This piece is written by both Eric Hanson and Sean Gallagher
The impending release of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is perhaps the movie event of the year, with many excited to finally see a faithful adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic epic brought to the screen. But, as most know, this wasn’t the first time Herbert’s tale was put to film, with acclaimed director David Lynch being the first to film a universe of space travel, political strife, and sandworms. David Lynch’s film had all the makings of a classic, assembling one of the most impressive armies of filmmakers, actors and special effects artists in the history of cinema. The end result is a film that succeeds on almost every level with a memorable score and some of the best set design and effects work you’ll ever see. You could make legitimate arguments that Lynch’s Dune is one of the most well-made epics in Hollywood history.
And yet it doesn’t work.
While the Lynch Dune has gone on to become a beloved cult classic, most hesitate to call it even a good film, let alone a great one. It performed poorly at the box office upon its release and didn’t receive much charity from audiences or critics either. This begs the question, just what is it about the film that holds it back? Eric and Sean are going to dive into that and see what worked and what didn’t and allow their shared and varied opinions to see how Dune stacks up today.
An Army of Artists
Now, to explore what works about Dune, one need only look at the film itself. Dune came out at a time when the world was still caught up in the fervor from the surprise success of Star Wars. Lucas’ little science fiction space opera was a surprise hit seven years prior, and had just wrapped up with Return of the Jedi. With the box office juggernaut out of the running, every studio was looking to fill the void with their own grand-scale science fiction epics, and Dune was Universal’s attempt. For this project, they assembled an army of the most talented people in the industry to bring Frank Herbert’s world to life.
Real industry heavyweights were brought in for the special effects of Dune. Industry veteran Albert Whitclock, a matte painting artist known for work on such films as The Birds, The Sting and The Thing lent his talents to Lynch’s creative team, and his work still holds up today. Also along for the ride was veteran monster creator Carlo Rambaldi, who at the tie was best known for making the titular monster in Alien, and the same year as Dune’s release, would bring another iconic character to life in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. Rambaldi, of course, would be the one responsible for Herbert’s famous sandworms.
The film also features one of the most iconic science fiction soundtracks of the era, which manages to capture both the grand scale of the story while instilling it with a certain melancholic menace. The band TOTO, best known for their hit single Africa, were the ones behind this stunning score. It would be one of the group’s only outings as film composers, but the results speak for themselves. With their help, Dune was every bit as good a film to listen to as it was to look at.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the cast assembled by Lynch and company, which would include not only industry regulars, but also future superstars and future frequent collaborators in Lynch’s other work. Among the cast were already relatively well-known figures such as Max von Sydow (The Seventh Seal), Brad Dourif (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Dean Stockwell (Anchor Aweigh). Among the casts were also some fresh talent. Patrick Stewart makes an early appearance as Gurney, delivering stellar work as always. Most impressively, in spite of his distaste for this film, Lynch also met several collaborators with who he still works with to this day. Kyle MacLachlan makes his feature film debut here as young lead Paul Atreides, and after all these years still works with Lynch, appearing in his follow up to Dune in Blue Velvet, and landing the quirky role of Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks. Another future Twin Peaks alumni make their debut here, with Everett McGill portraying Stilgar, leader of the Fremen.
And of course, you can’t talk about Dune without talking about its director David Lynch is one of the industry’s most eccentric filmmakers, helming such classics as Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, and the cult TV series Twin Peaks. Even today, Lynch earns his reputation for cinematic oddities, and it’s a testament to his career that Dune is his most straightforward motion picture. It is also, without a doubt, his largest in scale.
The end result is a film that, even before its release, was being called one of the grandest epics in the history of motion picture. Numerous science fiction and fantasy magazines praised the film even before it hit theaters, and even Dune’s own author Frank Herbert expressed satisfaction with the end result. So knowing this, knowing all the talent that went into this film, it seems that no fate would await Dune apart from success, so what went wrong?
Dune: Dictionary Edition
One would think it would take a variety of things to bring such a well crafted film down, but the truth is there was one chink in Dune’s armor that sinks it. Just one. Every problem that Dune has goes back to the script. This is not to insult the writing talent behind the film, as Lynch himself penned the screenplay. Rather, Dune is sunk by a longtime enemy of all writers, and in a world as complicated as Dune, its appearance was only a matter of time. That enemy is exposition. Herbert’s Dune is a complicated world, filled with numerous characters, cultures, and crucial worldbuilding that, if not understood, will leave the audience lost. Perhaps adapting the film into a single two hour epic was a losing battle, because Herbert’s material was so dense, that fitting all of it into a single film was perhaps impossible. The end result of this attempt is a script that spends more time focusing on world building and explaining itself than it does developing the characters.
The film spends so much time explaining its world, that you’d be hard pressed to find a moment of genuine emotion in Lynch’s Dune. Paul and his father, meant to have a good relationship, never have a conversation or moment about anything other than world building. Characters that we’re supposed to care about, such as the popular Duncan Idaho, spend so much time explaining the plot that we never have the opportunity to connect with them as characters, leaving their deaths a mute experience. Even Max von Sydow, one of the most accomplished actors of his time, has his lengthiest scene devoted to explaining the function of still suits. The endless droning exposition creates not only a barrier between the audience and characters, but also a disconnect from the story itself. If we need to have the story constantly explained to us, we’re never able to experience it.
The fine team of actors assembled are given nothing meaningful to work with, so they’re left trying to make dull expository dialogue interesting. This is why I think the performances suffer in the film, primarily young Kyle MacLachlan who perhaps is given the most stilted, info-dumpy dialogue out of the entire cast. I maintain MacLachlan could have played a marvelous Paul. Sure, he was older than the character in the book, but changes in age aren’t necessarily bad when it comes to adaptations. In the original novel for Die Hard (Nothing Lasts Forever), the character that later inspired John McClane was almost 70 years old, a sharp contrast to the mid-30s hero in the film. The problem isn’t MacLachaln, but the material. If we can’t connect with an actor like Max von Sydow over expository dialogue, then what chance does an up and comer like MacLachlan have? Rather than allow us to connect with a fleshed out Paul, experiencing both his suffering and triumphs along with him, the film turns him into a reference guide to Herbert’s universe. MacLachlan does the best he can, but no actor, no matter how well suited, can make the part of a glorified dictionary interesting.
This doesn’t help that Sean found Kyle MacLachlan completely unconvincing in the role of Paul Atreides. MacLachlan, perhaps best known for his work as the lead in Twin Peaks. I found he didn’t capture that sense that he was wise well beyond his young years. The character often felt arrogant and almost childlike in his attempts to take matters a bit more lightly. Couple that with MacLachlan seemingly a bit too old for the role and that took me out of the experience. Considering Paul is the lead and the whole movie/book hinges on his character development, it doesn’t do the film any favours when the lead breaks immersion. I know it’s sometimes hard to seperate what you’ve read before versus what’s being presented on screen during adaptions, but this version of Paul seemed foreign to me, as if he’s trying to be Paul but isn’t Paul.
Even with the excessive exposition, Dune was notoriously confusing when it came out. Initial test screenings left the audience so baffled that the film’s voice-over whispering was added after the fact to try and better explain things, filling the already exposition heavy film with more exposition. And still, the film was confusing. At certain screenings of the film, audience members were given special index cards containing terms from the film and their meanings for reference, a sure sign that the film itself didn’t work. The rules of a world, especially in a movie, are better shown than explained. For a film with some of the best art and set design in history, Dune shows very little. This turned out to be a recipe for failure.
I first saw Dune when I turned 10 years old. Back then I adored the film, growing immersed in its fascinating world and unique visual style that still ranks as one of the best in the genre. For a film almost 40 years old, there are not a lot of shots that fail to convince. Technical marvels aside, as I grow older and learn more about writing, the more I understand why this movie failed. It’s frustrating, because Dune is not an irredeemable film. There is so much that it does right to make this world feel convincing and real, and at times it really does. But, apart from a few fleeting moments, the film is utterly devoid of humanity. You’d be hard pressed to find a film as full of talent as Dune, while also managing to be so utterly empty.
Not to rail too heavily on what Eric wrote before me, but I really struggled with my rewatch of David Lynch’s Dune. As a massive fan of the source material, I found the script, which Lynch also wrote, to be a nauseating mess. A large problem with this is how much information is crammed into the two-hour, seventeen-minute runtime. Dune is an incredibly dense story, so much so that Denis Villeneuve is taking a gamble with his upcoming feature being only the first half of the first book. Lynch’s film is packed to the gills with information and we don’t really get enough time to digest it all, let alone understand it. It would be akin to making season one of Game of Thrones a movie. Having read the book, I found the first thirty minutes or so of this movie to be incredibly confusing, as there’s no context for much of what’s happening, despite the monumental amount of exposition.
Speaking of exposition, a cinematic technique that just didn’t sit well with me or most critics was the use of the inner monologue. Throughout the movie, we’ll hear the inner thoughts of many characters through whispered voiceover narration. This would be equivalent to the thought texts as presented in a novel. A huge part of the Dune books is any given character’s thoughts, as they’re often reflecting on the minute details of facial expressions, tone of voice and the choices being made around them. Paul in particular is often reflecting in his mind and those thoughts are crucial to the book. But translating that concept to film is not only jarring but also distracting. Making the voiceovers sound like nothing more than whispers is distracting at best and at worst, it adds to the muddled confusion. The inclusion of the narration also stems from poor decisions from Universal, who sought to trim the film’s runtime but didn’t want to lose critical information. The voiceover narration was inserted later on into production as a way for the audience to retain certain character beats without dragging the runtime. I think a traditional voiceover narration of events would have worked better; there’s already so much exposition going on that traditional voiceover narration wouldn’t have done any more harm and could have even made things less confusing and distracting.
But that plan didn’t work out so well and Universal realized this as the film was about to make its debut. In an attempt to ease audience confusion, the studio actually printed out a glossary of terms for audience members who attended the early screenings, the idea being that they would refer to these cards while watching the movie to ease their confusion. If a studio feels the need to do this, that late into production, there is a big problem. They know it, David Lynch would later disown the feature and even Lady Jessica actress Francesca Annis knew the film was doomed the moment the film started. She would later comment how if the studio refrained from interfering so much, the movie may have turned out much better. That being said, Dune author Frank Herbert called the film a visual feast.
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