DUNE (1984): Two Cents… To The Stars! – Roundtable Reviews [Two Cents]

Two Cents is a Cinapse original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team curates the series and contribute their “two cents” using a maximum of 200-400 words. Guest contributors and comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future picks. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion. Would you like to be a guest contributor or programmer for an upcoming Two Cents entry? Simply watch along with us and/or send your pitches or 200-400 word reviews to [email protected].

The Pick: Dune (1984) – Kicking off SPACE MONTH!

To celebrate the much-anticipated second half of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune, we are going to be exploring the stars this month. That’s right, a whole month of films that take place in the far reaches of space. And it’s only fitting that we kick it off with the first major motion picture adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic.

Featured Guest

Nathan Flynn

It is widely known among my friends and colleagues, that I’m often an archaeologist searching for gold in disowned or dismissed films. I take quick delight in defending cinematic works that others are quick to criticize. So, it’s no surprise that I’ve always found myself quite smitten by David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s iconic sci-fi novel, ‘Dune.’ Its flaws are glaringly evident from a first viewing. Lynch grapples with the Herculean task of condensing Herbert’s expansive world and narrative into a single feature film under three hours, resulting in all the inevitable pacing issues and baffling narrative shortcuts one could expect. Yet, if you can push past all the narrative shortcomings, I find that there’s an undeniable audacity to Lynch’s approach, especially in comparison to the newest adaptation. Villeneuve’s decision to split the story into two parts is undeniably the best decision to counter the challenges inherent in adapting such a sprawling epic.

However, Lynch compensates for his lack of coherent storytelling with truly indelible visuals on par with some of his best works and a mesmerizing musical score by Toto, which imbues ‘Dune’ (1984) with an atmosphere unlike any other film. For those who refuse to acknowledge style as substance, you might find a lot to appreciate in the early performances by Kyle MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart, and Sting, which oscillate between bizarre and brilliant. So, despite Lynch’s apparent disavowal of the film, there’s an enduring allure to certain moments within ‘Dune’ that linger in my memory long after the credits roll. These images serve as a testament to Lynch’s unique vision, reminding film freaks like myself that even in failure, there can be moments of pure cinematic transcendence.

(@nathanflynn on X)

The Team

Ed Travis

I’m not entirely sure how or why David Lynch’s Dune was introduced to me at a pretty young age, but I feel like this is one of those movies that’s kind of always been with me. I’ve probably seen it half a dozen times over the decades and have likely seen both the theatrical and the longer cut each a couple of times. I was grateful on this revisit to check out the Arrow 4K disc and let this bizarre experience wash over me once again in the most glorious format possible today.

Because Lynch’s Dune has been with me since childhood, I never knew a damn thing about its critical reception or box office. It was my introduction to the world of Dune; my gateway. And I have always been fascinated by it. At some point in my twenties I read the original book, and I was absolutely blown away by Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One as well. So I guess I’m a Dune-head to some degree? Someday I’ll read all of Herbert’s original books to really go full Dune.

But I give all that backstory to say that Lynch’s Dune has always worked for me as a tale that truly transports me to another world full of bizarre wonder and captivating imagery. It might have to speed through a ton of narrative, but it tells a complete arc. Toto and Brian Eno’s music for the film is triumphant and never fails to perhaps draw me in emotionally in a way the film wouldn’t otherwise without that music that will forever echo in my brain. Lynch’s weirdness may have perhaps doomed the box office of the film, but respectfully, fuck all that. Lynch’s weirdness was perfectly suited to Herbert’s bizarre tale and if this is the only large scale studio tentpole blockbuster we ever get from Lynch, at least it is filled to the brim with unforgettable imagery and a cast to die for. Maybe it’s a little rushed, maybe it covers way too much narrative ground in too short of a time, or wraps up a little abruptly. But it stands the test of time in defiance of its initial reception and challenging production as a sharply debated work from one of our most bold and bizarre and compassionate filmmakers to ever do it. He IS the Kwisatz Haderach.

(@Ed_Travis on X)

Austin Vashaw

My experience with Lynch’s Dune is almost the complete opposite of Ed’s. I never watched this growing up and only became aware of the books and film when I was high school. As a fan of science fiction in general it appealed to me, but I didn’t actually watch the film until a few years later, at the time a fledgling cinephile who barely knew the name David Lynch and certainly didn’t recognize his cameo as the comm guy on the spice harvester.

Unfortunately I can only describe my first viewing as a massive disappointment. The film made little sense to me and more than anything I was dumbfounded at how it hurtles through some important developments. It felt like in one moment, Paul Atreides was rescued in the desert by the Fremen, then 30 seconds later he was their messianic leader, and romantically bound to Chani. I rewound and rewatched this segment several times trying to make sense of what the hell was going on – had weeks passed? Years? The musical score is independently epic and wonderful, but used so repetitively and ill-fittingly that it undermines the story that it should be enhancing, making it sleepy and drawing attention to the story’s incoherence instead.

I intentionally waited until watching both Parts 1 and 2 of Villeneuve’s remake before revisiting the Lynch film, and while the new telling is more measured, cohesive, and ultimately the superior take, I was surprised to find that both interpretations enhance the other. Understanding the plot laid out in Villeneuve’s version helped me put aside the incoherence in Lynch’s take, and a lot of the cool details that Lynch included explain some of the mechanics glossed over in Villeneuve’s world. Each is better for having seen the other.

From the other side of this analysis, one thing that I can certainly appreciate is Lynch’s ability and dedication to getting into some of the weird, gross, and subversive shit that make the film both fascinating and off-putting: characters with purple-stained lips, blood-spewing heart plugs, and enormous yellow pus-filled boils, and most perplexingly the “Guild Navigator” (which I assumed to be some sort of alien, but reading up on this lore is pretty interesting – this mutated superhuman is presented in the film as floating manatee anus potato with little to no explanation).

It’s still pretty flawed and badly paced, but I definitely had a much better time with Lynch’s Dune this time around, and I dug that watching both versions of the tale makes each a better and complementary experience with this world.

(@VforVashaw on X)

Julian Singleton

My first experience with Dune wasn’t via Frank Herbert’s original novel or Villeneuve’s lauded first half of an adaptation, but in crossing off the last film before I could complete David Lynch’s filmography. I’d heard plenty of people tear down Lynch’s film as an ambitious mess flawed from frame one–yet it took finally watching Dune for me to realize that may be the thing about the film I love the most.

Right from Princess Irulan’s (Virginia Madsen) “Oh, I forgot, also this” bizarrely delivered prologue, pacing is not the strong suit of this picture. While a few key scenes breathe well–Paul’s shield training, the rescue mission from the spice harvester–exposition is breathlessly delivered without given time to register emotionally. The film threatens to slip from Lynch’s grasp the deeper we get into Dune–none more so than once Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) and Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis) are exiled from Arrakeen, join the Fremen, and learn their ways in the deserts of Arrakis. By this point, the film is roughly 40 minutes from its conclusion and we’ve finally reached where Denis Villeneuve would stop in his 2.5-hour “Part One,” despite being an hour shorter. Even with its copious amount of deleted scenes, later assembled in an Extended Edition without Lynch’s involvement, the haters of Lynch’s Dune make their strongest point for why one shouldn’t waste their time with the film at all.

But even amid the plot bursting at the seams, the nearly entirely practical world of Dune is stunningly realized by Lynch and his production team. Even competing with Return of the Jedi the year before (which Lynch turned down in favor of this), Dune is full of stunning visuals. An early favorite is the towering, grotesque Spice Navigator–a person so wholly transformed from abusing spice and folding time and space that they’re contained in an aquarium the size of a freight car. Belching smoke from its orifices and suspended in smog, the repulsive puppet deftly illustrates not just the consequences of abusing this coveted object but also the twisted ethos at the core of all of the non-Fremen colonizers Arrakis. No expense seems to have been spared in the model work and effects design, which communicate the sheer scale of Frank Herbert’s worlds in sequences that still hold up today–and were openly referenced in crafting Villeneuve’s adaptation. 

The ensemble cast is also so totally game for the bonkers lingo of Herbert’s book–having not realized the sheer amount of star power (mostly in hindsight) in this, it was such a delight to see Agent Cooper, Jean-Luc Picard, Father Merrin, and the Submarine Captain from Das Boot fly spaceships to rescue David Lynch himself from a giant sandworm.

It’s also fascinating as a fan of Lynch that, for how much he’s disowned this film, certain visual motifs have continued to appear in his work. Dune’s hallucinatory illustration of folding space can be seen as a progenitor of the Trinity Test sequence in Episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return, with the overwhelming sensory chaos that results of eagerly messing with cosmic forces one doesn’t understand. 

And as much as the back half of Dune can give anyone whiplash if they attempt to keep up with the truncated storyline, Lynch’s go-for-broke visuals and a fucking awesome score by Toto and Brian Eno make the whole rebellion feel on par with Lucas, Spielberg, and Cameron. Plus riding some amazing-looking worm puppets into battle! Sting pulling his best Malcolm McDowell impression! A creepy, dagger-wielding, dubbed-over cosmos child smiling as she spins in the flames of a crumbling empire! As easy as it is to hate or write off Dune, there’s so, so much to love about it as well. 

(@gambit1138 on X)

Jon Partridge

Dune (1984) has always struck me as the Marmite of movies, you either love it or you hate it. A constrained adaptation of a revered (and often considered unfilmable) text. Certainly flawed in its script and construct, hampered by a vision not met by the technology of the time. But, it holds an undeniable allure. A blockbuster epic, but one dealing with complex themes of religion and ecology, free-will and fate, politics and power, and brought to life by David Lynch (The Elephant Man, Eraserhead, Twin Peaks). Of course it wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Even if you dislike it, you can’t help but feel admiration for the fact that it not only takes a swing at such a dense story, but that it actually exists.
Frank Herbert’s bestselling sci-fi epic Dune is a dense tome. Layers, imbued with history, culture, and detail. A story burgeoning over with roots in thousands of years of buildup, and one that would continue on with a series of further novels. Adaptation is an unenviable task. In the aftermath of Star Wars, and studio efforts to craft new sci-fi saga, Dune is frankly too dense, detailed, and dour.  A New Hope is essentially a romp about a farm boy rescuing a Princess from a castle. Dune is about the elevation of a man to God-hood, while touching on religion, colonialism, ecology, racial and sexual equality, and more. Lynch’s execution is hampered by structure, cuts, editing, and technological limitations of the time. Voiceovers and exposition, inner monologues to help propel the film forward, explain what the hell is going on, or to try and convey motives of thousands of years of political maneuvering and power plays. On top of this, we have an additional layer of Lynch’s particular brand of creativity, which some will love (it me), and some will sit less easily with. Dune is very dry (no pun intended), characters have little warmth or relatability (save Patrick Stewart and his pug). A kinky, perverse vibe permeates proceedings especially in all matters Harkonen. Production and design choices speak to advanced technology, but are rooted in eclectic designs and props clearly lifted from the 80s. 

It all sounds negative and daunting, but there is something alluringly enigmatic about it all. Even as it is clunky, the sense of grandeur and scope shine through when it counts. Visuals are weird and wonderful, from the hallucinogenic sequences with guild navigators to the looming sense of scale that comes from the brilliant deployment of miniatures and matte paintings. Harvesters dwarfed by sandworms, spaceships dwarfed by carrying vessels, people diminished by the looming architecture around them. You truly feel a sense of scale, not just visually, but like you are getting a small part of a larger picture. A rewatch pointed me at the bookshelf to take down my copy of Herbert’s tome to take a deeper dive into this universe. Lynch’s effort is undeniably compromised, but it makes up for it with creativity.

(@Texas_Jon on X)

Justin Harlan

I have extremely distinct memories of Dune from my childhood. Though, I only realized exactly where the memories were from many years later. I think I’d conflated scenes in Dune with scenes from the original Star Wars trilogy in my head when I was quite young and blended them together. In high school, when they released the Special Edition trilogy in theaters I realized that some of the scenes I remembered must not have been from Star Wars at all, at which point I rented and rewatched Dune and started putting the pieces together.

While the Jodorowsky fan in me certainly mourns the fact we never got the original vision, I genuinely enjoy Lynch’s Dune from start to finish, even where it feels lacking. The new films shine a light on exactly what the original screen adaptation was missing, but it remains a fun watch and a relic of its time. In fact, despite having watched the Star Wars films far more over my life, I think there’s a quality to the Lynch Dune film that may make it more fun for me than any of the Star Wars films – at least when considered in a vacuum… as I love the cinematic world building of the grandest space opera franchise of all time, as it were).

The one thing that has caught me offguard as an adult is the whispered dialogue. Being married to someone with misophonia – which makes certain sounds, often mouth sounds, unbearable – I’ve noticed the way this can become extremely grating in ways I definitely didn’t until the past few years. Nonetheless, I will always have a place in my heart and in my rotation for Lynch’s 80s gem.

(@thepaintedman on X)

Jay Tyler

This was my first time watching Dune, and it certainly clarified some things about it as a cultural object. The impression I always got was that it was Lynch’s one stab at entering the world of big-budget, accessible filmmaking. And in some ways that’s true; Dino De Laurentis and Paramount’s desire to have their own “Star Wars for grown ups” makes a lot of since in an 1984 sense. The sweeping narrative has a lot of space to dig your fingers deep into, and it is fascinating to watch Villeneuve and Lynch’s takes in such close proximity to see the ways they both approach the source material from radically different positions. Villeneuve is much more invested in telling a ground-view war story from the perspective of an oppressed peoples; Lynch takes a maximalist, macro view where the Fremen are mostly a pawn in a larger colonial power struggle. By contrast, Lynch can’t help but linger in the stranger, more unknowable parts of the universe, seemingly delighted by things like the hyper-mutated space navigators and the unnerving energy of a child with ancient wisdom.

Of course the other big benefit Villeneuve has over Lynch is pacing, able to spread the story out over two entire films (which apparently was Lynch’s initial desire, but he ended up condensing.) This leads to the 1984 film having an uneven start-and-stop pacing, giving time to luxuriate in the world before it has to rocket through plot points. Sometimes it over explains itself. See the opening, a to-audience monologue delivered by Virginia Madsen’s disembodied head that lays out the entire Atreides-Harkonen-Shaddam triangle. But then sometimes the film crosses over years in the span of a cut. Lynch’s choices to linger on certain moments and gloss over others can be frustrating. But to a degree, is there anything more Lynchian than a sci-fi space epic that eschews large portions of necessary exposition?

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film as a stop point in Lynch’s filmography is the discovery of Kyle McLachlan, one of his most frequent collaborators. The most fascinating part is that it isn’t just McLachlan’s first Lynch project. It’s his first film at all, period. The boldness of placing an entire film on the shoulders of an actor who never has appeared in a feature film is a bold choice. Luckily McLachlan is most up to the task, dialing it up and down as needed. But his performance and usage here is so much less evocative than Lynch will utilize him in Blue Velvet only two years later. The cast across the board is filled with all-timers, from true legends like Patrick Stewart and Max von Sydow, so steady character actor work from the likes of Dean Stockwell and Paul Smith. I was also under the impression there was way more Sting in this film that there ends up being; he just makes a maximum impression every time he shows up.

It’s easy to see why Dune was so maligned on its initial release. As a crowd-pleasing sci-fi epic it’s too weird and muddled to appeal, but isn’t as evocative in it’s dream-like qualities as Lynch’s work before or after. But it is certainly distinctive, making big swings throughout. So while the hit ratio of what “works” in the movie might be a bit off, it’s hard to fully dismiss it as a failure because of its expansive intention. Plus if going through the Hollywood machine is what convinced Lynch to spend the rest of his career to making distinct, idiosyncratic work might mean making this misshapen epic was worth it.

(@jaythecakethief on X)

Upcoming Picks in: Two Cents… to the Stars!

The Black Hole
John Carter

Previous post When the Authors Went to Hollywood [THE CARPETBAGGERS & THE LAST TYCOON]
Next post SXSW2024: The Cinapse Team’s Most Anticipated Film & TV Picks