I’m just going to get it over with and say it, David Lynch’s Dune is my favorite science fiction film of all time. Adapted from the novel of the same name written by Frank Herbert, Dune is a film that has stuck with me since childhood and has managed to never get old after repeated viewings.
If you don’t know the plot of Dune (have you been living under a rock!!?) let’s break it down. The universe depends on a substance knowns as The Spice, which is like a combination of oil and LCD. Unfortunately, The Spice can only be found on one planet, Arrakis, or more commonly known as Dune. Control of The Spice is a topic of much contention between great houses of the universe as well as commerce guilds, training schools, and the indigenous people of Dune itself. The overall arch of the film follows young Paul, the son of a great Duke, and his mother, a woman with supernatural power linked to The Spice, as he falls victim to, and ultimately triumphs over the various political interests of the known powers in the universe.
Oh, and there are big giant worms. Worms so big they can swallow industrial mining equipment like a tic-tac.
Sounds confusing, right? Well it is. Or at least it was for audiences upon its release causing Dune to be a huge financial failure when it was given a wide debut in theaters. Now days when television shows like Game of Thrones are the norm that may seem ridiculous, but long and convoluted plots were avoided at all costs as little as ten years ago.
Now let’s come back down to earth for a moment. Dune is not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination. The general plot is not always faithful, nor does it live up to Frank Herbert’s classic novel. The acting performances are all over the map, from over the top, to boring, to downright brilliant (I’m looking at you Sir Patrick Stewart!!). The special effects suffer the same problem. Some are glorious to look at even now, other scenes looked positively dated even at the time of the film’s release in the 1980’s. Dune is a mess, but it is a glorious mess that comes across as unapologetic. For me, the most wonderful thing about Dune is the fact that it took a lot of risks and it crashed and burned spectacularly, leaving the audience with the pleasure of enjoying the explosion.
I’ve been told by a few sources that movie theaters gave out cheat sheets to audience members to explain all the confusing titles, great houses, and terminology in the film. I’ve long hoped that one day I will find one of these cheat sheets in a thrift store or antique shop because I’d love to frame a copy and put it on my wall. I find it all rather silly to be honest. I mean, Dune isn’t THAT confusing, but it does illustrate how audiences at the time just weren’t ready for a science fiction film that tackled topics such as geo-politics, religion, corruption, and government strategies. The swashbuckling nature of films like Star Wars were more to everyone’s tastes. They still are. But what Dune lacks in pure entertainment value and being a catalyst for shoving popcorn in your face, it makes up for as a film that will haunt your waking life for years to come.
There is a phrase I will often ponder which should be something any creative person is familiar with – art through adversity. By all accounts, and even from the lips of David Lynch himself, the production of Dune was a nightmare. Constant studio interference created an atmosphere of anger and resentment. Location shoots were long, hot, and physically taxing. The production struggled to stay on budget and had to make drastic cuts to both the script and final film on the editing room floor to keep the run time to something mainstream theaters would accept. There is even an edit of Dune floating around through boot legs and overseas releases that feature scenes with unfinished special effects. This is a version that David Lynch has personally disowned and demanded his name be removed from the credits.
But this is where I think Dune truly triumphs. Despite it all the result is a film that is intriguing, interesting, and worthy of multiple revisits. Unlike a lot of modern science fiction and fantasy films which just come across as lazy and predictable Dune gives us something different. Something that came at great personal cost from the creators behind the production. There is a lot of love put into Dune that outshines the defects. Sometimes I can appreciate a few scuffs and dents on a piece of art. It makes the whole experience seem more human.
Bringing Dune into the medium of film has unfortunately been met with a lot of difficulty. There is of course the infamous attempt by art-house director Alejandro Jodorowsky which was documented in the film Jodorowsky’s Dune. Jodorowsky has some grand ambitions for Dune and I admire his reverence for the source material, but I seem to be in the minority for being glad his movie never saw reality. For as ambitious as it was I feel confident his final result would have been incredibly hokey and closer in tone to other big budget sci-fi epics of the time like Zardoz and Barbarella. Then of course there is the mini-series produced for the Sci-Fi channel. This adaption may have been slightly more faithful to the source material but my goodness did it look cheap! It was like watching Dune come to life in a fifth-grade theater production.
Though there looks to be a new production of Dune in the works, for now the David Lynch version is the one we all must live with. Personally, I am just fine with that.