David Lynch’s Dune is a masterpiece.
Sure, it was a disaster at the box office, and many Dune faithful have dismissed the film as an embarrassment, as a bloated and overly abstract piece of crapola that bears little or no relation to Herbert’s novel. Lynch himself has tried his best to forget he ever made it.
But I’m tired of passing it off as a guilty pleasure, and Lynch is wrong to disown it. Dune stands proud next to his best films. So let’s look at what is so freakin’ good about this movie. Let’s try to figure out why it’s still a late-night favorite, why geeks quote it all the time – and why, incidentally, Frank Herbert himself liked it so much.
The future on other planets
Hell, most would agree that production designer Anthony Masters (2001) and costume designer Bob Ringwood (Batman, Excalibur, A.I.) fully realized a world alien enough to be 8,000 years in the future and familiar enough to be 8,000 years in our future – a world that has advanced to an astonishing level of technology without computers.
And they did it with a minimum of description from the book. Herbert’s world is rich and detailed, yes, but he devotes his attention to personalities, politics and ecology, not actual appearances. The novel calls Castle Caladan a “pile of stone” – no more, no less – and says that the Atreides wear a red hawk emblem on the chest of their black uniforms. It’s not much to work with, but Lynch’s designers took those few details and decided to put everyone in black and beige military uniforms, complete with epaulets and ribbons.
Because Paul wears full regalia even while relaxing, this attention to uniform clothing suggests the tone of a 19th-Century romantic opera – and, tellingly, the quasi-feudal military outfits worn by Third World dictators. Ringwood and Masters hit us with imagery that recalls tinplated strongmen and banana republics – just like Herbert’s multipolar world, where great houses feud over territory and natural resources.
Lynch and his designers also took care to let the natural resources of the main planets influence the artistic evolution of clothing, sets and props, especially on Caladan and Giedi Prime. According to Lynch, they thought of Caladan as the “wood” planet and Giedi Prime as the “oil” planet. This puts the Atreides in a natural, warm environment and the Harkonnens in a nasty, smelly one. We relax as we follow Paul through the vaulted hallways of intricately carved wood, and gag as we watch the Harkonnens eat bugs while they bask in dank glowglobe light surrounded by snot-green walls, the stench of burning oil no doubt choking the air. This contrast naturally tilts our sympathy toward the Atreides.
But the designers’ greatest triumph came in realizing the future of the Butlerian Jyhad, where computers – and all machines that “imitate a human mind” – have been banned.
Indeed, what would a civilization that has interstellar travel and high-speed communication, but no computers, look like?
Masters gave Lynch’s film a look somewhere between Star Trek and 1890s London. The glowglobes float and hum through the air, adorned with wrought-iron wings. The “fighter” training module (mostly lifted from the second book, Dune Messiah) whips, slashes and shoots like a HAL 9000-powered death machine, but steady-state components make it resemble a quaint brass-plated Rube Goldberg you might find in H.G. Well’s study.
The Spacing Guild most effectively embodies this deft oxymoron, mixing equal parts Blade Runner, Star Trek’s Borg and The Great Train Robbery. The Guild navigator travels – or lives in – a black wrought-iron holding tank that we might mistake for an old-fashioned train car, an ironic bit of reverse engineering for these new-era transportation monopolists. Despite its presumably advanced functionality, the tank seeps oil on the marble floors, forcing an underling to sweep up behind with a broom. Another underling speaks into a wire microphone from the era of Chautauqua tents and William Jennings Bryan, but this antique is apparently hooked into a contraption sophisticated enough to translate the Rosetta Stone into Klingon.
The gom-jabbar: inspiration for the lye scene in Fight Club?
In case you’re still reading to find out why Herbert liked Lynch’s film so much, ask yourself: can you blame him for being flattered by the marquee names involved?
Finally, someone was spending the mind-blowing bucks to realize his vision, complete with a slew of prodigal designers, a distinguished cast, and a hotshot young director fresh off an Academy Award nomination.
And what a cast! Some of the choices don’t work, but not even Sting could mess up a line as delicious as “Will your woman deserve my special attentions?”
OK, let’s start with the lead: Paul. The biggest strike against Kyle MacLachlan was his age (too old), but to really do Dune right you’d need to cast two people as Paul, one about 15, the other 25.
However, MacLachlan keeps his voice high in the opening sequence and progressively lowers it over the course of the story to reflect his accelerated aging. His classical training – he was acting in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival before Lynch found him – helps him fill the scope of Paul’s character. It can’t be easy to play a character who’s a cross between Jesus and Mohammed (to the Fremen) and Machiavelli (to everyone else).
Grossness aside, Kenneth MacMillan barks and shouts his way through a deliciously decadent performance as the Baron. It’s over the top, sure, but who wants an understated Harkonnen? The same person who wants an understated Khan in Star Trek II? His best moment comes when he ogles a sweat-slick Feyd-Rautha and whispers, “Lovely Feyd,” then bellows, “Where’s my doctor?!” The Harkonnen obsession with exotic sexuality – incest and pedophilia, considering how “young” the slave boys (and Feyd) are described – is straight out of Herbert’s book.
Although Sting’s advanced age pushes their sexuality away from pedophilia, MacMillan makes a strong choice to stay true to the Baron’s demented lust for his nephew.
The list of strong casting choices goes on. Despite a language barrier, Jurgen Prochnow, the Gibraltar-solid U-boat captain from Das Boot, makes a fine Leto. Linda Hunt is a no-brainer for the Shadout Mapes. Lynch stalwart Dean Stockwell finds the tragedy in Dr. Yueh. Old pro Jose Ferrer blusters and cowers just like Shaddam IV should, and the icy Sian Phillips is a razor-edged knockout as Reverend Mother Mohiam. Even though Shakespeare veteran Patrick Stewart hadn’t yet figured out that boom mikes can pick up sound from far away, he’s still crysknife-tough as Gurney Halleck.
Less successful are Francesca Annis, who delivers most of Jessica’s lines with breathy over-significance, and Sean Young, a perennial candidate for world’s most boring actor, as Chani.
But what unites Lynch’s cast in greatness is their unswerving commitment to their performances. Any acting teacher, from Yale to Northwestern, will agree that if an actor does not believe in what they’re doing, their performance will fail. Not one performer in Dune is guilty of this most heinous of acting crimes. Think of the raw, almost embarrassing love that Patrick Stewart radiates when Gurney is reunited with Paul in the desert, and he cries, “You young pup! You young pup!”
Or consider Dean Stockwell’s intense, unforgiving performance as the traitorous Dr. Yueh – weeping in solitude for his lost soul and lost wife, or when he death-rattle-roars at the Baron, “You think you’ve defeated me? You think I don’t know what I’ve gained … for my wife?!”
The kingdom of God seen from within
More than anything else (and perhaps most controversial to fans), Lynch nailed the spirit of Dune – from the Fremen perspective. Certainly, Herbert wrote about political wrangling, feudalism, ecology and economics, but he also wrote about the actual coming of a messiah. When the Fremen meet Paul and Jessica and realize that this ancient prophesy is actually coming true, the audience needs to imagine how completely fucking mind-blowing that has to be for them! This is where Lynch’s skill as a crafter of beautiful nightmares serves the story best – he is a master of turning worlds upside-down and blowing minds.
The film’s tone echoes many of his other dreamy, puzzling and abstract projects. Watch Eraserhead and you’ll see a creature who could navigate a Guild heighliner, not to mention the origins of Paul’s infamous “Arrakis – Dune – desert planet” voiceover dream sequences. Watch Blue Velvet and you’ll see a villain just like the Baron, drowning in addiction and twisted sexuality.
Most important, though, when you watch Blue Velvet (or its TV cousin, Twin Peaks), you’ll see a story that descends into dementia but eventually embraces good over evil in a wholly un-ironic way. And before you dispute this, citing Blue Velvet’s harrowing scenes of rape, torture and cruelty, I task you to watch the final minute, where Dorothy Valen’s son runs into her arms, and the camera pans up to a pristine blue sky.
True, Lynch believes that evil can infiltrate even the purest heart – Jeffrey Beaumont’s in Blue Velvet, for example – but ultimately he believes in the inherent goodness of people, hence the final shot of Blue Velvet, where he leaves us with love and hope. Lynch’s heart-on-the-sleeve attitude toward virtue works well for the Fremen’s black-and-white world. They’re tough, but they serve God.
“God created Arrakis to train the faithful,” the Fremen say, and they believe in the prophesy of Muad’Dib with utter, innocent conviction. Lynch’s dreamy tone plus his steadfast belief in good over evil reflect that innocence. It puts us in the Fremen’s minds – how they must have felt like they were living a dream as they watched Muad’Dib lead them to victory.
All this leads to the film’s stunning final scene, when Paul marches into the Arrakeen palatial throne room – triumphant and still coated in sand from crushing the Harkonnen and imperial troops in battle – surrounded by a procession of followers that fills the 2.35-to-1-wide screen and would befit the grandest entrance in any Shakespearean historical extravaganza.
He and the emperor face off, and Paul spots Reverend Mother Mohiam, who immediately tries to lance into his mind with her own.
Paul says, “Don’t try your powers on me. Try looking into that place where you dare not look. You’ll find me there staring back at you.”
Using the feared Bene Gesserit voice (the Jedi mind trick of Herbert’s universe), Mohiam growls, “You mustn’t speak—”
But Paul ends her power over him with one word: “Silence!” And it was in that moment, when Paul shouts down the treacherous Reverend Mother, that I, at age 7, became a Lynch fan. This scene, that moment, the whole movie, fail without great directing and powerful, committed acting.
Lynch and his cast provide both.
Slimy, yet politically unsophisticated
But Lynch misses the irony for the innocence, and it’s the historical ironies that make Dune a classic.
After all, the Bene Gesserit manufactured the Muad’Dib prophecy to protect their sisterhood should they be captured by Fremen, as Jessica is. The Fremen “legend” isn’t an organic result of centuries of myth creation, but someone in Bene Gesserit Research and Development probably typed it up off the top of their head.
Lynch, at least in the theatrical cut, misses this important detail. In his movie, we only see a legend come true, and that’s where he fails to adapt the deepest complexity of the original novel.
We should see a legend that comes true in spite of everything the legend’s creators do to prevent it – the monster the Bene Gesserit created came to get them. By omitting this, Lynch misses one of the underlying ironies that make Dune so brilliant, even if he fully realizes the look and feel of Herbert’s world and captures half of the book’s tone and spirit.
As of this writing, a new, two-disc special edition of Dune is now available.
In the United Kingdom.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.