David Lynch’s movie version of Frank Herbert’s thought-to-be-unfilmable science fiction novel Dune landed in front of largely perplexed audiences during the Christmas movie season of 1984. Alejandro Jodorowsky had made extensive plans to make the movie years before, but those plans were derailed. Lynch’s vision of Herbert’s dense universe (however bowdlerized) would be the one that history would ultimately judge as a well-intentioned misfire by a young director previously responsible for only two features (only one of which had anything close to a typical industry budget) who found himself suffocating under the pressure of delivering a post-Star Wars science fiction spectacle under the most difficult of conditions.
Being a Lynch fan at the time, I was able to forgive the movie its many flaws and I appreciated it then, as I do now, as an authentically deranged adaptation of a signature work that is almost fatally true to its source material (Universal provided a glossary of Herbert-speak to audiences who braved the opening weekend) while at the same time having clearly been born of its director’s unique, dream-linked manner of conjuring images. David Lynch’s Dune is as close to an actual space opera (in the term’s most grandiose sense) as we are likely to get, meaning that it is often overwrought and head-spinningly, jaw-droppingly conscious of itself, its form and its references, while arguably never collapsing into incoherence. It has a fever, which may be derived from Lynch’s capacities working desperately to forge the material into something digestible for general audiences, or perhaps simply from the tension generated by Lynch working in concert with, and creating friction against, the expectations of Herbert’s estate and fan base.
Like it or despise it, Lynch’s Dune is a unique beast— it was fortunate to have come into existence before Blade Runner had begun to cast its shadow across the breadth of science fiction and shows little sign of the kind of vision-cribbing from Scott's film that would become standard operating procedure for filmmakers working in a futuristic mode ever since. Not that Lynch would have acceded to much visual theft from another work anyway— even the artistic conceptions in his film that can be linked directly to the illustrations of Dune illustrator John Schoenherr still seem filtered through Lynch’s own unmistakable, sexually conflicted sensibility. The movie also has a sense of humor, though a twisted one, something the novel itself and subsequent rather more sober filmed visits to Herbert’s worlds lacked. Dune may not be a great film— and many would argue that it’s not even good— but it is a film that despite its vast technology (some of which seemed quaint even at the time of its release) feels made by human hands, imperfect, inquisitive, daring, emotional and for a movie based on a beloved novel, quite original.
(David Lynch’s original theatrical cut of Dune is now available on Blu-ray.)
Sean Young (or Sean Young, Pariah, as she is apparently billing herself these days) was part of the enormous cast that landed in Mexico City to shoot Dune in 1983. As if to emphasize the humanity behind the spectacle (or folly), the actress herself shot some Super-8 home movies on the set which provide welcome glimpses of many of the principal filmmakers involved. There's lots of footage of people looking happy, especially while eating dinner. This was, after all, a Dino De Laurentiis production, so if anything you have to believe the on-set catering was molto delizioso. (Thanks as always to David Hudson for the tip.)