Dune was supposed to be “The Next Big Thing”, a film to financially rival the Star Wars trilogy based on a book that rivaled The Lord of The Rings for how much it changed the landscape of the genre and how many copies it shifted. Directed and written by the arthouse newcomer David Lynch (his third movie as director), helmed by legendary producer Raffaella De Laurentiis (daughter and student of the also-legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis), it had a budget of around $40 million, a soundtrack by Toto with the main theme by Brian Eno, a cast of renowned part-actors, and a run time of over two hours. It had the author’s blessing, the studio backing, and the fan bases’ eager anticipation. It was going to start a new dynasty of cinema epics, launch a thousand toys and tie-ins, and print money beyond the backer’s wildest dreams!
…And then it flopped, brutally. The critics hated it (Roger Ebert gave it one star out of four and called it an “incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion”), Lynch got his name replaced with Alan Smithee on various edits, it failed to make back more than around 75% of its budget back, the fans were annoyed by an assortment of studio-enforced changes to the story, and it ‘won’ The Stinkers Bad Movie Awards “Worst Film Of The Year”. It wasn’t even saved by the language and history booklets, given away at the screenings to help the audience navigate through its byzantine world, and the three-hour TV version released four years later failed to fix its legacy to any extent.
The main problems, and thus warnings for those who want to check out this cult catastrophe, hinged on what made the book so wonderful to read. For a start they tried to ram over 400 pages of a book into two hours, so instead of a complex interplay of characters and schemes you have “The Adventures of Paul Atradies: Boy Wonder!” as played by Kyle MacLachlan, hurtling from a believable, slightly befuddled teenager to a valiant attempt at failing to fill the trousers of a god-like superbeing. This isn’t to say that all the subplots are edited out, just that they are given “blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em” nods in a line, or a cutscene in a voice-over. Great nods for those who already know the story, confusing leaps in emotions and situations for those who don’t.
Next up is the slight problem that half the tension and effectively the dialogue, from the books came from what people were thinking at any given time. Great reading, not that great when it’s a constant stream of voice-overs from actors standing there looking all po-face and slightly off into the distance. It starts out okay but gets noticeably more jarring towards the second half where months and years are handled with a snappy montage and a quick message of victory for the good guys in almost a parody of WW2 Pathé Newsreels.
The final big hurdle is that a lot of the book focused on subtleties and subtexts, both regard the world of the space-traveling far-future, and with what it tried to do with the whole superbeing-genre. The film decided to have none of that, probably because a whole history and social structure with six main factions, three types of effectively what were magic users, two armies of super-soldiers, and an Emperor of the Universe, was all just too crowded. So, “The Weirding Way” stopped being martial arts and turned into sonic weapons so the goodies could shout the baddies to death, a thousand-year conspiracy on a hundred worlds became Paul’s natural charm and a really good smile, a native Asian-African population became half of Michigan, the threat of a superman to civilization became everyone clapping at the hero becoming a god, the holy war caused by the winning side having a god leading them got swapped for a bit of a rainstorm, and one of the greatest villains ever written became a threateningly gay, floating bondage fairy with a habit of drooling.
The one place the books’ style really gives the movie legs, is in the look and feel of the world. Frank Herbert avoided any unnecessary description of the world, letting the reader fill in the gaps as they wished, and this meant that the production team could run wild. The sets, the costume, the world looks amazing and is at such a level of detail that you can just sit there and drink it all in. Everything has a solidness to it, a bespoke reality that was way beyond practically anything else being made at that time, or even for the next ten years. The set pieces were done by getting a couple hundred people in a room and making everything as it would be. It also shows the big battles, when the author had only shown the setup and aftermath, and they have the same ridiculous scale to them.
So, who would want to watch this now? If you’re a fan of the books it’s an inevitable watch, and you’ll either have already given it a look or have it on your viewing schedule. Heck, Frank Herbert said it looked just like he imagined it in the book, so you’ve really got no excuse. For the broader sci-fi fan, it becomes a bit less interesting, as it never really established much of a legacy or reputation by itself and the plot is too fast and far removed from the source to be really worth it as a taster for the book or even much of a potential spoiler for the 2020 version (although lord knows how they’ve decided to not tell the story in the book on that one yet). It also can’t be offered up as a grand bit of disaster cinema, as it’s an incredibly well-made film that just suffered from trying to tell too big a story. It just is what it is: a glorious, bloated, intricate, failed, marvelous demonstration of why some books just don’t make a good film.