❉ Andy Murray revisits David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic, and finds it’s not a bad film by any means.
“In the light of what followed, it’s easy to agree that Dune isn’t exactly Lynchian. Shudder to think, but presumably there’s a parallel universe where the disappointment of Dune caused him to jack in the film-making lark completely and spend his days painting and making furniture. In our reality, he’s never been near sci-fi or mega-bucks budgets again, and – Wild at Heart aside – he’s avoided adapting anyone else’s existing work.”
Dune is so epic that beyond the story itself – that is, Frank Herbert’s original 1965 novel – there are a host of satellite stories about adapting it. A new film version from Denis Villeneuve is set to be released in October, and, seizing the moment, Arrow are now issuing a limited edition Blu-ray of David Lynch’s 1984 big-screen adaptation.
It’s fair to say that, as Wikipedia might put it, Lynch’s version received mixed reviews. Certainly it appears to have been a turning point in his career. During a recent video-link Q&A at HOME in Manchester, the great man often expounded on many different aspects of his creative process, only to pause for a beat before adding “…with the exception of Dune”. As a large scale, big budget sci-fi spectacular, it stands out like a sore thumb on Lynch’s CV, which is saying something for a man whose other career detours include the story of a severely deformed exhibit at a Victorian freak show and an American pensioner riding over 200 miles on a lawnmower to see his brother.
In the light of what followed, it’s easy to agree that Dune isn’t exactly Lynchian. Shudder to think, but presumably there’s a parallel universe where the disappointment of Dune caused him to jack in the film-making lark completely and spend his days painting and making furniture. In our reality, he’s never been near sci-fi or mega-bucks budgets again, and – Wild at Heart aside – he’s avoided adapting anyone else’s existing work.
However, the crisp, handsome transfer on this new Blu-ray release lays Dune open for the viewer’s contemplation, and in truth, it’s not a bad film by any means. Visually it can be staggering, offering up a seriously opulent spectacle that’s endlessly inventive and which goes a long way to conjuring an alien world – several of them, in fact. In its own way it’s proved influential, too: You can pretty much put money on Russell T Davies drawing on the eerie Guild Navigator to create both Doctor Who‘s Face of Boe and Torchwood‘s 456. The lush sound design works well, too, and on balance the Toto soundtrack is a unlikely but creditable fit.
For its duration, then, Dune succeeds in immersing the viewer in a universe that’s truly operatic in scale and coherent in tech and aesthetic So how come it wasn’t hailed as a masterpiece? In truth it falls between a whole host of stools. It’s a David Lynch film, except it kind of isn’t. It follows in the slipstream of Star Wars, except it doesn’t. (Quite apart from the impact Frank Herbert’s novel had on George Lucas, the decidedly sandy Return of the Jedi, which Lynch turned down an offer to direct, was released only a year before, thereby wrapping up the saga, or so it seemed, and leaving a vacuum that Dune seems keen to fill.)
In some ways, the mid-70s attempt to film the book by Jodorowsky, so legendary it became the subject of its own feature-length 2013 documentary, would have made a lot more sense, in an era when sci-fi films were free to be more weird and wonderful. Post Star Wars, studios obviously had an eye on the main chance where space battles, alien creatures and intergalactic royalty wielding high-tech swords were concerned. To be fair, Lynch – as screenwriter here, as well as director – does an admirable job of condensing Herbert’s sprawling saga down to feature length, but in doing so he uses some highly curious techniques. Most notably, many characters’ thoughts are heard in voice-over, which hints at telepathy in a fitting sort of way, but it can also feel like clunky, unnecessary telling-not-showing.
More crucially, it’s not a film that engages and compels its audiences. Yes, it’s a fascinating universe to get lost in, but the characters and their stories are oddly uninvolving and there’s rarely much sense of real jeopardy – not the kind that you could explain in words, anyway. At times, it sails beyond ‘baffling’ straight on into ‘batshit’ – something that Lynch would go on to become a master of, in fact, but at this stage he still seems to be working out what his strengths are. Ultimately, enabling him to do so might be Dune‘s greatest contribution to his oeuvre. (One comment made in the extras here, namely that Lynch was more interested in the monstrous House Harkonnen than the nice-but-bland House Atreides, seems like a canny foretaste of his later work.)
Telling, present-day Lynch is nowhere to be seen on the extras on this set, which in general are decent rather than exciting. Most date back to earlier releases, such as the 40-minute documentary made back in 2003. (A exclusive new feature-length documentary was initially announced for this set, but it seems to have been pulled for reasons unknown.) As it stands, the second disc of bonus features now contains just a couple of short new documentaries, one looking at the soundtrack, the other detailing the tie-in merchandising fronted by Toys That Made Us producer Brian Stillman – the latter having great fun as it rams the point home that licensees really do seem to have been expecting the next Star Wars. Bless them.
The packing here, boasting new artwork, reproduction lobby cards and an accompanying book of essays, is suitably lavish, and all told it’s something close to an ultimate release of Dune – until overseas market put it out with that new documentary, anyway. The film is presented in the original theatrical cut, with a few deleted scenes as extras but no sign of Lynch’s extended director’s cut which, the extras here suggest, never actually existed as such. Indeed, the pace of this cut is yet another frustrating factor, as it’s simultaneously stately and weirdly hurried.
Truth be told, it’s very easy to pull Lynch’s Dune to pieces, but if it all those flaws had been ironed out, it might never have been the striking, glorious mess that it became. So – your move, Villeneuve!
❉ ‘Dune’ Limited Edition (UHD 4K/Blu-Ray) was released by Arrow Video on 30 August 2021. Running time: 137 mins. Cert 12.
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.
Images © Fetch Publicity.