Bad Movie Monday: Dune (1984)

I’m going to teach everyone on the internet how to properly say Denis Villeneuve’s name because most of you in English speaking countries are butchering it so goddamn bad that I feel the need to personally step in and address this incredibly unimportant issue. Probably the worst attempt I’ve heard so far was someone on YouTube calling him Dunneees Villaynueve, which is this weird thing Americans do. If they can’t say a French word or name they’ll just pronounce it with a cartoonishly Spanish accent and hope for the best. Take it from me, someone who is French, you sound ridiculous doing that. Okay, ready for your lesson kids? Take notes. There may be a test. “Denis” is pronounced as if you’re almost saying “The Knee” only with more of a D sound at the beginning. Relatively simple. As for “Villeneuve”, repeat after me: “Ville”, like the word Evil without the E. Pretend you’re Donald Pleasance in Halloween. “Neu”, like the word Nerve without the R. And finally a hard V sound at the end.

The Knee Ville-Neu-V. NOW SAY IT RIGHT! Good job. Now, what the hell was I doing? Oh, yeah… I was going to review David Lynch’s DUNE.

Cue music by Toto.

I wish I could say that my introduction to Frank Herbert’s Dune was that I’d read the book when I was a kid because I was so incredibly intelligent and mature and advanced for my age. However, that would be telling a horrible filthy lie. I was still at the level of Mad Magazine and Bazooka Joe back then. The truth is that, like many people, I first discovered the series when I watched the David Lynch movie after it came out on home video. Didn’t even watch it in the theater. Although I did read about the making of it in Starlog. I also finally read the book many year later and it’s been a favourite of mine ever since.

Now, the most important thing to keep in mind when discussing Dune is that David Lynch did not have final cut on it. The film he intended to make would have been almost three hours long and unlike today the studios frowned on that sort of thing back then. So he had to chop it down to a leaner 137 minutes. From what I’ve read, this is the only one of his movies where he was forced to do that. He’s cut out bits and pieces from other things, most notably Blue Velvet, but those cuts were by choice. Which means that Dune isn’t really “his” movie. It’s something that the studio meddled with, and so what we have left is the butchered carcass of Lynch’s vision and not the actual beast itself.

The other thing to keep in mind is that Lynch, for all his surreal strangeness, was reasonably faithful to the material and really did try to make an exciting space opera. He had just come off the twin success that was Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, and I suspect that he was trying to keep the ball going by making a movie that would be a box office hit while not betraying his own artistic ideals too much. However, lucky for us, it wasn’t a hit. The movie cost 42 million dollars back in 1984 and only made 30.9 to 37.9 million at the box office. Why lucky? Well, it’s like I’ve mentioned before. Failure is an inevitable consequence to having artistic integrity. It’s as inevitable as grief is to true love. You can’t have one without the other. Artists, real artists, often fail. Shills, people pleasers, ass kissers, trend chasers, money grubbers, sellouts, hustlers, and all other various forms of artless swine often succeed. It’s just the way it is. When you’re trying to create art, genuine art, you take chances and try new things and you aim high. That doesn’t always pay off, sadly. I wish it did, but it doesn’t. People who aim low and just serve the masses whatever slop they crave, they’re going to crank out hit after hit. The only cost is that they will never know the joy of true passion and true inspiration, although I feel that they’re not really bothered by this. What with the money and the mansions and the blowjobs and the beautiful big breasted women. I’m pretty sure they’re not too heartbroken.

SYNOPSIS: “In the far future of 10191, long after Earth has been lost and forgotten to time, great royal houses rule over entire planets and are themselves ruled by a hugely powerful Emperor. The economy of this universe is fueled by a substance called the spice melange, a hallucinogenic drug that can alter DNA and give it’s users incredibly long life spans and the power of precognition. This drug is so essential that the rich and powerful will do anything to control the planet Arrakis, also called Dune, which is the sole source of it. For decades the Harkonnen family has brutally ruled Arrakis and extracted the spice, fighting off the nomadic Fremen in the process. The Fremen were the first human inhabitants of the planet but are now seen as vermin and threats to the Imperial economy. After the Harkonnen’s have ruled Arrakis for eighty years, the Emperor has decreed that the planet be given to their mortal enemies. House Atreides.”

I’m not going to go too much further than that because any synopsis of Dune threatens to become a political and religious essay, with annotations. The series is basically all plot twists upon plot twists, lost in a maze of constant intrigue and betrayal. I’ll just add that our protagonists, for now, are House Atreides and that the antagonists, for now, are House Harkonnen. That’s the overall gist of it. The Harkonnens are pissed off about losing Dune and plot their revenge against Duke Leto, leader of House Atreides, leading to his downfall. The only (well, almost only) survivors are Paul Atreides, the Duke’s son, and Paul’s mother Lady Jessica. Both of whom ally with The Fremen to enact their own revenge on House Harkonnen and the Emperor himself.

So what of Lynch’s Dune? Well, it’s far more faithful to the source material than people might expect, but it isn’t at all like Denis Villeneuve’s excellent and almost literal adaptation. Instead, it has charms of it’s own. It’s all Sturm und Drang and bold epic moments and speeches. You can say a lot of things about the film, that it’s utterly bananas or that it can be silly at times, but you can’t say it doesn’t feel momentous. Characters don’t walk into a room, they storm into it with terrible purpose. Dialogue isn’t spoken, it’s intoned. Events don’t happen, they come crashing down in full force. Every scene feels as if it’s punctuated by an exclamation mark. It’s rather glorious to be honest. There’s nothing else quite like it. Mainstream movies rarely go this hard in such an artsy way.


#1 – The music by Toto is amazing and epic. It sweeps and swoops and flies through the movie.

#2 – The film is filled with unforgettable imagery. The monstrous guild navigators, the punk rock Bene Gesserit, the hypnotic opening narration by Virginia Madsen… and this all happens within the first ten minutes! There’s even more stuff later that is really astounding.

#3 – If this movie had never been made and there was a documentary called “David Lynch’s Dune” people would lose their minds. Dale Cooper as Paul? Jean-Luc Picard as Gurney Halleck?? STING AS FEYD-RAUTHA??? The worms designed by the same guy who did E.T. for Steven Spielberg???? They’d be screaming for it to be made right now.

#4 – So many great quotes that are utter nonsense when taken out of context: “I see plans within plans.” or “I did not say this. I was never here.” and “THE SLEEPER MUST AWAKEN!”

#5 – Yes, the effects are dated, but the sets are magnificent. My God, they don’t make them like this anymore.

#6 – I’ve often heard complaints about the film’s often dry info dumps. Know what though? I think they work at making Dune’s sometimes very cryptic and impenetrable lore accessible to a casual audience. This may be the only time anyone ever says this, but Lynch’s film is often much easier to understand than Villeneuve’s version.

#7 – Lynch adds odd but welcome changes to the book. Like making the Guild Navigators strange mutated worm-like creatures that can literally move ships across the universe with the power of their minds, or having the Harkonnens all have heart plugs so they can kill each other any time they like by pulling it out of their chests, or having the Atreides use “Weirding Modules” that use sound as a way of killing opponents from a distance even if they wear shields.

#8 – Speaking of shields. The shield fighting scenes are um… err… they look really, uh… Well, the special effects people tried their best, probably.

#9 – Sting’s underwear in this movie has been known to act as an aphrodisiac, even to women who’ve never watched Dune. That’s how powerful it is.

#10 – I have no idea how Lynch possibly intended to make a sequel after ending this movie the way he did, but it sure looked awesome!

Yes and no. The first hour and a half of this movie is great, but it just falls apart around the 90 minute mark. In fact, the film starts to run into trouble right around the time when Paul and Jessica discover The Fremen in the desert, which Villeneuve wisely ends his own version of Dune with. I think the major problem is that you have a time jump and then the film starts to become far more episodic, and neither of these storytelling techniques ever work outside of a biopic. There’s also the fact that, and I say this as someone who dearly loves this film, Lynch kind of doesn’t get the central ideas of the Dune series. In the books, Paul isn’t a Messiah and there is no prophecy. The Bene Gesserit made it up. However, in Lynch’s movie, he very much is a Messiah. His Fremen name, Muad’dib, is a killing word with the Weirding Modules, the worms rise from the desert and begin to worship HIM after he takes the water of life, and he literally ends the film by performing an actual miracle. Does this ruin the film? Hardly. However, it does kind of make it a poor adaptation of the books. It’s great as it’s own thing, but it’s not in the spirit of Herbert. Still, go watch this thing. Don’t let the fact that it’s a forty year old movie made by an arthouse director scare you away. Lynch pretty much created the modern epic operatic sci-fi/fantasy movie style. Sure, it had existed before, but it had never been done with this kind of energy and flair for the dramatic. So a lot of these big contemporary Hollywood blockbusters that you know and love are but shadows, and David Lynch’s Dune is the Sun. Go and watch it. It’s fun and it’s crazy, but it’s also art. It’s good for your mind and good for your soul.

DUNE stars Kyle MacLachlan, Francesca Annis, Leonardo Cimino, Brad Dourif, José Ferrer, Linda Hunt, Freddie Jones, Richard Jordan, Virginia Madsen, Silvana Mangano, Everett McGill, Kenneth McMillan, Jack Nance, Siân Phillips, Jürgen Prochnow, Paul Smith, Patrick Stewart, Sting, Dean Stockwell, Max von Sydow, Alicia Witt, and Sean Young. It was written and directed by David Lynch, and based on the novel “Dune” by Frank Herbert.