WWith Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Dune almost upon us, here’s your chance to revisit David Lynch’s ill-fated 1984 attempt: Frank Herbert’s version of the classic sci-fi novel he wrote and directed as umbrella of producer Dino De Laurentiis. At the time, he was greeted with an annoyed shrug from the press and the public, making him a rare failure for Lynch. It would be pleasantly contrary to claim that Lynch’s Dune is an underrated masterpiece – but that’s not exactly the case. There are, of course, moments of expressionist panache and dreamlike strangeness; it sometimes feels like a freewheeling sci-fi production of a lost Shakespeare Roman play. There is a wonderful scene where the mighty sandworm of the planet Arrakis is tamed and subdued, which Villeneuve has not yet gifted us.
But there is also a lot of length, a dramatic lack of focus and simply an attempt to overdo it, encompassing and transforming the whole book in just over two hours. (Villeneuve, on the other hand, covers less than half of his version.) The passing of time can be very ruthless for visual effects, and Lynch’s Dune isn’t as good-looking as, say, Kubrick’s 2001, which was done well before. Its design is closer to Mike Hodges’ 1980 intergalactic comic book comedy Flash Gordon, which was supposed to be funny, although Max von Sydow was in it as well.
In this Dune, Kyle MacLachlan plays Paul Atreides, the young aristocrat of a noble house commissioned by the emperor to take what amounts to a colonial government on the harsh planet of Arrakis, or “Dune”, a place of enormous strategic importance. This is where a substance called mixture is extracted, which gives the consumer enormous power. But the planet has an indigenous people who are about to rise up against their imperial oppressors – there is talk of holy war – and a terrifying and perhaps phallic sandworm that turns the desert landscape upside down. Paul’s mother, Jessica (Francesca Annis), is the initiate of an occult brotherhood that cultivates the supernatural powers of the spirit and awaits the arrival of a messiah. Jessica is subordinated to a terrifying Reverend Mother figure, beautifully played by Siân Phillips, who forces Paul to undergo a disturbing initiation ceremony with a box. And as the war between the house of the Atreids and the various duplicitous families breaks out, Paul falls in love with Chani (Sean Young) and faces his own messianic destiny.
It’s a movie that starts off as if it’s going to reinvent Lawrence of Arabia in those eerie rippling sands, and there’s a freshly delivered prologue from Virginia Madsen as the Emperor’s daughter, Princess Irulan, putting us in the geopolitical image of it all, with his face swimming eerily in and out of focus. There are intriguing supporting performances from Phillips, Von Sydow as Planet Scientist, and José Ferrer as the Worthy Emperor himself. But it’s a film that doesn’t dramatically harness the vast forces it gestures upon, but moves forward with determination with very little variation in tone or pace.