I’m not going to mince words. David Lynch’s 1984 production of Dune, which was released on this date in 1984, is totally fucked up. I mean, that’s exactly what producer Dino De Laurentiis must have expected when he had was able to hire Lynch away from Lucasfilm, who was trying to get him to direct Revenge of the Jedi, which would later be called Return of the Jedi.
Can you imagine what would’ve happened if Lynch directed that movie? Rian Johnson would’ve had his ass kissed by every geek from Portland, Maine to Portland, Ore. I’m pretty sure that’s what De Laurentiis was hoping for with Dune, the next Star Wars-like sci-fic movie. For many years after the released A New Hope, sci-fi movies were greenlit and fast-tracked. Many of them sucked. Even Star Trek, the precursor of Star Wars had a shitty first outing with their first movie.
So, now, Lynch, an avant garde auteur is going to directed an adaptation of a very detailed novel like Frank Hebert’s Dune. I never saw the movie in theaters as I was only 6 at the time, but I got the Topps trading cards and I couldn’t make a bit of sense of it. When I saw it on HBO, I couldn’t even get through it, even though people had told me it was good. I remember trying to choose a movie in the rental shelf at a Piggly Wiggly’s and some older kid was pointing at the VHS cover box of Dune telling me it was a good movie. Yet, I seemed to noticed the melted chocolate around his mouth and the surprise that he was actually allowed out in public like this.
Some young kid in the foothills of the Appalachians in a Piggly Wiggly who looks like the kid in Matilda forced to eat the huge chocolate cake telling me that Dune was a great movie was probably Lynch’s target audience. Or maybe he just liked movies where guys ride big sandworms.
So, anyway, I had seen some of Lynch’s other works (Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, The Elephant Man and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) by the time I sat down to watch Dune in its entirety but I still didn’t like it many years later. But like a car wreck on the side of the road, you can’t look away.
Everything kinda looks dirty, even before they get to Arrakis, aka Dune. The movie opens with the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (Jose Ferrer) being visited by a guild navigator, which looks like a giant scrotum with tumors and a vagina for a mouth. You can almost see how Ferrer is thinking, “I won an Oscar and where I am now.”
There’s a lot of plot exposition and introductions to characters that only have one or two scenes before they’re not seen again. Kyle MacLachlan playes Paul Arteidis as if Luke Skywalker was the guy in your English class who thought he was hip because he read William S. Burroughs. Francesca Annis is his mother, Lady Jessica, and Sean Young plays Channi, Paul’s Fremen lover. But I’m probably not the only one who noticed that Annis and Young look somewhat similar in this movie. I think this might have been Lynch’s intent.
The plot deal with the House of Harkonnen betraying the House of Arteidis over control of Arrakis and Paul’s father, Leto (Jurgen Prochnow), the Duke, being killed. Kenneth McMillan, as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, with boils and a lot of gross things on his face to make David Cronenberg throw up in his mouth, spins around, I mean, flies, every now and again. The special effects aren’t the best. He also has a weird homoerotic incestuous attraction to his nephews, the Beast Rabban (Paul Smith) and Feyd-Rautha (Sting) who appears from a steam bath showing off his tone and a metal diaper.
Pretty much not a lot happens, as most of the action scenes are reduced to a montage with a voice-over narration. Much of the movie is characters using their interior monologue through an ASMR tone that seems like it belongs in a Terrence Malick movie. There are also images of a bloody baby fetus and a cat having his nipples milked. And at one point, Paul rides a Sandworm as Toto plays some electric guitar on the soundtrack.
I understand they were handing people cards with their tickets that was describing details of the movie they might not understand. And that’s the problem. Movies have to walk a fine line between the laypersons and the experts. This movie is for the experts. This is for the people who’ve read Herbert’s novel. Yet, people walking into a movie expecting one thing and discovering another leads to a lot of unsatisfied filmgoers. Also, people who feel like they’re walking in on a sequel but haven’t seen the first one will be lost.
I get the idea that De Laurentiis probably expected that Dune would be a mega-hit and they could expand on things in the next movie. Producers are always expecting their movies to be big hits but many of them make to guarantee success. De Laurentiis was probably second to the production studio The Cannon Group on taking big risks. I’m pretty sure they’re the type who still hit on 19 at Blackjack just on the possible there’s a two going to be dealt.
Budget costs were $40-42 million yet Dune didn’t even break even in North America audiences. Critics hated it with many big names including it on their Worst of 1984 lists. The movie was also facing the major success of Beverly Hills Cop which had been released about a week earlier. While some critics didn’t care for that movie, it got better reviews and a bigger box office. Don Simpson who produced Cop would later chastise people for expecting Lynch to direct anything but a Lynch movie.
Years later, the movie has its cult fan base. And it’s hard to watch the Denis Villeneuve version without thinking of Lynch’s version. For what it’s worth, its failure helped Lynch’s career more as he went on to make Blue Velvet and then the TV show Twin Peaks, bringing him a wilder audience.
Maybe that kid at the Piggly Wiggly was right. It’s different strokes for different folks. I don’t know if he ever watched any other Lynch movies, but who knows? I still find people who don’t like Dune but still watch it. Maybe there was something there, that audiences were expecting Star Trek or Star Wars, but got something else and now realize it.