by Colin Kiddine
Dune was one of those books that blew my twelve-year-old mind. It was something that was more than the sum of its parts, something that Frank Herbert used to explore questions of politics, gender, sexuality, economics, environmentalism, religion, why it sucks to be a messiah—and simpler questions, too, like, “What do you do when a grotesquely fat floating dude murders your dad?”
The sheer scope of the book is something that can only be appreciated when you re-read it more than once. Which is probably why it took so friggin’ long to make a film out of it. And also why it turned out to be a hot, surreal mess. But when it’s a hot, surreal mess written and directed by the likes of David Lynch, I guess it’s to be expected.
Dune follows the story of Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) developing into his role as the messianic Kwisatz Haderach, a universal super-being with the power of prophecy and supreme mental control. With a premise like that, it’s difficult to know where to begin when describing this film, and that’s largely because of how the script was written.
The problem with Dune as a film adaptation is the same one the Lord of the Rings trilogy had. The original novel is absolutely epic in scope. And David Lynch definitely tried to take on too much; the film’s structure is convoluted and messy to the point of eating itself. Even as a reader of the book, I almost drowned in this film.
Lynch’s overreaching is responsible for most of the film’s flaws. Characters have definite personalities, but don’t have much development beyond “good” and “evil.” It’s hard to overestimate how much of a blow the lack of characterization is. In the books, even the most fleeting of secondary characters had definable traits and motivations. The film definitely sacrifices that on the altar of Making Things Pretty, but oh, how pretty they are. With the exception of certain eyebrows.
Dune is an exceptionally well-shot film. So much effort has been put into the sets and the costumes that Lynch could almost—almost—be forgiven for the lack of world-building the film so desperately needs. Special effects, on the other hand, leave a lot to be desired. I get that this is an 80s film, and nobody’s expecting Star Wars, but someone please tell me that this doesn’t look ridiculous:
The acting is uneven, to say the least. Paul’s principal nemesis, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, was sketched in the book as a cunning, controlled, and utterly ruthless man who was dangerous mostly because he was willing to do what others weren’t. In the film, the Baron is a caricature of insanity. In his opening scene, he…well, if you’ve seen the film, you know just how much it sucks to be one of the Baron’s flower arrangers.
Also, Sting is in this film. I feel like everyone who ever gave Sting an acting role should be charged with a criminal misdemeanour. To his credit, though, Sting wears clothes in his other roles. Like, all the time. We ain’t that lucky with this one.
Not all the acting is terrible, though. Kyle MacLachlan’s performance is pretty dang good. He shows Paul’s growth from teenager to messiah with just the right amount of gravitas. Francesca Annis, in her role as Lady Jessica, is smooth and melancholic, and it’s a pity she doesn’t get more screen time. Weirdly enough, Patrick Stewart is cast in this film as Gurney Halleck, and his bald pate is as magnificent as it ever was.
At the end of the day, Dune the book is about possibility, where a shade of judgement to the left or right has profound consequences for everyone involved. Lynch’s mistake was not just trying to do too much for a two-hour film; he paints the story’s themes with the broad strokes of surrealism, when Dune is not at all a surrealist story.
If Dune is about possibility, then David Lynch’s take on it is a demonstration of unrealized possibility—potential that is drowned in a sea of pretty images and convoluted writing. But, as Frank Herbert wrote, we should be prepared to appreciate what we meet. I can appreciate Dune the film for what it tries to be, but like Paul Atreides, I had hoped for so much more.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 10.