Did you know David Lynch at one time considered directing Return of the Jedi? Legions of George Lucas fans are probably delighted that he never got the shot, because for better or for worse (probably for worse) it might have turned out like the bizarre sci-fi experiment Dune. I’ve sometimes been accused of defending Lynch even when he’s not working at his best. That’s clearly the case here, resulting in a compromised megabudget effort where Lynch attempts to indulge his graphic art sensibility and please a mass audience at the same time. It just doesn’t fly.
But Lynch fans might find stuff to enjoy in Dune anyhow. After all, there’s a floating bug monster that parlays with Jose Ferrer’s space emperor in the early going, flanked by legions of somnambulant slaves in black raincoats that probably inspired the villains in Dark City. This is followed by Kenneth MacMillan’s puss-faced Baron Harkonnen floating around on wires, plucking out the heart of an angel-faced boy-toy (who was planting Blue Velvet-style pastel flowers only moments earlier), and sharing some homo-erotic blubbering with his nephew Feyd (played by Sting, who can’t act but lends the film his charismatic rock star presence). Even when the plot is difficult to follow — some nonsense involving a trade war over different planets that all made sense in Frank Herbert’s original novel — there’s enough giddy comic book theatrics to keep Dune interesting as it meanders along for nearly three hours.
And what a cast. Lynch certainly populates his film with a who’s who of memorable character actors: Brad Dourif’s nerd-assassin (nearly upstaged by his mad curly eyebrows), Max von Sydow — seeming to know what he’s talking about even as he speaks so much sci-fi gibberish, Dean Stockwell as a paranoid doctor, Patrick Stewart as a feisty combat expert, and Jack Nance (Eraserhead himself) as Jack Nance. At the center is Kyle MacLachlan as the son of a duke (Jurgen Prochnow, of all people) who transforms into a desert messiah once he’s stranded on the wasteland planet of Dune. MacLachlan allows himself to be a cipher, which is smart when he’s playing opposite Sting during their climactic knife-fight. Best to underplay when the lead singer of the Police is shouting, ‘I will kill him! Ha ha!’
The nonsensical dialogue is quotable even when it makes very little sense. Take the mantra Brad Dourif repeats over and over again in his introductory scene (wandering through an industrial production center that practically defines Lynchian): ‘It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Sappho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.’ He’s drinking some dark potion all the while, enough to make you think that (a) the film is best enjoyed while drinking some dark potion yourself, or (b) marveling that the cast and crew were probably drinking some dark potions throughout production.
While Dune is enjoyable as a campy misfire from a visionary filmmaker, I hesitate to say it’s actually good. The giant sand worms that attack spaceships and castles throughout look hokey, the constant voice-over dropped in to help the movie make narrative sense feels murky in a Blade Runner sort of way. There are long battle scenes that successfully eliminate any comparisons between David Lynch and David Lean, where the spectacle becomes a mishmash of running crowds seemingly cut together at random. It’s a mess, for sure. But it’s also not boring or generic a la The Phantom Menace, which plays it so safe it never moves beyond feeling comfortably numb. Accompanied by that droning soundtrack, Dune re-announces itself as a movie to remember. Whether that makes for good memories or bad depends on your tolerance for gonzo cinema.
After much delay arrives Dune on DVD, which includes the original theatrical cut (reviewed above) and the notorious three-hour edition (primarily known as the television cut), which begins with nine minutes of monotone voice-over and which Lynch disowned — indeed, it’s ‘An Alan Smithee Film.’ The extended cut is best described as awful, an overlong, messy, sloppy, and unartistic piece of bloviation. The flipside of the DVD is best ignored. Stick with the main cut and enjoy the substantial making-of documentaries and deleted scenes introduced by Raffaella De Laurentiis, who, among other things, notes that the mythical four-hour cut of Dune never really existed.