The Messy, Misunderstood Glory of David Lynch's Dune

The deeply flawed film version of Frank Herbert's novel was universally hated when it premiered 30 years ago, but it still successfully brought much of the classic sci-fi novel to life.
Universal Pictures

"Fear is the mind-killer," whispers Paul Atreides. "So is this movie," groaned the critics.

When Dune, the adaptation of Frank Herbert's seminal 1965 novel of the same name, was released in December of 1984, it was met with near-unanimous derision. Roger Ebert hated it, hated it. "It took Dune about nine minutes to completely strip me of my anticipation," he said. "This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time." Janet Maslin opened her New York Times review by stating, "Several of the characters in Dune are psychic, which puts them in the unique position of being able to understand what goes on in the movie." Zing!

Starting in 1971, the film burned up millions as it passed through the hands of Planet of the Apes producer Arthur P. Jacobs, Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, and sci-fi maven Ridley Scott before landing in the hands of avant-noir director David Lynch. Jodorowsky’s aborted 10-hour, Salvador Dali-starring, Pink Floyd-scored version is the subject of a new documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune. With that project putting Dune back on nerdkind’s mind this month, it’s worth looking back at Lynch’s film—a deeply flawed work that failed as a commercial enterprise, but still managed to capture and distill essential portions of one of science fiction’s densest works.

Dune was like the anti-Star Wars, undoing everything Lucas's trilogy did to make sci-fi a friendly place. A New Hope took audiences to far away galaxies, sure, but it smoothed the transition into the fantastical with a simple, recognizable tale: A gentle farmhand meets a wise old man and a cowboy, gets himself a sword (of sorts), and goes adventuring. It's almost baffling, in retrospect, that producer Dino de Laurentiis, who bought the rights to the notoriously obtuse Dune project in 1978, one year after Star Wars became a hit, could look at Herbert's novel and think that something as warm, friendly, and accessible could be squeezed from its pages. 

Herbert's book offered a meticulously detailed saga of a dark future where royal houses war for control of the desert planet Arrakis and its precious resource, the spice melange. Fitting all of that tale into movie length proved comically impossible for Jodorowsky. Lynch’s film palpably suffers from numerous cuts and recuts to the final edit, which clocks in at two hours and 17 minutes. So instead of showing not telling the story, the movie relies on a flurry of voiceover and breathy exposition. Like this:

Dune's very language makes the movie almost impenetrable. Within the first 10 minutes, the film bombarded audiences with words like Kwisatz Haderach, landsraad, gom jabber, and sardaukar with little or no context. "Blaster," "x-wing," "droid," and "force" are words for made up things but they're words that we know. "Bene Gesserit" doesn't have quite the same ring as "Jedi." Reciting these words are a cast of characters thoroughly lacking in the human qualities that made even Star Wars’ most alien beings so endearing. There's no Han Solo here to warm up the crowd, just a collection of rigid, weird, off-putting figures speaking in hyper-dramatic, declarative tones. It's hard to come off as less human than a beeping trash can.

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Daniel D. Snyder is a writer based in New Mexico.

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