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Dune (1984)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

DUNE (1984)

Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Sean Young, Jurgen Prochnow, Kenneth McMillan, Freddie Jones, Francesca Annis, Sian Phillips

Written and Directed By: David Lynch

The Short Version

How good Dune is as a movie often depends on how recently you’ve read “Dune,” the book.

Even if it oversimplifies and reduces the story of “Dune,” this film perfectly captures its epic spirit.

You will rarely find a more brilliantly cast movie than this, but you see precious little of the cast.

Do not bother with the “Extended Cut;” this is one case where less is more.

Dune rarely gets the credit it deserves, even from its own director.  This is worth your time.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Orange cheese, spiced up.  Not everyone’s taste, but if it’s yours, it’s yummy.

Pairs Well With...


Spiced rum, naturally.  After all, the spice must flow!

“What’s in the box?”


Few works of modern literature can approach the epic complexity of Frank Herbert’s “Dune.”  It is a work that is literally biblical in scope, and no 20th Century volume can approach its depth outside of Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” (assuming those three books as the single volume which they were intended to be).  Given that, one might consider the task of translating it to film impossible; indeed, many still do.

The impossible task had been in development for quite some time, with many different names attached.  Alejandro Jodorowsky, then Ridley Scott, and then, finally, the task came to David Lynch.  He worked at it for three and a half years (with the film’s full production time being significantly longer still), and the end result was highly anticipated, highly scrutinized, highly criticized, and highly panned, even at points by Lynch himself.  He would, indeed, call Dune the only real failure of his career, and a memory too painful to revisit.

But looking back more than two and a half decades later, is Dune really that bad?

No, it isn’t.

Let’s have a look at our story.

We fade into a starscape, and are greeted by the face of a young woman we will come to know as Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen, Lying in Wait).  She speaks to us to set the stage:

“A beginning is a very delicate time.  Know then that this is the year 10191.  The known universe is ruled by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, my father.  In this time, the most precious substance in the universe is the spice Melange.  The spice extends life.  The spice expands consciousness.  The spice is vital to space travel.  The Spacing Guild and its navigators, who the spice has mutated over 4000 years, use the orange spice gas, which gives them the ability to fold space.  That is, travel to any part of the universe without moving.  

“Oh, yes. I forgot to tell you.  The spice exists on only one planet in the entire universe.  A desolate, dry planet with vast deserts.  Hidden away within the rocks of these deserts are a people known as the Fremen, who have long held a prophecy that a man would come –  a messiah –  who would lead them to true freedom.  The planet is Arrakis, also known as Dune.”

Cue the epic music from Toto and Brian Eno.

After the credits, we learn more about the complex politics surrounding the planet Arrakis.  The universe is governed by various noble Houses under the control of the Emperor, and up until the time of our story, the tyrannical House Harkonnen – led by Baron Vladimir (Kenneth McMillan, Cat’s Eye) – has held administrative control of Arrakis, easily the richest source of wealth in the universe.  Now, however, Emperor Shaddam IV (Jose Ferrer, Moulin Rouge) has turned control of the planet over to the Harkonnens’ sworn enemies: the House Atreides, led by Duke Leto (Jurgen Prochnow, The Seventh Sign). 

The Emperor does this not for any love of the Atreides, though; instead, he is using the maneuver as a means to remove them as a potential threat to his throne.  For once they are on Arrakis, he intends to secretly support the Harkonnens in attacking the planet and wiping out the Atreides under the guise of a longstanding blood feud between Houses.

What no one realizes is that the Fremen of Arrakis have plans of their own, and when Duke Leto’s son, Paul (Kyle MacLachlan, Showgirls), arrives on the planet, they will finally have the messiah they have sought to lead them out of the desert and onward to supremacy…

It has been suggested by some that Dune becomes more enjoyable the farther one is removed from having read the original book.  It has been suggested by others – including some very smart people – that if you haven’t read the book, it’s completely incomprehensible.

I’ll tackle the latter suggestion first, and I’ll do so by saying that I find the idea that Dune is incomprehensible to be ludicrous.  No, it doesn’t hand the audience everything on a platter, and not every detail is fleshed out, but the general story couldn’t be any clearer if David Lynch walked up to you and handed you a cheat sheet (which incredibly, some theatres actually did when this was released).  I can only wonder if these people who complain get confused during cop shows where the detectives wear plain clothes, because without the badges they can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys.  As long you’re paying attention – which shouldn’t be at all difficult to do with all of these great actors and all of this production design eye candy – the story for David Lynch’s Dune may indeed be the most straightforward one he’s ever done.  There’s really nothing more to be said on this point; just watch and listen and it’s easy to follow.

Indeed, this leads to the criticism that flows from the other side of the aisle, wherein many people – usually those who have read the book in all of its vast complexity – say that Dune is in fact far too simple.  This is a concern with a bit more merit to it.  If you are going to judge the movie based on the material in the book, then yes, it is vastly oversimplified, especially with regard to the key concept of Paul as the kwisatz haderach, which this film simply translates as “super being” and equates to someone with essentially godlike powers.  However, being realistic, it would be impossible to film “Dune” in all of its complexity without changing the runtime from two hours and change to two days and change.  It is also worth noting that Frank Herbert himself actually said that he was impressed with the movie and amazed at how many of his concepts David Lynch did manage to cover, with his only real objection being that oversimplification of the kwisatz haderach.  Regardless of any of this, however, it is readily understood that no movie ever perfectly mirrors a book upon which it is based, and most don’t even come close.  With that in mind, if you’re going to judge the movie by the book, realistically, you should probably never bother watching any movie based on a book you’ve already read.  They are separate art forms, and each deserves to be judged on its own independent merits.

And at that point, Dune becomes an amazing achievement.

Even if it doesn’t capture the full scope of the novel’s story, Dune does capture its epic spirit.  The production design is lavish.  The sets are gorgeous, the makeup and costume designs are wonderful, and the only thing holding back the epic score by Toto and Brian Eno is the fact that it wasn’t recorded with 21st Century equipment.  Whatever else one has to say about Dune, it cannot be denied that this movie feels massive, and that its visuals remain arresting even to this day.  The tank of the Guild navigator, the look of the Reverend Mothers, the floating excess of Baron Harkonnen, and the absolute creepiness of Alia’s victory dance just before the climax… these are images that stay with you not just minutes but months afterward.

There is some complaint that is often made about the quality of the special effects at a time that the world had become spoiled by the achievements of Star Wars and Blade Runner, but while Dune may not be top tier for every shot, it’s not a return to Harryhausen, either.  The sandworms in particular are incredible, and again do much to add to the epic feel of the picture.  One can tell where the money started to run out, but one can also tell that people knew where to spend it to make it count the most.  Frankly, looking at the budget and the amount of time over which it had to be spread, it’s astounding that they got the high level of overall quality they did.

Speaking of quality, the cast here is amazing from top to bottom.  Were it not for “Twin Peaks” the following decade, Paul would surely be Kyle MacLachlan’s signature role.  He gives Paul the qualities of an optimistic, confident youth at the start, and hardens to a battle tested warrior by the end.  This evolution is very well played, and at the end of the day, there are simply no complaints to be had here.  Similarly, Jurgen Prochnow is an outstanding patriarch, and Kenneth McMillan puts in a performance that makes him one of science fiction’s more memorable film adversaries.  The supporting cast is absolutely stacked: Patrick Stewart, Freddie Jones, Brad Dourif, Richard Jordan, Max Von Sydow, Dean Stockwell, Sean Young, and more… all formidable leads in their own right, they shine here in the second string, even as the audience laments that, as Stewart would later note, every member of the cast lost at least two significant scenes apiece to the cutting room floor.

However, don’t let that statistic tempt you into thinking that you are then better off watching the “Extended Cut” of Dune, which clocks in at ten minutes beyond three hours.  It is in no way a “Director’s Cut” (Lynch’s “assembly cut,” which was shown to the cast immediately after filming, was longer than the theatrical release, but this is not it, and indeed, that cut has been forever lost); in fact, David Lynch so despised the “Extended Cut” (sometimes also called the “Television Cut”) that he had his name removed from both the writing and directing credits and publicly condemned the longer version.  Having seen the longer version, I’m happy to join him in doing so.  Far from adding to the story, it actually confounds it.  Virginia Madsen’s voiceover is replaced by a man’s voice that sounds like it was recorded as a temporary track; indeed, some of what’s shown in this allegedly “ready for prime time” “Extended Cut” is nothing more than hand sketched drawings tossed into the regular film.  It is, frankly, an atrocity, and very much worthy of all the vitriol tossed its way.  If your copy has both versions, stick with the theatrical release.

Not that David Lynch was entirely happy with the theatrical release that does bear his name, either, mind; it is, he has stated, the only film he’s ever worked on where he didn’t get to approve the final cut himself, and what made it wasn’t what he had ultimately wanted.  He considers it his only real movie failure.

While I can understand a certain frustration with not having his own cut make the screen, I do think he’s being harsh calling Dune a failure.  Taken on its own merits, setting aside the book and setting aside the development and production hell through which it went in order to be made, Dune is actually a very solid science fiction adventure that carries with it a truly epic feel.  The production design is amazing.  The acting is excellent from top to bottom.  Even though simplified from the source material, the plot is complex enough to be interesting, but at the same time, readily comprehensible to any audience that actually pays attention.  It is, in the end, a highly engrossing film.

Bottom line, though it’s often spoken of with disdain, even by its own director, the fact is that Dune is actually a much better movie than it is often credited with being.  Even today, it still carries with it an epic, even majestic quality, and in an era that is populated by more and more cookie cutter movies, it’s nice to come back to one that is willing to break the mold and come out the other side with something unique, something powerful, something visionary.  The “Extended Cut” may indeed be an abomination, but the theatrical release of Dune is most definitely worth your time.

(It is also worth noting that most modern releases that feature the “Extended Cut” also include the theatrical version.)

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011

More From The Bar! | Alien | Dune (2000) | Rollerball (1975) | Krull |

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