David Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune is also the most Josh movie ev-actually I think I’ve used up that clickbait lead. But suffice it to say, as both a fan of bad space opera movies and a David Lynch fan, this post has been a long time coming. It’s typically considered to be the worst thing Lynch did and one of the many spectacular duds that crashed in the wake of Star Wars. But I have an immense fondness for it, and, if I’m honest have probably found more cumulative enjoyment in it over the years than from the original Star Wars, or Blade Runner, or a lot of other more respectable sci-fi epics of the era.
Dune as a story also holds a special place for me. Having initially discovered it through that cheap SyFy channel miniseries as an impressionable twelve or thirteen year old, it was the first futuristic story I had encountered that did not assume that the future would just be a continuation of western secular civilization; it made me seriously reckon with the idea that the world I lived in would one day pass away and would be replaced by something that would seem alien to me. It also showed me that space opera could tackle any subject matter, be it religion, sociology, ecology, geopolitics, etc. I think it wasn’t until The Book of the New Sun that I encountered a sci-fi work that had a similarly eye-opening effect on me.
It is not, however, the sort of story that you can easily cram into a two hour movie. Even just explaining the premise of Dune requires some heavy lifting, so here goes.
Set in the extremely distant future, the bulk of humanity is now a spacefaring but essentially feudal civilization whose economy is centred around the production of the drug, Spice. The Spice has mind-expanding powers that space navigators require for calculating successful faster-than-light travel (computers, incidentally, having been banned millenia ago due to vague Terminator-esque incidents), while also providing some other weird health benefits. However, the Spice is only capable of being grown on the desert planet, Arrakis, aka Dune, which is a pretty crappy place to live, and which is home to the Fremen, a Bedouin-like people awaiting the arrival of their messiah. It is currently ruled by House Harkonnen, a rather nasty family dynasty who comprise the villains of the story.
Also of import are the Bene Gesserit, an all-female society who have honed themselves to take on pseudo-magical abilities and who have been manipulating history from behind the scenes with the hopes of producing a super human, the Kwisatz-Haderach. Jessica (Francesca Annis) is a Bene Gesserit sister and also concubine to Duke Leto Atredies (Jurgen Prochnow), sworn enemy of the Harkonens. Against the will of the order, Jessica gave birth to a son, Paul (Kyle MacLachlan), our protagonist.
The Emperor Shaddam IV (Jose Ferrer) fears Leto’s growing political clout, and so devises a plan: House Harkonen will cede Arrakis to House Atredies, and then launch a sneak attack against them with the Emperor’s secret aid.
This is all to set the stage for the real crux of the story, which is how Paul into the Fremen religious figure, Muad’dib, and in the process becoming both the Kwisatz-Haderach and the most politically important figure in the known universe.
So Lynch’s screenplay has some serious heavy-lifting to do, and despite its own simplifications and streamlining, it’s just not up to the task. The nearly breathless exposition running throughout doesn’t save it from developing the sort of “Greatest Hits” problem that the entirety of the Harry Potter movies suffer from: having assumed you’re familiar with the source material, it just lurches from one dramatic high point to the next with little to no connective tissue, context or character development. The thing just doesn’t cohere as a piece of drama.
More than that: Lynch isn’t interested in engaging with the novel’s own central thematic concern with its protagonist – which is that he functions as a critique of the cult of personality and the tendency of people to place their faith in a political savior: his apparent triumph at the end is one of vengeance, and is ironically undercut with the foreknowledge that he will go on to become one of the bloodiest figures in human history (Herbert, I think, also intended Paul to be a deconstruction of the very idea of a messiah, although I’m not sure the novel necessarily requires that reading).
The movie, however, takes Paul’s deification as Muad’dib at face value, and as a result picks up a weird, quasi-propaganistic tone towards the end. Which seems entirely unintentional on Lynch’s part; he just comes across as a guy who isn’t much interested in sci-fi as a thematic vehicle, and is way too tied up with the job of assembling a script that makes a bare modicum of narrative sense to be worried about what’s happening in the story at a deeper level.
Of course, things go wrong with Paul at the very level of casting. Kyle MacLachlan, like Mark Hamill, had a sort of nerdy, boyish quality to him which would be great if he were playing Luke Skywalker, but which is completely inappropriate for Paul, a character who requires someone capable of Shakespearian gravitas. Perhaps a young Patrick Stewart could have been up to the task, but Stewart at this time was already at a Picard vintage, and so is consigned to playing the battle-hardened Gurney Halleck, one of the novel’s many characters for whom the movie can find no real use (this does, however, give us the pleasure of watching a sparring match between Kyle MacLachlan and Patrick Stewart featuring a conspicuously bad special effect).
I did, however, say I liked this movie, and should perhaps articulate why. Once we accept that it’s just a narrative wreck, it turns out that Dune works amazingly as a sci-fi mood piece, albeit a rather 80s one. Or, more precisely, it is an 80s sci-fi tone-poem in which you are awash in all the decade’s excesses in genre filmmaking. In this regard, the Toto soundtrack is amazing and absolutely essential to the experience.
Related to that, it also in a weird way acts as a sort of pop successor to Eraserhead; it and Dune are the only two movies he’s made which exist purely in a fantastical, unreal setting. All his other movies take a more grounded, mundane world as their launching point. The sci-fi setting of Dune allows for a lot of weird expressionist stuff that tends to get toned down in his later works, even if it exists less as a coherent work of art and more as a director’s attempt at making the project interesting for himself.
That’s pretty much it: the thing failed, but it failed in the most spectacularly fun way. If I want to experience Dune as a story, there’s always the novel. But if I want to experience Dune and cheesy space opera in the same manner that I might listen to a favourite album, the movie provides.