David Lynch is the man who re-invented TV drama with Twin Peaks (1990). He picked up an Oscar nomination for his first feature, The Elephant Man in 1980 aged just 34. Over the last twelve years or so, he has produced some of the most puzzling, mysterious and profound films ever made, with Mulholland Drive the very finest (2001). Yet lurking somewhere in his back catalogue, there is a dark secret. It’s movie that surfaced in the early 1980s in the midst of the Sci-Fi boom that followed the success of Star Wars. In 1984, David Lynch directed a film adaptation of Robert Herbert’s epic novel Dune, and it’s fair to say that the movie did not set the world on fire.
Critics leapt on it. The plot was confusing, not to say labyrinthine. A huge cast of characters strut across the screen, often spouting gibberish in ominous tones. Rising out of the sand, the vast worms that populate the planet of Arrakis look more like sock puppets than the best special effects money can buy.
Following this disappointing entry into the world of the blockbuster, Lynch distanced himself from the movie. On a later TV version, he even had his name removed from the credits, going so far as to use the pseudonym ‘Judas Booth’ for his role as the screenwriter. Reports suggest that he rarely discusses the movie in interviews, although we shouldn’t read too much into that. Lynch doesn’t like discussing his work in general, preferring the viewers to make up their own minds about what they see.
While there is truth in all of the above, Dune is also one of the most enjoyable sci-fi movies ever. The scope of the action is enormous. The four main planets that appear are hugely different, and hint at unseen vistas beyond the on-screen action. So it’s not really true to say that the film’s special effects are a let-down.
Much of the story detail makes little sense, but that is a staple of Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Look at Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films which contain various sections in Elvish. In adapting complicated novels, the film makers have the right to include some elements that only mean something to those people who’ve read the book. In the TV version of Dune mentioned above, a voice-over explains certain details of the on-screen world. Although they are illuminating, these verbal footnotes are more distracting than anything else.
If Lynch’s film is heavy on detail, it is worth remembering that it appeared just as home video was becoming within the budgets of ordinary people. So the cinema was no longer the beginning and ending of the film experience: home viewers now had a chance to puzzle through the picture at leisure from the living room sofa. Back then, they even had the choice between VHS and Betamax.
Dune is also a who’s who of 80s and 90s stars of science fiction. The cast includes Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: the Next Generation); Max von Sydow (Flash Gordon); Sean Young (Blade Runner); Dean Stockwell (Quantum Leap), and a whole troop of Lynch regulars who would surface again in Twin Peaks, including the star Kyle MacLachlan, Everett McGill, Jack Nance, and Lynch himself who has a cameo as a worker collecting ‘the spice’. The best performance in the movie comes from one of the least celebrated actors. Kenneth McMillan’s portrayal of the loathsome Baron Harkonnen has to be seen to be believed. He is accompanied by Sting, and Brad Dourif, who would play a very similar role as Grima Wormtongue in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
So is David Lynch’s Dune a load of rubbish? Absolutely not. It’s a lost classic that can happily fill a long, dark winter’s evening. You can’t say that about many films from 1984. Or can you?