Dune, the notorious 1984 flop directed by David Lynch, deserves serious reappraisal. When first released, the movie disappointed fans of the Frank Herbert novel, baffled American critics, and swiftly disappeared. About the only people who didn’t detest it (though even they were lukewarm) were admirers of Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, the only other features Lynch had directed at the time.
Lynch’s fans, dutifully justifying what they consider a megabudget anomaly in an otherwise offbeat ouevre, have stuck to a party line: “Dune isn’t really a David Lynch film. He was a hired hand for producer Dino DeLaurentiis. Anyone could’ve directed it.” Not true. Dune is loaded with Lynchian oddities, which, in the context of a $40 million sci-fi epic, seem extremely odd. This isn’t just one of the weirdest sci-fi movies ever; it may well be the weirdest David Lynch film ever.
During the first half hour of Dune, you really feel sorry for Lynch, who has to shoehorn Frank Herbert’s entire mythos into a series of exposition scenes to get us up to speed. This happened, then this happened, and this is important to everything that’s going to happen …. It’s headsplitting, and Lynch resorts to corny inner monologues that only add to the movie’s surrealism. Typically, characters look serious while we hear a pensée like “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.”
Kyle MacLachlan, later the indelible Lynchian hero of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, made his screen debut here as Paul Atreides, who leads the people of Arrakis (Dune) out of the clutches of the evil Harkonnens, who control the valuable spice mines of Dune. The spice enables one to “fold space” (travel without moving) or receive divine visions — both of which are right up Lynch’s hallucinatory alley. The movie is as trippy and visually dense as Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
If, like me, you’ve previously only seen Dune on a cropped, pan-and-scan video, you’ve only seen half of it. The widescreen version is a revelation. The compositions, by cinematographer Freddie Francis, embrace the most ravishing desert vistas this side of The English Patient. And you finally get to bask in the elaborate sets, which presumably ate most of the $40 million (pricey in its day). The money obviously went into the sets, not into the semi-cheesy special effects.
Then there’s the unmistakable hand of David Lynch. Dune is as lovably absurd (absurdist?) and strikingly perverse as any Lynch film. When the hideous Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth MacMillan in a raucous turn that anticipates Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth) has captured Paul’s mother, he informs her, “I want to spit on your head,” then goes right ahead. My favorite Lynchian shot among many in Dune is a tight close-up of Dean Stockwell’s mouth as he intones, “The tooth! The tooth!” The movie is insane; it’s textbook Lynch.
Most surreal of all, though, is the voice-channeling method of combat the heroes employ, called “the weirding way”; it’s weird, all right — it sounds like nuclear sneezing. My Closed Captioning translates it as “Chusah!” Gesundheit.