-tingling stakes and epic scale to the proceedings.
As I said at the start, I can’t let you walk away considering this a recommendation to seek out this film and check it out. I love it, as I love the first few novels in the series, but it’s not for everyone. But if you’re a fan of the book, or want to challenge yourself by entering a whole new universe, you might drink the water of life and see where it takes you. You may find yourself shouting to the heavens, “Father! The Sleeper has awakened!”
This article originally appeared in Punch Magazine.