Raphael Georg Klopper’s review published on Letterboxd:
With the newly upcoming and long-awaited version of Dune coming from the newly-declared visionary mind of Denis Villeneuve approaching this year, I believe there was no better time to arouse some interest around revisiting David Lynch’s original first adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune to movie screen, even if it for the slightest sense of curiosity about how it came to life out of such a cursed production-hell period, and all the mostly known bad reputation of being a disastrous result of an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi magnum opus novel. And yes definitely a deeply flawed, both as an adaptation and a movie of its own, but not without its appealing charm, that manages to bring forth some real sense of wonderment towards its complex lore, vast universe and compelling epic story.
The thing that makes Lynch’s Dune so interesting at first glance is how it, deliberately, feels like a movie so almost completely devoid of itself. As if it almost immediately assumed the strangeness characteristic that comes from Herbert's novel, and which has already served as inexhaustible arguments about how impossible it would be to bring this to the screen in a tenuous cinematic structure. Where the first scene is literally a random giant head of a character that barely has any lines in the rest of the film – the Princess Irulan from Virginia Madsen - explaining the basic of the basic dynamic of the Dune universe (which is a proper reference to the novel given how each chapter begins with a quote from the same character).
Explaining all about what’s the spice melange and its substantial value for the universe and human existence; the quarrels between the feudal houses of the Atreides and the Harkonnen; who are the Space guild, benders of time and space travel, or the Bene Gesserit, the sorcerers concubines, etc; And even at that basic level, you might get lost with this much lore being introduced in just a few seconds and later demanding your attention throughout the rest of the movie crazy logics of melting space travels, mind powers and people riding giant warms, all into one. Consolidated in the most direct and simple way Lynch, or the producers that edited this after his withdrawal from the directing, could drawn the film as marketable as possible.
For that alone you, may consider it as the feet that years non-end trying to get this film made, as being their main goal to achieve, simplify and sell the complex universe and narrative of Dune - which it still seems impossible. While it passed through the hands of Alejandro Jodorowsky insanely ambitious project that never stood a chance to get made at the time, to a post-Alien Ridley Scott that almost got through before his brother Frank Scott passed away, to then fall over the laps of David Lynch who were only but starting in his filmmaking career and coming at the heels of the successes like his experimental surreal disturbing masterpiece of Eraserhead and the character drama slash monster film The Elephant Man, getting embedded with praise and success from all sides, so here that they give him the job to finally adapt Dune.
Knowing the director’s record nowadays you can just feel the ironic joke and preposterous idea of having David Lynch of all people helming a million dollars blockbuster sounds, and the result speaks for itself. But by that time, he was an upcoming new talent showing off in the industry with a unique artistic voice that own nothing to anyone in respect to his inspirations and style, as all came from his own insane artist psychedelic mind coming from his current background in painting and music, and cinema being only but a initial hobby for him, though shown with an immense knack for it as being the place he could most find it to experiment in diverse forms of visual and narrative insanity that his mind could conjure up.
And Eraserhead, being till this day considered one main core forefather of science-fiction in cinema with heavy philosophical as surreal undertones, so in theory he really seems like one of the really right persons to helm what Dune is by essence. But here’s the thing…Lynch doesn’t do anything for anyone in regards to projects, and all that he sets his hands on will inevitably become a Lynch film, no matter what. It is even questionable whether or not Lynch even knew anything about Frank Herbert and his work before taking on the film, or whether he even read the book thoroughly after admitting that he had never even heard of Dune even after he had agreed to take on the project.
But, strangely enough, given the narrative integrity built up here, the film remains, to some extent, pretty close to the underlying story structure from the novel pretty faithfully, and to some extent slightly consistently – now whether that was by producers' demands or Lynch's own intention is another question that will never be answered; that is, before the movie derails completely by the later half that completely sinks the movie into a whole of loose ideas and blurred pretentions. While leaving all the deeply religious and philosophical characteristics revolved around the entirety of the story and its complex layers exploring a dystopian future immersed in religious fanatism, science and Technology becoming powerful cults of their own, and with characters unraveling through themes of duty, faith, honor and power, all hitted here, but just below a real superficial level.
With the story walking a thin line of carrying and showing the potentials of becoming a real Shakespearean sci-fi opera at parts, reaching for the best dramatic portions of the original novel, even alluding to a ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ feel where the path of the chosen one taken here – or in Dune language: the “Kwisatz Haderach” formation of Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) takes him to become a messianic figure by becoming the head leader of a tribe of rebels from the sands, training and weaponizing them against a common enemy – which was Herbert’s own main inspiration to the story for the first book.
While also showing Lynch trying to make a film of his own, with his own ideas and visions towards (and beyond) Herbert’s writings, making changes and giving new original takes for some of the novel’s most famous elements like turning the ‘Weirding Way’ – the fighting ability of the Atreides warriors training coming from the Prana Bindu technique of supreme control of nerve and muscles (you’re scratching your head rereading this part right?! that's what happens when try to explain Dune out loud for someone), and making it into a…Weirding Module, a sonic weapon controlled by yelling.
Which have zero to nothing to do with the book, but I must admit they’re kind of cool seeing from a sci-fi escapist perspective. Though having no scientific logic whatsoever like in the novels where everything was part of complex tangle of human evolved biology, and goes to become here basically Lynch’s own version of ‘the force’, which is super-powers through yelling… all the good guys in this movie are Black Canaries basically.
As in the same measure, the movie recreates dialogues and entire scenes taking straight from the books and translated page to screen downright perfectly. While in the other hand also completely changing scenarios, characterizations and the freaking ending to some obnoxious melodramatic final outcome that’s as laughably corny as kind of lamely mesmerizing – and making some sort of sense taking the more heavy messianic leaning that the film takes over the character of Paul and his hero’s journey. That despite is conventional and even clichéd traces of the story and the hero’s journey tropes, though well... Dune was the novel that invented and launched those very same clichés into popular culture literature in the first place.
So finally adapting it, was a sure bet, as it is for the new upcoming version today, to make what can be the new Star Wars of today, but for grown-ups (as it was how they defined the film’s promise back in the day), and frankly having ALL the elements for such – as the very own Star Wars wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Dune. But the result is this tangle of back and forth levels of intriguing quality that forms the structure of Dune, leading never to a certain note of either completely good, neither completely bad.
The first 30 to 40 minutes of film are surprisingly solid and mainly consistent, surprisingly capturing the exact feeling of the book when you read it. For the casual movie viewer, it may come off either too slow or meandering as it glances over some of Herbert’s interesting inner reflections, as it might be too afraid to touch upon them in the first place. Outlining and mixing all the best parts of the novel into highlight, but without any build up stitched between then. Which is exactly what heavily comes to effect the other half of the film till the end, in a too hurried fast paced rhythm, turning the initial epic crescendo feel of the film (which I’m sure it became Lynch’s personal vision at a point for the story), into a series of blend montages of big spectacular scenes with no meaningful resonance in then.
Another result of how they excised numerous scenes, filmed new ones that simplified or concentrated entire plot elements, and added the voice-over narrations that, though pretty obnoxious for some, are actually not so much distracting as give some surprising and welcoming extra nuances to some of the characters that barely get a proper development throughout the movie, and even serve to give the film an extra literary touch that does not feel intrusive or off-putting, rather turns the superficial level of its ideas become almost lyrical.
Where the superficiality of the world becomes intrinsic element inside the knowledge of this universe, as it becomes the expression of ideas being thrown on the screen, of interpretations and ideas melting together into one form of cinematic expression. And that coming from an insane mind like Lynch is ought to be the very least imaginative and hook your eyes into it. Which it does pretty well given some of the atrocities that is said about the movie, and do happen, mostly revolved around the character of the Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) and his gang of goofy over the top red-headed villains, including an animalistic scene stealing Sting as Feyd Rautha.
Which all basically come as a result of a pretty blurred vision that evolves the entirety of the film, where you don’t know where the Lynch intentions and the studio demands ends or begins, making everything muddled and confusing, just on the tone level itself. The two Laurentiis - Raffaella De Laurentiis and her father Dino De Laurentiis, were definitely aiming for the big new brand franchise to conquer box office, making the new Star Wars of fantasy and war, heroes and villains in space.
While Lynch was there for the experimental nature of everything, and he manages to fit some of his hallucinogenic mind trips of its own, delivering that extra layer of a surreal nature for the film that seems to aim in trying create this bare image of past, future and present melting into one and reaching a transcendental level of existence of faith in something that can awaken the human abilities to god-like levels. Taking the literal words of the character of Leto Atreides (from a pretty solid though underused Jürgen Prochnow) “Without change, something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken” - to a pretty foreground literal meaning, as it was part in the original book, and somehow, paying close respect to Herbert’s writings, even if in his own way.
The film definitely has the crazy spirit and the insane mindset of the novels, but far from having the slightest of the same potential depth. Taking its core ideas of revolution and question the idea of power and who rules it, Becoming here basically a story about a half-Shakespearean Hamlet-esq tragedy, to then turn into a pop-rock adventure about a bunch blue-eyed drugged rockers overthrowing an opulent fascist government by the power of SHOUTING. With blend heroes, hollow love interests (poor Sean Young), over the top silly villains, really bad action blockbuster film with lots of running, shooting, explosions that seems lost as their characters and the ideas behind it.
On a technical level, the film is both a visionary marvel, and a messy realization. Freddie Francis’s cinematography has some genuinely mesmerizing moments – especially when we get the Lynch flavor exploding on the screen. The vast range of different appealing costumes that range from modern military, feudal renascence and cyberpunk leather outfits perfectly captures the diverse futuristic nature of the novels. The use of a semi-4:3 aspect ratio and the rustic looking scenery in a often luxurious production design all seem trying to allude for a Cecil B. DeMille epic in the likes of Ten Commandments, especially in the big battle sequences with thousands of real extras invading the screen, even if for brief underused seconds.
But at the same time all the background blue screen shots and effects are really iffy, and all the space sequences look so dated even for the time.. At a positive counterpoint, all foreground miniatures props and scenarios are gorgeous, and the iconic giant warms look impressive even today. Even the space-guild navigators giant poops looks like something that evolved out of Eraserhead’s mutant baby and reached a dystopian evolution that definitely look impressive. The soundtrack by Toto is dope as epic, heavily evocative orchestral melted with punk rock.
All being written here may just sound all so confusing and undefined, which frankly is kind of what the film is. You can pick point all day anything that’s wrong about it as also pointing the cool interesting stuff that’s here and the really great story lying underneath it. That in the end, makes us love and admire Frank Herbet’s novel even more, because it manages to make us see the story how the people behind the film sees it: epic, grand and evocative.
The actors definitely care for it, with Kyle MacLachlan really shining in his first major movie role and nailing the young Paul Atreides persona. And accompanied with some major star power spread through in the film that range from Francesca Annis, Patrick Stewart, Max von Sydow, among others that, though barely having any character explored, carry memorable weight in their acting. Hell, even Kenneth McMillan, as (purposefully?!) awful as he is here, he's definitely devouring the scene and having a gran old time flying and screaming around.
The final great triumph of Lynch’s film is that ultimately turns it, amidst all its unevenness and messy construction, downright memorable and kind of special. It was the inadaptable book, the impossible film to get made, one of the most troubled productions ever, and yet… it got made and survives as is its own thing, as an epic adventure with 80s feel with epic old school as surreal author aspirations. Does it all work together? Probably not, but it is cool!