Frank Herbert’s Dune is probably one of the most important sci-fi novels of all time. Published in 1965, I think it’s fair to say that most sci-fi books and films since then owe something to Dune. So it’s understandable that Hollywood would be eager to produce a film adaptation to capitalize on the love that people have for the series. However, I don’t think it’s possible to create a faithful Dune film; the original book is around 800 pages of deep lore descriptions and internal dialogue, both of which are difficult to elegantly convey in a movie. Despite this, David Lynch tried to do it in 1984, and… oh boy, is it ever something else.
I absolutely love the novel Dune. I’m currently in the middle of my second read-through and I think it was way ahead of its time. The concepts that Herbert included were clear inspirations for a multitude of sci-fi staples. However between all the cool space magic, energy shields, and giant sandworms is a compelling story of betrayal and revenge. The story follows young Paul Atreides, son to Duke Leto Atreides who has been given control of the desert planet Arrakis by the Emperor of the Universe. Unbeknownst to them, a trap has been laid for them on Arrakis by an alliance between the Emperor and the evil members of House Harkonnen, who have feuded with The Atreides for generations. Dune is mainly the story of the fall of House Atreides on Arrakis, and Paul’s journey of revenge to bring down the Harkonnens and Emperor that destroyed his world. Complete with spiritual and mystical concepts and touching on themes of fate and determinism, good vs evil, and justice, I would recommend this book to anyone.
But the film is a piece of trash.
Not only does it fail as an adaptation of the novel, but it fails as a film in general. This brings me back to why Dune is difficult to properly adapt as a single film. The book is nuanced, subtle, and intelligent. It doesn’t hold your hand and it slowly gives you exposition and teaches you the lore of the universe in a way that is elegant and organic. It is also able to do this without sacrificing the progress of the plot. The film is the total opposite, smashing the audience in the face with expository monologues right from the opening shot. These are usually delivered by Princess Irulan, the Emperor’s daughter (who is not introduced or established in the rest of the film), as she looks directly into the camera and tells the viewer about the plot. The whole movie subscribes to the tell-don’t-show philosophy and it sucks.
To be fair, there are a lot of things to establish in Dune. There are the politics of the galactic government, the psychotropic spice and its importance, the faction of space witches called the Bene Gesserit and their search for the Kwisatz Haderach (a prophesised all-powerful messiah), the climate on Arrakis and the culture of the native Fremen who live there, the complex web of characters and their relationships with each other, and all the cool space technologies like energy shields, intergalactic travel, and laser guns. However the novel has 800 pages to do all this, so it can take its time with story and exposition, giving each element the time that it deserves to establish it. The film tries to cram everything into 2 hours, so don’t blink, or you’ll miss something crucially important.
This film is just relentless. Stuff is happening non-stop. It tries to hit all the important points in the story, but rushes through everything to get there. For example, Paul’s love interest Chani is introduced in one scene, and in the next, the two of them are having a make-out montage. Their relationship is never given any time to develop because the film HAS no time for it. In another scene, we get a voice over from Princess Irulan who describes how Paul’s mom drinks “The Water of Life” (don’t worry, the film doesn’t describe what that is) and gives premature birth to a daughter who has all the knowledge and memories that she has. Pretty weird, right? This should be a big deal, but it’s just narrated to the audience because this movie has no time to handle the scene with any sense of subtlety or art. The story needs to move on to the next EPIC THING that happens. It’s like someone tried to make a History of Everything video, but of the book Dune. It’s heavy-handed and fails to capture the subtle elegance of the novel.
I’ll refrain from commenting on how accurate the film is to the novel because I don’t think adaptations need to be 100% faithful, as long as the film is good (which this film isn’t). But there are definitely some strange choices that David Lynch made. For example, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the principal villain, is supposed to be 400 lbs. of imposing evil. He uses anti-gravity tethers to take off some of that weight so he can walk around. In the film, Harkonnen is maybe 250 lbs, covered in boils, and is somehow able to fly around rooms like Peter Pan. Every single time he takes off, I burst out laughing at how stupid it looked. You never want the audience to laugh at how dumb your villain looks. He’s dorky and is not a formidable threat. I’m not upset that they changed his aesthetic, but David Lynch was clearly trying to borrow from the book and created something that didn’t work.
The acting in Dune varies from a quality performance from Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides, to cheesy one from Dean Stockwell as Dr. Wellington Yueh, to a show-stealing one from Sting as the cocky Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen. Yeah, you read that right, Sting is in this movie! He’s looking damn fine and captures the arrogance of the young Harkonnen heir well. The rest of the cast is nothing special, which is disappointing as there are other talented actors that I know can do better, including Patrick Stewart, Max Von Sydow, and Jurgen Prochnow. I credit their mediocre performances to poor directing; all of the characters have issues with the timing and delivery of their lines. They all come across as slightly awkward.
But let’s move on for a moment and talk about the things I enjoyed. In general, I liked the aesthetic of the movie. The design of the spaceships, costumes, and settings were colourful and creative. There was clearly a talented art and design team at work here. I have to complement the design of the sandworms as well; they truly felt enormous and imposing, although there was some very poor green-screening whenever anyone was riding a worm. I also have no idea why the worms shoot lightning as they burrow, but whatever.
I could go on about how stupid the Imperial soldiers look (they look like they’re wearing garbage bags), the atrocious blue-eyes effect on the Fremen, the ridiculous space fish, and the unexplained pug that happens to be in all the important scenes, but it would be overkill. The biggest problem with the film is that everything moves at a breakneck pace and the movie spends no time establishing anything before rushing on through the plot. The film would work best as a television series or three separate films (the book is divided into three sections, so there’s already a framework for what each film would contain). But trying to cram it all into a single 2-hour film just can’t work.
So that’s my opinion on David Lynch’s Dune. A big thanks to David for inviting me to join the site. You’ll be hearing from me every so often, probably focusing on video games, but maybe with a few more film reviews. Bye for now, and remember to walk without rhythm.