Once, across the sand blown waste, there rose another Dune, and the people looked into its gaping maw and said, “feh.” David Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel has been mocked ever since 1984 when it stuck its massive, clumsy snout out of the sand and started exhaling ill-conceived spice clouds of expository dialogue. It has a wretched 44% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, in comparison to the 2021 Dune’s 83% Fresh.
And I get it. The new Dune is infinitely sexier and more stylish than Lynch’s version. Director Denis Villeneuve has a real gift for monumental screen composition. His massed troops look genuinely massive, and he deploys tactile wind-whipped fabric with the loving attention of a man who has watched a lot of Kurosawa. Timothée Chalamet gives our hero Paul Atreides a subtle intensity, and Jason Mamoa’s Duncan Idaho radiates heroic swash and buckle.
Meanwhile, back at the 1984 Dune, Kyle McLachlan as Paul spends most of the film looking as if he’s just been hit in the face with a flounder, while his voice-over narration tries desperately, and not very successfully, to convince the viewer that he has an inner life. The second half of the movie collapses narratively as it tries to get in all the plot that Villeneuve has been allowed to spread over two films. And Lynch’s decision to add magic sound weapons to Herbert’s novel…why?
So, yes, the new Dune is much better at being a Hollywood blockbuster epic action-adventure than the old Dune. And there’s nothing wrong with Hollywood blockbuster epic!
Frank Herbert’s Dune, though, wasn’t just about the action and the adventure as House Atreides fights to control the planet Arrakis, its spice, and its indigenous Fremen. Much of the joy of the novel was that it was a top-heavy bombastic wallow in trippy goth weirdness. It’s a book, after all, about giant worms and their psychedelic space poop. A filmed version, arguably, should be dumpy and misshapen and filled with people looking like they’ve just been hit in the face with a flounder.
If dumpy dream state Dune is the Dune you love, then Lynch is the director for you. In the film’s opening, a princess explains the history of imperial politics while her head fades in and out against a background of stars. Things only get more inexplicably awkward from there. Patrick Stewart as soldier Gurney Halleck runs into battle carrying a pug dog. Sting as the evil Feyd Harkonnen steps out of a steam shower wearing nothing but a bizarre stylized eagle speedo and a smug expression. The servants of the Spacer’s guild speak for their bloated slug-like masters through what appear to be old-timey portable radio microphones.
The visual wtf of the film is a campy pleasure. But as Lynch aficionados know, the director also has a gift for heightening random details till they make you shiver. Lynch encourages his actors to flatten their emotional expression, which make the moments of iconic dialogue stand out starkly. “Fear is the mind killer.” “’They tried and failed?’ ‘They tried and died.’” If you don’t remember anything else from the film, those lines will stay with you, vibrating with the intensity of prophecy.
Villeneuve isn’t that interested in exploring Paul’s future sight. He mostly just shows him experiencing visions of Chani, his future wife. In Lynch’s Dune, though, dream images and phrases float from Paul’s mind into the viewer’s consciousness with an eerie clarity. Drops of water fall into a pool; Chani’s voice whispers, “Tell me of your homeworld, Usul.” The imagistic repetition makes you feel like you, like Paul, have come unstuck in time.
Lynch revels in the body horror grotesquerie of the Harkonnen villains too. Kenneth MacMillan’s Baron Harkonnen lovingly cultivates his own skin disease even as Lynch’s camera lovingly captures his spittle. The Baron has his servants surgically equipped with heart valves which he can open so their life spell spurts out. His quivering delight as he sprays a male retainer’s blood across purple flowers is one of the film’s most arresting and memorable images—and one definitely drawn from Lynch’s imagination more than Herbert’s. (Lynch does faithfully reproduce Herbert’s homophobia, though, alas.)
Lynch’s Dune is hardly his greatest movie, and you’d be hard-pressed to argue that it’s even a good movie by most conventional standards. But when Herbert’s weird bloated vision bumps up against Lynch’s weird bloated vision, you get a scene with a bunch of nuns bleeding from the nose while giant worms gather in reverence and a skeleton floats amidst psychedelic lights. Which is to say that sometimes the film-thing that breeches from the sand is unexpected and ugly and kind of ridiculous—and all the more worth riding for that. They tried and failed, but thankfully Lynch’s Dune is still alive for anyone who wants to revisit it.