Screenshot: Dune

In The Overlook, A.V. Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky examines the misfits, underappreciated gems, and underseen classics of film history.

It’s a strange world…
—Blue Velvet

What would have happened to David Lynch, the defining surrealist of American art and media, if Dune hadn’t turned out to be such a fiasco? Because it wasn’t until after the commercial and critical failure of this costly sci-fi epic that Lynch wholly embraced Americana, leading to the career-defining Blue Velvet, the TV success of Twin Peaks, and later to Mulholland Dr., the most celebrated film puzzle of our time. Maybe the question is a put-on, since it’s hard to imagine a world in which Dune would have been a blockbuster. But the fact remains that Lynch went completely alien before he started plumbing a dark, perverse subconscious through the over-familiarity of small-town nostalgia and teen soaps. Lynch is an avant-garde filmmaker who has always been fairly accessible, and yet his one early attempt at a mainstream hit qualifies as one of his most esoteric films. The proverbial average viewer understands that movies like Eraserhead and Lost Highway are meant to evoke a state of nightmare. But what the hell is going on in Dune?

The basics: Released in 1984, Dune is an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s same-titled sci-fi novel, set in a feudal deep future without computers or artificial intelligence, where space travel is made possible by a drug-like resource that can only be found on the desert planet Arrakis. It features an embarrassingly hummable symphonic rock score by the band Toto and an international cast that ensures that no two characters speak with the same accent, even if playing members of the same family. It stars Kyle MacLachlan (in his film debut) as Paul Atreides, the heir of a planetary noble house who becomes the messianic, giant-sandworm-riding leader of Arrakis’ indigenous people, the Fremen. It mostly ignores the political, religious, and ecological ideas that are the focus of Herbert’s book, instead using its betrayals and assassinations as a source of atmosphere. It is grotesque and decadent, silly in spots, often hypnotic.

Planets Arrakis (top) and Giedi Prime (bottom) in Dune (Screenshots: Dune)

Two things have long stuck out to me about the film. (Which, by the way, I’ll be presenting live in The A.V. Club’s home base, Chicago, this Saturday.) The first is that Lynch, an artist of all things oneiric, is the least invested in the visionary and psychedelic elements of the plot; the depiction of visions and dreams here is atypically literal-minded. The second is how the movie’s convoluted and fatalistic interplanetary intrigues intentionally keep the audience at a distance. Lynch’s shrewdness with narrative often goes underappreciated; think, for instance, of the way Blue Velvet introduces Dennis Hopper’s character, Frank Booth, at his most terrifying and psychopathic, so that the viewer knows what’s lurking behind his behavior in subsequent scenes. Dune alienates in almost every respect. Even the snippets of voice-over that tell the audience exactly what a character is thinking—often just an earlier line of dialogue rephrased as a question—reinforce an impression of alienness. (I’ll admit that it took a long time before I learned that most people consider this distancing use of “thought voice-over” to be pretty weird; I grew up with Soviet cinema, where it was a common enough trope to be a frequent target for parody.)

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Not all of this is completely Lynch’s doing. Dune—which exists in several cuts, none of which Lynch seems all that crazy about—is his most uncontrolled work, as evidenced in the sometimes spotty special effects and the occasionally patchy plotting. But he is the creative force pushing the film in its strangest directions. I often think of the example of Star Wars: A New Hope, and how it manages to unify so many technologies and influences—from World War II movies to samurai films—through a limited palette of familiar textures. Dune’s visual influences are calculated for the opposite effect: They make space opera even less familiar by dressing it in tsarist uniforms and gilded baroque interiors. The lair of the villainous Baron Harkonen (Kenneth McMillan), with its green painted walls and art deco cornices, resembles a nightmarish 1930s hotel lobby, or a precursor to the inter-dimensional spaces of Lynch’s mature work: the Red Room from Twin Peaks, the creepy sitcom set from Rabbits (later featured in Inland Empire), and so on. It also evokes Eraserhead, whose star, Jack Nance, plays one of the Baron’s cronies.

Screenshot: Dune

There’s a good reason to bring up Star Wars here, as Lynch had passed on the chance to direct Return Of The Jedi before accepting an offer from Italian super-producer Dino De Laurentiis to write and direct Dune. (Several attempts had been made before, including one by Alejandro Jodorowsky that’s been much mythologized, despite sounding unfilmable.) By his own admission, Lynch had no interest in sci-fi, and neither, in a sense, does Dune. It has a lot more in common with its writer-director’s most admired work than it’s generally given credit for, from the ominous, rumbling soundscapes to the first appearances of future Lynch favorites MacLachlan and Everett McGill (as a Fremen leader), as well as Blue Velvet’s Dean Stockwell (as the Atreides’ court physician, forced to betray them under tragic circumstances). There are echoes: the mutated space-farer who travels in a train-car-sized tank of melange gas resembles the baby from Eraserhead grown to gigantic size; a tray of flowers brings to mind the opening of Blue Velvet; and so on and so forth. Dune, in other words, is not so much Lynch’s big-budget dead end as a transitional artwork that eludes most of the expectations that come with being a big-budget sci-fi movie.

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It’s long seemed to me that one of Lynch’s greatest strengths is his recognition of the fact that dreams are not metaphors, but spaces of irrational and unexplained imagery in which we can’t resist looking for meaning. That’s the appeal of Dune, and I’m sure that it has a lot to do with the fact that it is a flawed and compromised film. It’s a film that fails at the kinds of things that nobody expects from David Lynch movies anyway. It offers an abundance of imagery, teasing some unknown internal logic: the cave dwellings of the Fremen, which bring to mind modern art as much as natural formation; the Atreides weapons master Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart) fending off attackers while clutching a pug dog under his arm or walking into a room while holding a large lute-like instrument (which he actually plays in a cut of the film disowned by Lynch); the significance the movie places on eyebrows, with the “human computers” called Mentats boasting huge eyebrows like a caricature of Leonid Brezhnev, while many other characters have none at all; plugs surgically inserted into the chests of the Baron Harkonnen’s prisoners, which lead to a quick and painful death if removed; a dissolve from Paul exchanging glances with his mother (Francesca Annis) to a brief scene of her in bed with his father, the duke (Jürgen Prochnow).

Screenshot: Dune

I should add that Dune is an often gorgeous film. It’s Lynch’s only work on a colossal visual scale, and I’d wager that a part of what makes it seem so unreal is the extreme contrast between its claustrophobic palaces, caverns, and spacecraft and the breathtaking size of the establishing shots that lead into them; it’s a visual strategy that mirrors the political machinations of the plot, in which vendettas between feuding aristocrats have massive effects. And it has a great, eclectic cast (Max Von Sydow, Linda Hunt, Brad Dourif, Freddie Jones, Virginia Madsen, Sean Young, and many, many others), who project a seemingly unconscious strangeness against the soundtrack’s base layer of sinister industrial hums and bombastic music. Its universe feels unfamiliar and eerily suggestive—an effect that’s even more striking given how much data the film dumps on viewers in the first 10 minutes of the theatrical cut. For the sake of narrative, it does go to some lengths explaining the Fremen and their relationship to the giant sandworms who live on Arrakis, which is perhaps why that part of the plot has always seemed the clearest and least compelling. But elsewhere, it’s the closest a big-budget fantasy has come to offering a world that feels thoroughly and subconsciously weird.

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Next guest: I finally get around to the paranoid evangelical oddity A Thief In The Night.