What can be done has been done.
It’s impossible to watch David Lynch‘s adaptation of Frank Herbert‘s Dune without wondering where the rest of it is. You can’t necessarily blame the director, though. He was a hired hand in many respects who hadn’t even heard of the novel when approached after many other versions (one famously spearheaded by Alejandro Jodorowsky) had failed. Lynch read the classic, loved it, and initially fleshed out a way to tell it in two films (much like what’s currently happening with Denis Villeneuve at the helm). The notes kept coming, the drafts kept evolving, and eventually he ended up with a four-hour rough cut. Being released at almost half that run-time reveals the compromises he was forced to make for the producers. The disjointed nature of what remained proves it.
And we’ll never see what could have been. Anytime the studio releases an extended version, Lynch removes his name. Whenever the studio asks him to come aboard and extend it himself, he declines. So, the theatrical version is his version whether he’s proud of the result enough to ever talk about it or not. One could say, however, that the experience helped make the artist we know him to be today. Going from making a strange indie like Eraserhead to an acclaimed studio picture in The Elephant Man placed him on a trajectory where work like Dune might have ruined his eccentric sensibilities. Lynch was attached to two planned sequels had this one turned into a success. Instead, its failure opened the door for Blue Velvet and beyond.
No matter how choppy, incomplete, and rushed the result objectively is, however, I don’t agree with the critical assessment upon its release that it doesn’t make sense. I’ve never read the book and yet skimming through a synopsis tells me very little that I didn’t glean from Lynch’s work. It’s all there. Clunky expository dialogue or not. That’s kind of an impressive feat considering the logistics it entails. Lynch decides to turn Virginia Madsen‘s Princess Irulan into our narrator being that her actual role in the film was cut down to nothing (I don’t remember her having an actual line of dialogue beyond voiceover). It was a necessity, but it also makes sense. She’s positioned as an onlooker with the access to describe everything that occurs.
The reason is simple: her father, the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer), is behind it all. He’s the de facto leader of the universe and in league with a mutated “Guild member” suspended in a tank of liquid (okay, I honestly have no clue what this thing is, but his goth henchmen with microphone translator are pretty rad) to secure access to a substance only found on the mining planet Arrakis known as “spice”. Shaddam is lazy and power-hungry like any royal politician. He sees an ally in the grotesque House Harkonnen that’s willing to work the mine while he remains on his home planet and a rival threat in the austere House of Atreides. So, he plans to use the former to destroy the latter.
Atreides is smart. They know that being given the Arrakis account is a trap, but they go anyway under the impression that it won’t matter. Duke Leto (Jürgen Prochnow) sees it as a chance to get his son (from Francesca Annis‘ concubine and magical seer Lady Jessica) Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) out of the kingdom and into the real world. The young man shouldn’t exist (Jessica was told by her mentor, Siân Phillips‘ Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, to only have a daughter that could become Reverend Mother herself in the future), so his presence is a point of trepidation for those who believe in destiny. To them, Paul might be the legendary Christ-like figure known as Kwisatz Haderach—emancipator of Arrakis’ Fremen and ruler of everything.
I said it’s all there on-screen. I didn’t say it wasn’t a lot to wrap your head around. And when I say things feel rushed, I’m mostly talking about the events after Paul is left for dead to build an army of Fremen necessary to defeat his enemies, Shaddam and Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (a floating, pus-filled Kenneth McMillan). Years are dismissed with a line of dialogue. Elaborate techniques (destroying indestructible objects with the power of sound) are to be taken at face-value. And talk of spice and sand worms and the bending of space and time becomes just that: talk. Spice is the MacGuffin driving these four families/races onto a collision course seen in the lucid dreams of women imbued by the power of the Water of Life.
Some of it’s fun (the House of Harkonnen actors are over-the-top in the best way possible with Sting and Paul L. Smith chewing scenery with expressive, wide-eyed relish as the Baron’s assassin nephews). Some is intensely stoic (House Atreides and the Fremen, as led by Everett McGill‘s Stilgar, are the epitome of wet blankets). There are moments that seem like they could have been cut (What’s with the random sex scene of Leto and Jessica in bed talking about home as they leave for Arrakis?) and others that demand more context (Richard Jordan‘s Duncan Idaho appears just to disappear so we know Paul idolizes him without knowing why). Many great actors (Linda Hunt, Jack Nance, Max von Sydow, Sean Young, and Patrick Stewart among them) prove glorified cameos.
They all look good, though, no matter how much screen time they’re afforded. This was the most expensive film ever made at the time (shot mostly in Mexico to save money) with elaborate sets and costuming. The Fremen have glowing blue eyes. The sand worms are massive monsters ready to protect the spice at the sound of the slightest vibration. The nightmarish visions are composed of abstract vignettes of waterdrops, characters yet unseen, and prophecies to fulfill. You could argue it’s mostly for naught once the second hour arrives with its truncated downhill race to obvious plot points, but I don’t think you can deny the impact of those first sixty minutes. They’re a tense trajectory with traitors, assassinations, and narrow escapes to reveal what might have been.