Directed by: David Lynch || Produced by: Raffaella De Laurentiis
Screenplay by: David Lynch || Starring: Francesca Annis, Leonardo Cimino, Brad Dourif, Jose Ferrer, Linda Hunt, Freddie Jones, Richard Jordan, Kyle MacLachlan, Virginia Madsen, Silvana Mangano, Everett McGill
Music by: Toto, Brian Eno || Cinematography: Freddie Francis || Edited by: Antony Gibbs || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 137 minutes
Prior to Dune, the only David Lynch movies I had seen were Eraserhead (1977), his feature-film debut, Blue Velvet (1986), his first movie after Dune and perhaps his most widely known independent feature, and Mulholland Drive (2001), my pick for the most ambitious surreal film narrative of this century. I don’t know much about the man, in other words, as I have never felt compelled to watch his Twin Peaks (1990-1991, 2017) work on television, nor has the man directed a theatrical release since 2006’s Inland Empire. As a casual observer of the eclectic, neurotic writer-director, however, his work feels representative of the sort of independent American dramas that often win me, a cinephile with almost zero interest in dramatic cinema, over; his dramas utilize creative, imaginative visuals that warp his narrative’s portrayal of reality and dreamlike states; he embraces narrative ambiguity without constantly frustrating his viewers; he’s not afraid to blend elements of crime drama or fantasy genres into his otherwise straightforward, grounded storylines, and most of his films are well paced and don’t feel longwinded.
1984’s Dune, the first cinematic adaptation of my favorite novel, Frank Herbert’s classic science-fiction work of the same name (1965), is today seen as both an anomaly within Lynch’s filmography and one of the most significant Hollywood blockbuster flops of the past half century (a $31 million box office take against a $42 million budget). Interesting as it is to consider how Lynch’s career may have developed had Dune been successful, the sheer financial failure of the movie combined with studio executives wresting artistic control from Lynch by the final cut (a classic scenario of Hollywood fighting its auteurs) directed Lynch back to the dark, brooding, smaller-budgeted dramas that enabled his rise to fame.
I avoided this adaptation of Dune for the longest time given my affection for the corny, yet far better paced Syfy channel miniseries of Dune (2000), which adapted Herbert’s first novel in the eponymous series, and Children of Dune (2003), which adapted the second and third novels. The development and release of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021, 2023) at first gave me even less motivation to watch the 1984 attempt, but upon my frustration at the utter incompleteness of 2021’s “Dune: Part One” (it ends so abruptly!), I soon reevaluated my lack of interest in Lynch’s blockbuster enigma. In general, whenever I say, “I’ll never watch [X] or do [X],” on Express Elevator to Hell, that’s a surefire sign I’ll watch or do those exact things sooner or later.
Thanks to Lynch’s lack of artistic control on the 1984 film and his general disinterest in science-fiction, his Dune feels (1) more like a weird, indie-director’s take on a space opera premise with a huge budget, and (2) a poorly paced mess. The movie is regarded as a cult genre flick by certain audiences (re: contrarian weirdos who like both Lynch and slow-burn sci-fi) and, from my anecdotal observations, appears to have received far more attention — both positive and negative — from fans of the novels than the aforementioned Syfy miniseries.
The biggest compliments I can give Dune 1984 are how it doesn’t feel like a Star Wars (1977–2019) ripoff despite being released only a year after Return of the Jedi (1983); Lynch’s oddball auteur stamp shines through regardless of studio executives’ control of the final cut (more on that in a minute), while the film’s large budget (~$116 million in 2022 dollars) emphasizes that auteur signature that much more in terrific matte paintings, composite backgrounds, detailed physical sets, and impressive stunts and pyrotechnics that give the film considerable production value. Much of my previous disinterest in Dune 1984 was a function of how cheap the movie looked in various stills and online clips, but the film feels much better in motion when watched from beginning to end. In league with that are Lynch’s penchant for dark, creepy imagery in his depiction of the source material’s iconic sandworms and the desert planet setting of Arrakis, not to mention the eclectic choice to have Toto write the nontraditional score.
It’s a shame, then, how every strength of Lynch’s bizarre Hollywood tentpole is undermined by problems related and unrelated to the film’s aforementioned studio interference. With regards to the latter, Dune is chockfull of exposition, both via dialogue and on-the-nose voiceovers, that describe the film’s main plot, character motivations, and various plot-devices to the point of absurdity; the clunkiness of Dune’s exposition is perhaps the most unforgettable attribute of the movie, producing unintentional comedy throughout the story. Problems further arise in regards to certain special FX like the body shields, which are so cartoonish and ultimately irrelevant to the greater plot that they should’ve been cut, and the sandworms, which look convincing when slithering over sand dunes but fake when raising themselves off the ground.
Last but not least is this Dune version’s truncated, chaotic third act, which feels so rushed in comparison to the deliberate pace of Acts One and Two. Various characters like Sean Young, Everett McGill, and Alicia Witt are introduced and developed at a moment’s notice, to the point where the entire story needed to have been streamlined (i.e. made less like the book) to better execute Act Three and finish the narrative within ~137 minutes.
What I realized from giving David Lynch’s 1984 Dune a chance at last is that the movie is more a mixed bag than the complete failure I assumed it to be. It’s still not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, even if you’re a forgiving fan of either Lynch’s career style or sidestream Hollywood science-fiction. The movie has too many flaws, ranging from laughable exposition to inconsistent special FX to a rushed conclusion, to recommend, though how Lynch channel’s his identifiable auteur style — his foreboding visuals, subtle body horror, and command of atmosphere — within a Hollywood blockbuster context remains fascinating.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: My previous introductions to David Lynch’s filmography little prepared me for the bizarre nature of Dune 1984, an oddity of major studio creation that both embraced and embezzled its auteur’s creative energy. Its special FX range from great to bad, as does its narrative execution, which makes recommending it difficult. However, it’s still one of the more interesting Hollywood genre films ever made, regardless if it is a lesser adaptation of its source material than either the SyFy channel or Denis Villeneuve attempts.
—> ON THE FENCE
? How would a Dune movie with a trap-beat style sound like? I mean, Toto’s rock ‘n roll version worked…
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