Dune is probably unfilmable. The problem is not the special effects required, nor is it the scope of the action. There are no special effects problems anymore, CGI can show anything (rarely well, but still.) Even the length of Frank Herbert’s novel isn’t a problem – audiences no longer expect storytelling discipline in any sense from films.
Dune is unfilmable because the more serious themes that develop as the novel goes on contradict any audience expectation. The main character works as hard as he can to not end up doing anything. He fails, and the big action scenes occur, but to actually film the story that Dune tells would require large swaths of inaction, and an enormous amount of internal dialogue. The sequels are even worse, in this regard: each one of them has only about two, maybe three scenes where anything happens, which are bookends on an almost interminable number of meetings where people plan these rare action scenes. This is the epic Dune sequence.
I love them. But the only book in the series that would remotely make an interesting film is the original Dune, and Dune is unfilmable. David Lynch’s 1984 attempt is famously a disaster. At the time it was one of the most expensive movies ever made, and an enormous bomb. Some cuts of the movie have apparently been disowned by the director, and there may be scenes, exposition and et cetera that were inserted into the film before it was released to try and make it make some sense. The producers were so afraid of audiences being lost they even handed out glossaries and character guides to ticket buyer when it was released, in the hope that someone would come away from the film with some idea of what they’d seen.
Being a reader and fan of Dune, it’s difficult for me to imagine what an audience going in green would make of this dense and strange film. After a narration and an exposition scene (no in media res for Lynch here), we are treated to a bizarre conference: the apparent ruler of the galaxy is given orders by an extremely creepy fish monster and his band of trash-bag wearing courtiers to kill some kid for reasons he won’t explain.
The kid is Paul Atreides, who is the son of the Duke Leto and his concubine Jessica. His mother is a Bene Gesserit, a semi-religious female organization that has a millennia-long plan to breed a superhuman that they could control, and through him control the galaxy. Jessica may have either prematurely produced this superhuman (called the Kwisatz Haderach, of course) or endangered the bloodlines that were supposed to produce him later.
Leto and his entire entourage have been ordered by the Emperor to leave their home planet of Caladan for Arrakis, also known as Dune. This planet is a desert, known for two things. First are the giant worms that roam the desert and make much of the planet uninhabitable. Second: it’s the only place in the galaxy that produces the mélange. Called the “spice”, it’s the most important material in existence. It’s a drug that allows the user to have a limited prescience. It’s only through this prescience that the Space Guild can fold space and fly ships through the galaxy.
Even with as much deadly dull exposition as I have just laid on you, dear reader, I haven’t scratched the surface of everything that’s going on in Dune. This is a dense story, with the political intrigue of a Game of Thrones, some deep science fiction concepts and world building and an enormous cast of characters. It cannot be contained in a movie, even one that runs almost two and a half hours.
What’s really amazing is that, for a long time, David Lynch seems to be pulling it off. The first 90 minutes of Dune are odd, and contain many details that may confuse a general audience. But for a fan of Dune it is a good, if truncated, telling of the major points of the story. More than that, it envisions Frank Herbert’s world with considerable visual aplomb. Dune is set thousands of years in the future, but the societies it depicts are feudal, hierarchical, and militaristic. The different factions and societies all look distinct while remaining plausible in their worlds.
The entire world of Dune is strange, even amongst the various canon of science fiction world. Most science fiction worlds have elements of power fantasy – Jedis in Star Wars, superheroes in any Marvel film. There are powers and superhuman abilities in Dune, but they all have a disquieting veneer of ugliness to them. The spice lets you see the future, but it becomes addictive. The Bene Gesserit have physical and mental powers, and are regarded as creepy witches. The movie doesn’t make a point of the lack of computers, but that’s a major point of the novel: humans have forgone thinking machines, and so developed their own talents to what would seem superhuman to us. It’s transhumanism, and transhumanism is gross. It’s a move beyond humanity to become something less, not more.
The film’s cast is up to the task of playing these strange and disreputable people. Kyle McLachlan is a little old for Paul, but he has the right sense of good-natured aristocratic arrogance. Keith McMillen, Dean Stockwell, Jurgen Prochnow and Jose Ferrer all have prominent roles… which begins to point to one of the issues of the story. There are far too many characters to keep track of in a film, and many are there that make perfect sense in a novel and none in a movie. Take Duncan Idaho, who is in a few scenes. One of Leto’s best warriors and a great friend to Paul, in the novels he becomes one of the central figures in the entire series. Here, he barely registers, and could have easily been combined with Gurney Hallack (Patrick Stewart, in what in my opinion is one of the film’s big casting blunders) to make a character that made sense.
But the whole film walks the line of faithfulness to the book, and ultimately to its detriment. Central to the novel’s theme is the notion of the importance of environment, both in an ecological sense, and as a molder of men. The Fremen, nomadic natives of the planet Dune, become extremely important players in the events of the book. But in the film their society is barely explored, and even the most important Fremen, Stilgar and Chani, are present but don’t seem much like characters. The entire last hour of the film truncates nearly two-thirds of the novel, changes some of the most important aspects, and never makes a lot of sense.
So much of this film is wrong. Events happen with barely an explanation, their significance assumed. Voiceovers and whispered “thought” narrations cover up the cracks in some very shaky storytelling.
And David Lynch is not an action director. The movie ends with a big sci-fi action climax, but you can tell David Lynch doesn’t care for movie action and doesn’t quite know why anyone would. There’s shooting and explosions and people flying through the air, but no drama or real scenework.
It is a mess, ultimately. But it’s a beautiful mess. Sure, some of the special effects work is dreadful. But the production design and costumes are sumptuous. The characters are detailed and beautiful or hideous in their proper measure. The 4K release looks nearly flawless. It’s an early ’80s production, and some of the imagery is deliberately murky. But the few colors that are meant to pop, like the blue eyes of the Fremen, really look fantastic. And though the higher fidelity might show up deficiencies in some of the practical effects, I still think the worms have a plausible weight and heft to them.
David Lynch’s Dune is a sprawling mess. And maybe the best an adaptation of Dune can do is provide a visual accessory and a story highlight reel. For most of its running time, Lynch’s film services this role admirably. It’s in the actual storytelling that it finally lets itself down. When it has to make sense as an action science fiction film, it becomes a series of events patched together through paper-thin voice overs and montages, with too many characters and not enough for them to do. It’s hard to rate it as anything but a failure. But I find it an admirable, beautiful failure.
Dune has been released on 4K Ultra HD by Arrow Video. One should note, this release only has the film on 4K disc, not a standard Blu-ray disc with the film. Extras on the 4K disc include a pair of commentaries: one by Paul Sammon, film historian who worked on the film, and one by Mike White from The Projection Booth podcast. Video extras on the 4K disc are all archival featurettes. There is “Impressions of Dune” (40 min) a documentary on the making of the film; “Designing Dune” (9 min) about production designer Anthony Masters; “Dune FX” (6 min) a look at the special effects; “Dune Models and Miniatures” (7 min) which looks at the models; “Dune Costumes” (5 min) which looks at the costumes. There are also “Deleted Scenes with Introduction by Raffaella de Laurentiis” (16 min) and from 1984 an old EPK documentary, “Destination Dune” (6 mins).
On the second Blu-ray there are a couple of new video extras, and several interviews. The two new featurettes are “Beyond Imagination – Merchandising Dune” (23 min) about the attempts to merchandise the film to children, and “Prophecy Fulfilled: Scoring Dune” (25 min), about Toto’s score for the film. There are also the following interviews: “Giannetto de Rossi” (17 min) a make-up artist; “Golda Offenheim” (27 min), the production coordinator; “Paul Smith” (9 min), who played the Beast Rabban; and Christopher Tucker (3 min) who did special make-up effects. The booklet included with the limited edition has several essays about the film.