David Lynch’s 1984 adaption of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune had the potential to really strike gold with audiences. Coming four years after Lynch was nominated for Best Director in the 1980 Oscars for Elephant Man, and a year after the Star Wars original trilogy wrapped up with Return of the Jedi, a daring, unique sci-fi vision such as Dune‘s could’ve easily resonated with cinema-goers. But a muddled plot, rushed pacing and weak screenplay really hold back a film that still has some frustratingly good elements.
Dune marks Lynch’s first collaboration with Kyle MacLachlan, the beginning of what would become a mutually-fruitful relationship, comprising of projects such as Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Here, MacLachlan plays Paul Atreides, a young nobleman forced into a position of power when the planet Arrakis is threatened by the evil Harkonnens, headed by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan). As is the story with much of this film, Paul is a very poorly-written protagonist, with little substance or personality, making his journey to becoming the prophetic figure Muad’Dib somewhat unsatisfying. His character arc unfolds in typical Lynchian fashion, with mysterious visions manifesting themselves throughout the narrative, and while these elements are satisfying – particularly a vision of an unborn baby that proves rather disturbing – much of Paul’s characterisation – such as his relationship with Chani (Sean Young) – is disappointingly glossed over, making him a hard character to root for.
Glossed-over is a perfect description of this film: the Lynch-penned screenplay is far below what we’ve come to expect from him, full to the brim with hammy dialogue that suits some characters – Patrick Stewart’s Gurney and Baron Harkonnen particularly revel in the film’s frequent campiness – but makes the meat-and-bones of this mythology-driven battle to control Dune hard to follow or simply unsatisfying. Paul training the Fremen army to use sound as a weapon, gearing them up for an epic battle with the Emperor’s troops, is given only a brief montage; moments that prove crucial to the plot and our attachment to the protagonist – from the establishment of the three main houses to fleshing out the Emperor’s motivations – are rushed, simply not given enough time to become meaningful. The final battle itself is similarly brisk, and any hopes of a satisfying resolution to the plot by the time the credits roll can be abandoned, as there’s just seconds between the climax of the battle and the end credits.
That said, when the film find its feet – which it does inconsistently and not often enough – it’s an incredibly enjoyable experience. The design of the main planets, particularly Arrakis/Dune, where the precious drug ‘spice’ is mined, and the homeworld of House Atreides are gorgeously visualised, as is the prolific space worm that hounds Dune’s desert landscape. When the screenplay takes its time, it succeeds, exploring the mythology of Herbert’s novel, and introducing complex plot elements such as Paul’s premonitions and their growing influence on the plot. This classic Lynchian plot structure – in itself complex yet also satisfying and endearing – really complements the vast nature of this sci-fi world, and it’s a shame this sophistication isn’t seen elsewhere. The action scenes, although infrequent, are enjoyable enough, with the final battle between the Fremen forces and the Emperor proving visually-stimulating and also rather satisfying plot-wise.
Yet the lingering comparison to Dune is Return of the Jedi, the project that came out just one year before this and which Lynch himself was invited to direct. In almost every way – aside from Dune‘s complex political plot line and interesting use of non-linear storytelling elements – Jedi trumps this, despite also being a step down from The Empire Strikes Back. Its plot is better-explained, its action more engaging and its effects more convincing, making the step down to Dune all the more glaring.
Overall, Dune feels like a missed opportunity. Lynch’s script proves the potential this property has to succeed. He must be commended for taking on such a dense storyworld and producing a film under two-and-a-half hours that manages to get through so much material, although the lack of development that many elements of this plot – from the personality of the protagonist to the motivations of villains – make this a far less enjoyable experience than it could’ve been. It’s hard to pinpoint what needed to be done differently: be it a longer running time, an increased budget or maybe the decision to split the material over multiple films, something should’ve been handled differently to ensure Dune didn’t become the inconsistent, shallow yet occasionally fun experience that it is. With news that Denis Villeneuve’s 2020 Dune adaption will cover only the first half of Herbert’s original Dune novel, it would seem lessons have been learnt from the 1984 original, which while showing glimmers of promise, could’ve been far more.