Welcome to Rewatch Club! In this feature, I will be watching and blogging about each film in an entire franchise or series, starting with the David Lynch filmography in chronological order. BE FOREWARNED! There will be spoilers after a certain point in the blog post. It will be noted in bold text, with an image placed directly after, but this is a direct warning for fast scrollers.
In 1982 George Lucas, having seen and enjoyed Eraserhead, had a lunch with David Lynch and offered him the opportunity to direct the third installment of his Star Wars trilogy, then tentatively titled Revenge of the Jedi. Lynch later described himself as having “next to zero interest”, due to the world of Star Wars being very much Lucas’s creation, something he would have a hard time putting his own creative stamp on. Instead, he opted to adapt Frank Herbert’s sprawling epic science fiction novel Dune, in his first big budget studio film.
He should have taken the Star Wars deal, Dune is a fucking mess.
SPOILER WARNING! After the box art image below, everything can be considered a spoiler for Dune‘s narrative and themes!
Well, I say that, but to be completely honest Dune‘s narrative made so little sense to me, I’m not sure I can even spoil it. The film sucks. I hated it. What follows is me attempting to just summarise the plot, such as it is, and perhaps pinpoint what the hell exactly went wrong along the way.
As a disclaimer, I have never read the Frank Herbert novel they based the film on. I’m aware it’s a gap in my reading that I do aim to fill some day, but until then, here we go.
Okay, so the story is set around 8000 years from now, and the whole universe runs on spice. Spice can only be mined on the desert planet of Arrakis (also known as Dune) and is used for everything from making people live longer to folding space to allow faster than light travel. So far, so simple.
The emperor of the universe is visited by a spacing guild, because the production of spice is under threat. He has hatched a plan to hand Arrakis to one of two families, the Atreides, in order that they can be ambushed and destroyed by their enemies the Harkonnens, because the Atreides family is a threat to the emperor due to something called weirding modules (I think). Already it’s a pretty heavy plot, and most of this has been explained through expositionary dialogue.
Next we’re introduced to Paul Atreides, who the spacing guild want dead because I guess he’s having dreams or something? After some drills where he fights Patrick Stewart and a robot, a nun shows up and tests him by putting a needle to his throat and making him put his hand in a box that makes him believe his skin is being burned off. He does it for the requisite amount of time to prove that the nuns’ genetic manipulation has worked and that he might actually be a superbeing called the kwisatz haderach (again, I think).
Then we get to meet the Harkonnens, led by the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a fat man whose face is covered in disgusting boils, and who can inexplicably fly. Not like in a hover chair, he legitimately is just a fat dude flying around the place. It’s as horrendous and hilarious as it sounds. Anyway, he has two nephews, one of whom is Sting of Sting and the Police. He’s going to destroy the Atreides by manipulating one of their allies to betray them, and he’s watching every breath they take and every move they make (not really on that last bit, but haha Sting!) Also, one of the Baron’s assistants is totally Jack Nance of Eraserhead and other Lynch projects, here seen rocking the ginger hair of the Harkonnens (yay!) and having no dialogue whatsoever (boo!)
So, the Atreides go to Dune, where the Duke is told about these guys out in the desert called the Fremen (not to be confused with free men, but totally to be confused with free men). The Duke aims to gain their trust because he’s pretty sure an attack is coming, and they totally have an army he could borrow. He and Paul meet an emissary of the Fremen, who is super impressed by Paul’s ability to put on his desert suit correctly. Apparently one of the abilities of the universe’s most powerful being is that he knows how to get dressed properly. They are shown a mining operation that comes under attack by a giant worm, and the Duke impresses the Fremen by caring more about the lives of the miners than saving the spice being mined. But before he can fully gain their trust, the Harkonnens attack!
The doctor of House Atreides, Dean Stockwell, turns out to be a traitor. But he’s also the kind of piece of shit traitor that flip flops sides, because he gives the Duke a fake tooth filled with poison gas to kill the Baron. Only, upon being captured, the Duke exposes himself as a mediocre idiot by failing to hit literally the fattest target in the room, and straight up dying. Paul and Jessica, a woman who may or may not be his mother, the Duke’s wife, or perhaps just the Duke’s friend with benefits escape the attack, but crash land in the most dangerous part of the desert. Also Jessica is pregnant. They survive a worm attack, and are saved by the Fremen, led by a guy whose name I can’t remember for the life of me, but who was played by Everett McGill and is therefore called Big Ed.
Now, up until this point, Paul has had several dreams about the second moon of Arrakis. I figured the film’s climax would take place there or something, due to the importance being placed on it, but no. The Fremen basically decide that Paul is their prophecised leader, and that he has to choose a name. He asks Big Ed what they call the mouse shaped crater on the moon, and names himself after it, becoming Paul Muad’Dib. That’s it. That’s an actual payoff in this clusterfuck.
Also at this time, Jessica decides that she has to become one of the weird nuns from earlier in the film, and drinks something called the water of life to do so. It affects her pregnancy, and she gives birth to Alia, a creepy girl who ages really fast and probably has psychic powers or something.
Using the weirding modules that they got from somewhere (maybe they were on the ship that Paul crash landed, I don’t know), Paul and the Fremen spend a couple of years destroying mining operations in a pretty kick ass montage. They also hook back up with Patrick Stewart.
With spice production stopped, the spacing guild is a bit pissed off and comes to visit the emperor again and tells him he needs to get his shit together like now. Paul dreams of this and because the guild is afraid he’ll drink the water of life, he drinks the water of life. It sends him into a coma. While in the coma, he has even more dreams where he absurdly declares “the worms are the spice!” (what this means or how it affects anything is never followed up on), and also realises that spice can be destroyed by water, which the Fremen are luckily keeping in massive underground lakes. Paul wakes up and realises that now he can control the giant worms for reasons that are not fully articulated.
The emperor executes the Baron’s nephew but not the one who is Sting, right as Paul launches his final attack on the emperor’s fortress. The Fremen beat the emperor’s best soldiers, and the creepy little girl kills Baron Harkonnen by blowing him out through a window and into the mouth of an oncoming worm. Paul tells the emperor he’s finished, then defeats Sting in a horribly acted knife fight. Finally, he reveals his true power as the kwisatz haderach by making it rain (literally), presumably destroying all the spice. Why he does this isn’t really articulated either, since without the ability to fold space, surely now they’re all stuck on this shitty desert planet?
If that came across as snarky, it’s because I was aiming to be snarky. Dune was a horrendous film, worth watching only to see how not to do an adaptation. Plot points are glossed over entirely, when they needed fleshing out. Most exposition is delivered in the form of characters’ internal monologues and thoughts, which is clunky at best, and downright offensive at worst. Seriously, there’s a part where the Fremen emissary is impressed with a decision the Duke makes, and rather than trust the actor to communicate this via facial expression, and trusting the audience to recognise that, they throw in some voice over that literally explains he is impressed by the decision. It reminded me of the narration in Blade Runner.
Lynch fans defend Dune or defend his role in it by pointing out that the studio got the final cut. Even if Lynch had been allowed to edit the film himself, I’m not convinced it would have fared much better. There’s simply too much going on. It’s like if Star Wars had attempted to cram both trilogies’ worth of concepts and stories into a single two hour feature. It’s an ugly mess that just doesn’t make much sense. Honestly, I’m baffled at how a film with so much going on can be so boring to sit through.
This would be a story better told in the form of a HBO show like Game of Thrones, where each idea and concept can be given time to establish itself, and the whole plot can be given room to breathe. There’s probably a good adaptation of Dune to be made, but this film is not it.