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Movie Review - Dune (1984)

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

Arrakis. Dune. Desert Planet.

When we last left the saga of Dune, Alejandro Jodorowsky had failed to secure the funding necessary for his 1974 undertaking and found the rights to make the film sold out from underneath him to Dino de Laurentiis. Searching for a director for this project, Laurentiis had actually hired Ridley Scott…hot off his success with Alien. Now, there’s something to pine for, eh? And just think, a Scott fresh off Alien would still have ties to Dan O’Bannon, H.R. Geiger and Christopher Foss…all central players in Jodorowsky’s failed attempt. Fate would intervene however, as the untimely death of his elder brother, Frank, would cause him to walk away from the project…only to re-emerge to direct the now classic Blade Runner. And so, Dino’s search continued until he tapped David Lynch to take on the project in 1981. Lynch, known for his art house sensibilities, seemed like a perfect match for the material as Herbert’s novel was anything but the standard science fiction fare. And yes, it’s true…he did turn down the director’s gig for Return of the Jedi to make Dune. But Dune turned out to be a disaster. As we go through this review, we hope to take a look at what worked and what didn’t. We’ll also talk about the different versions of the film…those that exist and those that don’t…and whether or not you should give this film a second chance.

Dune, in my estimation, ended up being the perfect storm of nearly everything that was wrong with Hollywood back in the 80s and…well, is still wrong in Hollywood today. The first factor that we’ll take a look at is how science fiction film was perceived in a post-Star Wars world. While Star Wars is remembered for many trends it would start, for Hollywood producers, they zeroed in on ‘blockbuster sci-fi’, franchise potential and secondary income coming from licensing, licensing, LICENSING! With its extravagant settings and grandiose story, it certainly met the first. With six books in Herbert’s saga, it certainly met the second. And for the same reasons it met the first, it would likely meet the third.

Insert record scratch sound here.

Anyone that has even the faintest knowledge of Herbert’s book will tell you…this is probably not something you should base children’s products off of. Dune coloring books? Seriously? Yet they did exist. Dune action figures aimed at the children’s market? Yup. Those got made too. Still, given that Kenner did make one hell of a creepy 12” Alien action figure…well, this wasn’t exactly an isolated occurrence. But Universal went overboard…View Masters, bedsheets, stickers, models, read-along books…and so on and so on. I get that they were trying to get some of that sweet, sweet Star Wars licensing cash…but this is a very clear instance where the folks in charge of marketing had absolutely no idea of what they were trying to sell.

Why do I bring this up before even going into the movie itself? Because it all points toward expectation. Not only was Universal expecting Dune to pull in the kind of numbers that the first Star Wars did but it was hoping to birth a phenomenon that required an all-ages push. And, again, if you’re even remotely familiar with Herbert’s work, this is CERTAINLY not that. But if you have that expectation and then push that expectation, now you have audiences, including critics, expecting a very Star Wars like experience.

They did not get that.

Nor should they have. Star Wars is a very simple story born from a crossing of Saturday morning serials and Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the Hero’s Journey. Dune is almost the flip side of that, a philosophical treatise on the dangers of a heroic or messianic figure and that figure’s impact on humanity. So, already in one respect, the film was doomed to fail.

Unfortunately, things behind the scenes didn’t help either.

If one reads The Making of Dune by Ed Naha, you’ll find a quote from Dino de Laurentiis that says something to the effect that he wanted to be as hands-off with this project as he could…because he was such a fan of the book that he knew that if he did get in there, he knew he’d only mess things up. Truth be told, books like this, especially those released in those days prior to DVD/Blu-ray special features, were little more than statements made for publicity…so naturally they’re not going to say anything negative. [Just like today’s DVD/Blu-ray special features! – Ed.] And who knows, maybe it’s true. Doing a bit of research, however, and the same can certainly not be said for his daughter, producer Raffaella de Laurentiis. Who’s to blame exactly for what (don’t worry, we’re getting to that), it’s difficult to say, as Dino, Raffaella and Lynch himself all worked to trim the movie down to a 2-hour running time. In my opinion, at least one finger should be pointed squarely at the studio. Once again, they showed a complete obliviousness to what it is they were bringing to the screen. In my previous opinion piece, I lamented the near-extinction of the epic length motion picture. Dune is such a casualty to this way of thinking. The story goes that Lynch emerged with a four and a half hour long work print/rough-cut of the film. This is what would later be mistaken for as the mythic “Japanese Laser Disc” version. Further editing and tweaks to the film and the running time was brought down to around three hours. With a book as dense as Dune, again, anyone familiar with the material would tell you that this is about as bare bones as you could possibly get. Now, a three-hour cut of the film did eventually emerge…but for television release. We’ll talk about that more later on but it’s pertinent to our story now because this was not Lynch’s intended cut. No, instead this three-hour cut was…well, for lack of a better term, bastardized. It took the finalized two-hour fifteen minute version and generally added elements back in, altering them to fit in with the theatrical cut as needed. Lynch loathed this version so much that he demanded that both his screenwriting credit and his directing credit be removed in favor of Judas Booth and Alan Smithee. One can’t help but wonder about the choice in that screenwriter’s first name. And that’s what kinda leads me to believe that somewhere at this point the rift between the de Laurentiises [You know, even as an editor, I don’t know whether or not that’s how you plural that. – Ed.] and Lynch became irreparable. Whether it was what they decided to cut or how they interacted with Lynch while making the necessary cuts…who knows? Back on topic though, it’s safe to say that the TV three-hour cut likely had little to no involvement from Lynch…and how much involvement he had in the theatrical cut isn’t easily determined. This sort of thing happens to films all the time…where producers take the film out of the director’s hands and make their own cuts of the film, either to appeal to their own tastes or to the studio’s. Probably the most famous occurrence of this is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which helps to explain why there are at least FOUR cuts of the film out there (yet it went on to become a sci-fi classic anyway)! Another notable instance being Fox’s 2003 version of Daredevil…and for a recent example, you need only look to Fox again, this time with the much maligned Fantastic Four reboot. Sadly, this had to have taken its toll on Lynch…whether it’s in his refusal to even talk about the film in interviews, his comments that in effect say that Dune was a creative low for him and his repeated refusals to Universal’s offer to revist the film to finally make his own Director’s Cut. Which, while I can totally see why and commend him for his staunchly artistic approach of ‘always forward, never back’…I can’t help but feel sad that this film will never get the true cut it deserves.

So that’s two strikes…is there a third?

Well, that depends, as now we finally get around to looking at the material we were presented with. As a whole, I have to admit that the best possible description for the film is that it is a visual Cliff’s Notes of the book. Now, while yes, there’s certainly the argument to be made that just studying the Cliff’s Notes should be good enough to get you to pass any test in high school or college…and that’s true here, so long as you remember that a D is a passing grade. I’ll go into my anomalous first experience with the film later, but on repeated viewings, yeah, I can see how and why this movie would seem to be undecipherable or impenetrable to the common audience. Once again, knowing the source material as a dense book with a lot of plates spinning regarding characters, events, philosophies and modern-day parallels, sets up a trap that common audiences are going to be prone to falling into. But, to borrow from a Mentat credo, the first step in avoiding a trap is knowing of its existence. And while Lynch and the de Laurentiis clan [Ah, see, now that works better. – Ed.] might have known that, it’s VERY clear with everything listed above that the studio did not…and since the ultimate power over the film resides with them…well, it’s very easy to see why the film not only fell into that trap, but seemingly went in with engines at full steam.

Let’s get back to that Cliff’s Notes analogy for a moment…because this is where Dune works really well. The film does a really good job of hitting most of the major beats of the story as well as visualizing this unfamiliar universe so removed from us by both time (remember, Dune is set in the year 10,191) and space. The individual identities of the planets involved in the story, how the concept of Guild Navigators and their ability to fold space, the Fremen and their stillsuits and sietches…the movie really does capture a magnificent visual style that make Dune a unique cinematic experience. (Except the Ornithopter design. Holy hell does that suck.) Oh, nearly forgot my favorite special effect…the shields. If they wanted something unique to go up against Star Wars’ lightsabers, I maintain that the shields would have been the way to go. Instead, they cooked up these sound-based weirding modules (I’ll get to this in a bit, let me finish with the Cliff’s Notes). What does the film irreparable harm is that, just like Cliff’s Notes, most of the connective tissue of the story and certainly a great deal of the character moments are either extremely truncated or eliminated completely. The three-hour TV cut attempts to return some of these to the film…and it helps to some degree. The knife fight between Paul and Jamis should never have been excised from the film, as it is a pivotal point in Paul’s development as a character and the Fremen leader he is destined to become. Without it, in the Theatrical Cut, Stilgar names Paul Usul, the strength of the base of the pillar, seemingly for no reason. Rewinding a bit, there’s also the scene in the three-hour TV cut where Thufir tries to resign his position of Master of Assassins after the failed attempt on Paul’s life by a Harkonnen agent within the palace at Arrakeen using a hunter-seeker. This works well to show the fraying of the unity of the Atreides house…but there’s something missing even in in that. You pick up on it through only one line of dialog just before Leto is killed, he has a voice-over that says, “Jessica…what is wrong?” and it is completely out of place. If you read the book, you’d know that there was an entire subplot in which Jessica was believed to be the traitor within the House that they’d been warned of by the Shaddout Mapes. With that line of dialog actually in the theatrical cut, one can’t help but wonder if that subplot was indeed filmed but, like so many other moments, found its way to the cutting room floor. And while he’s a character that figures more into future books, the absolutely minute role of Duncan Idaho in this film is…well…disappointing.

Since I’m already going into it, let’s go ahead and look at that three-hour cut. (Briefly, because I’m running off memory here!) It is to be lauded for returning some vital material in but it also needs to be called out on what it removed. Since it was cut together for TV, the first scene on Geidi Prime introducing the viewer to the House Harkonnen and its head, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, removes much of the footage with the slave boy that strongly hints and the Baron’s homosexuality. The biggest strike for me was replacing Irulan’s narration with that of some old guy. I have mixed feelings about the opening prelude, again narrated by the aforementioned old guy, that gives some insight into the world, such as the forces in play like the Bene Gesserit, the Guild, the Mentats and CHOAM as well as the history…namely the Butlerian Jihad against the thinking machines. First of all, Irulan’s character is that of a historian…so it’s very appropriate she would narrate. It’s also a great nod to the book, as most chapters start with an excerpt from some historic text…several of them written by Irulan herself. So to replace her with just some ambiguous voice? No. Not good.

All right, now that it’s been brought up: voice-overs. The film is rife with them…both versions. And upon re-watching the theatrical cut recently I have to say that most of them are completely unnecessary. If you watch the scene play out where voice-overs are present the VO (I’m abbreviating) either ruins any attempt at dramatic tension by telling you how the scene is going to play out or the information relayed in the VO is repeated within a minute in the actual dialog. There’s no point in it…unless… You see, this has happened before. Blade Runner is notorious for Harrison Ford’s voice-over in the theatrical cut…which was insisted upon by the producers. See where I’m going with this? I’m wondering if Clan de Laurentiis, knowing they’d hacked the film to the point of incomprehension, felt they needed to include voice-overs for nearly every scene because audiences are stupid. Now, look, I typically agree with this sentiment, as I’m fond of saying “There is no bottom limit to human intelligence.” But with a film like Dune, especially given the source material…no, this is not cool. And with a director like David Lynch, doubly not cool. This combination alone merits that you have to believe that the audience will rise to meet the movie…not have it talk down to them. Sadly, this is what it feels like much of the VO does. Now, as I said with Irulan, there are places where it makes sense…but I’d approximate that only 20% of what’s present truly helps with the story.

The other main story addition doesn’t help matters much either. The basic premise as to why the Emperor takes action against House Atreides is very simple: the noble Duke Leto (often with the suffix ‘The Just’) is gaining more and more popularity in the Landsdraad (closest parallel I can think of might be the House of Lords) and thus, is in a position to politically challenge the Emperor’s will. Obviously, the Emperor wants none of that, thank you very much. But to throw in this half-cocked “The Duke is building an army involving sound…” plot device…well, like the voice-overs, it’s not needed. The political intrigue is enough. Game of Thrones doesn’t need lightsabers, right? [Although that would get us to watch. – Ed.] Why does Dune need these Weirding Modules? Oh, right, Star Wars. But thematically, it doesn’t make any sense either. Why would Duke Leto the Just raise an army? Especially if he’s got the support of much of the Landsdraad and thus, likely has other Houses willing to pledge their troops in addition to his own. No new army needed…he’s already got one!

With all that said, does it merit watching? Yes. Yes it does. Firstly, as I said earlier, I cannot praise most aspects of the visual design enough. Yeah, the ornithopters are weak. Sure, there are moments (especially when the heighliner emerges from fold-space at Arrakis) where the special effects aren’t quite up to snuff…but overall, this is a film unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Second is the soundtrack…again another unique experience. And what composer do we have to thank for this? Toto. The goddamn eighties band. You know…Rosanna? Africa? The whitest white guys to ever come out of eighties music? [Sorry Journey. But it was close. – Ed.]

Yeah, well it turns out that one of the band members, David Paich, had a dad, Marty Paich, who was a composer and conductor. I’ll be damned, some of that must have rubbed off on the offspring, because again, this score is damn good. Mostly symphonic as one would expect, but not afraid to mix in synth and electric guitar elements. One last thing worth pointing out is the script itself…and by that I mean the word-choice and how they’re delivered. Lynch, as screenwriter, did a masterful job of either incorporating lines directly from the book or creating new lines to match the poetic cadence of those within Herbert’s work. That, in and of itself, is an impressive feat that none have accomplished.

The main reason I recommend this film is maybe, just maybe, it might affect you like it did me. Sure, most people that watch this film find it incomprehensible, a turkey, a slog and so forth…but for me, the film intrigued me enough to want to read the book. The movie, like the book, does make the viewer feel like sure, there’s this stuff on the surface, and that’s all well and good, but there’s something more lurking underneath. Unlike the book, this is more due to the slip-shod assembly of the film…not any sort of craftsmanship. But hopefully, the end result is the same. Let David Lynch’s Dune be your first hit of unrefined spice. Then, slowly, work your way up…until you’re ready to face the Water of Life…Herbert’s wonderful saga of novels. The film is a springboard into a larger world…a beginning, not the end…a gateway, CERTAINLY not a destination.

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