I will preface this review by stating that I genuinely wanted to like Dune. I have mixed feelings about David Lynch’s work, but I knew based on the trailer and a little prior knowledge of the film that it would be strange (re: David Lynch), unintentionally funny, and unapologetically “eighties.” My expectations were tempered accordingly. Having said that, this was not the film that it could have been. There were certainly memorable moments (Patrick Stewart running into battle carrying a pug jumps to mind), but it never lived up to its full potential.
Dune is based on Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel of the same name, and following its success, the movie rights became a highly sought after prize. Several filmmakers tried, and failed, to bring the story to the silver screen, with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt coming the closest. The story of his failed endeavor even became the focus of a 2013 documentary titled Jodorowsky’s Dune. However, in 1981, following his success with The Elephant Man (1980), David Lynch was offered to direct the film, and, for better or worse, and despite having several other offers at the time, he accepted.
The story centers on Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan), the son of a popular Duke who was recently given control of the planet Arrakis, also known as “Dune.” The film begins with a voiceover explaining that Dune is the only source of a spice called “melange.” This spice is incredibly valuable, as it has mind-altering capabilities, as well as the ability to fold space, thus allowing for instantaneous space travel. The Emperor Shaddam, who rules over the universe and fears an uprising, installs Duke Atreides on Arrakis, secretly plotting to attack him and wipe out the entire House Atreides. Paul, who has vivid dreams prophesying the future, allies with the native people of Dune, known as the Fremen, to repel the Emperor’s attack. The Fremen believe that Paul is their long-awaited Messiah, and that he will save them from the Emperor’s tyrannical rule.
There are a plethora of side-characters and subplots in Dune, but none of them are all that interesting, and Lynch’s script never expounds on the more intriguing political machinations of Frank Herbert’s universe. Much of the plot is explained in voiceover, to the point where just about every thought that the most prominent characters have is said out loud for the audience. Not only is this a lazy style of filmmaking, it also leaves little open to interpretation. It seems that this was done out of necessity more than out of some kind of bizarre artistic vision though, as Lynch’s original cut was almost 4 hours long, so it had to be cut in half for its theatrical release. One imagines that too many vital scenes needed to be condensed, and Lynch had no choice but to explain large segments of the plot in voiceovers and blunt exposition. However, one of the main issues with Dune is not what is told to us, but all that is left out. The script feels like a jumbled mess, with subplots only hinted at and never fully-realized. Lynch somehow manages to say way too much without ever telling us what we really want to know.
While some of the special effects are well-done, they are ruined by an ugly and muddy visual style. Much of the film is brown and orange and gray, which helps dull an already boring and convoluted story. A few sequences involving the giant sandworms on Arrakis are impressive, but there are times when it is painfully obvious that the actors are just running in front of a green screen, with virtually no attempt to mask it.
The acting is about what you would expect from eighties science fiction. Kyle MacLachlan really only has one facial expression throughout the film, one of mild confusion and frustration, as if he is actively wondering why he ever accepted the role of Paul Atreides in the first place. The ancillary characters are not that memorable, though Patrick Stewart brings his own brand of quality-acting to Dune. Unfortunately, he is not onscreen for much of the film. Sting plays the part of Feyd-Rautha, though his acting ability is questionable and the character feels largely unnecessary. One of the better performances in Dune is also one of the hardest to watch. Kenneth McMillan is perfect as the sadistic Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, who suffers from a disease that leaves his face riddled with oozing boils. Despite his rather strange physical presence on screen (he floats around rooms in an inflatable suit), McMillan brings an incredible performance to a film that is otherwise rife with mediocrity.
It has been documented that Lynch distanced himself from the film following its release, blaming its shortcomings on the constraints set by the studio, among other things. But, no matter who is to blame, Dune is simply not a well-made film. David Lynch came to prominence with the surrealist style, weird and often unsettling storytelling, and existential dread of his early films. And while he found success and acclaim with these kinds of films, he is like a fish out of water when confronted with a science fiction epic like Dune. Such a vast universe, with complex politics and hierarchies would be a challenge even for the most experienced sci-fi filmmaker, and Lynch falls far short of the mark.
Dune is currently available to stream on Hulu.
Or it is available for purchase via Amazon.
Rating: ★★ out of 5