Misdirected: David Lynch’s ‘Dune’ (1984)

The Tuesday Zone

In Misdirected, I look at poor films made by great directors, with a focus on how the director’s style impacts the sub-par product.

Dino De Laurentiis Company

Dino De Laurentiis Company

Frank Herbert’s Dune is a staple of science fiction literature, and is often considered one of the greatest works in the genre. It’s dense, political, and…well, complicated. Attempts to bring the book to the silver screen proved difficult, given the nigh-impossible task of translating the futuristic universe and all of its conflicts into a comprehensible screenplay. For some reason, the jobs of screenwriter and director landed in the hands of David Lynch, who had made the surrealist art-house classic Eraserhead (1977) seven years before and the surprisingly successful The Elephant Man (1980) three years after that. What exactly the producers and studio executives saw in Lynch’s impressive first two films that made them think he’d be the right man for Dune, I can’t say, but the complete strangeness of the final product is the perfect place for me to start this new column, Misdirected.

Lynch’s Dune (1984) is comprised largely of failure. The script is practically incomprehensible; even having read the book, I was struggling to keep up with characters’ identities, motivations, and relationships. The flow between scenes is as smooth as a wave in a hurricane, creating a strangely disconnected story for a narrative that deals heavily with complicated interpersonal relationships. Honestly, the movie is borderline un-watchable as a piece of narrative cinema, which it so clearly wants to be. The failures don’t even result in the so-bad-it’s-good, fun-to-mock kind of movie. It’s just bad. However, I will give credit to the opening sequence, a uniquely comic emblem of poor writing: after an unknown character fades in front of a star-spotted space background and dumps some backstory on us, she slowly fades out. Then, her disembodied voice says, “Oh yes, I forgot to tell you,” as she fades back. It feels like a stage play where someone forgets an important line after exiting the stage, and then rushes back to correct the error. Watch it for yourself, with the mentioned part starting at around 1:40.

The movie’s failures are notable in the context of Lynch’s filmography, though. Lynch specializes in taking simple situations, feelings, or ideas, and capturing them through surrealist cinematography. Twin Peaks, a show that Lynch created and partially wrote/directed, captures this. It’s a glorified soap opera mixed with a small-town murder mystery, but the focus on odd details amidst the everyday and a subtle use of the bizarre make it one of the best narrative dramas to ever grace television. Dune, however, takes the opposite approach. It focuses on a sweeping and gripping story of epic proportions. As a result, there’s almost no time for Lynch to twist a simple scene into something grotesque, or to filter something notably dramatic through a disturbed lens. Everything is dramatic, and thus there’s no time for the details that partially define Lynch’s power as a director.

Lynch’s love of the unsettling does manage to come through on occasion, though, despite the ill fit of the source material. Two characters in particular capture Lynch’s effectiveness at creating and capturing body horror: the Guild Navigator and the Baron Harkonnen. The Navigator arrives in a large tank, and he is a massive, deformed, fetal piscine creature. He appears to breath through openings that are distinctly vaginal, and the overall impression of the creature is one of intimidating, disturbing power. However, the strangeness of the Navigator’s form undercuts the reveal of the conspiracy that will make up the next hour or so of plot, so its disturbing qualities are actually a distraction from an info dump of political maneuvering.

Dino De Laurentiis CompanyCute lookin' fella.

Dino De Laurentiis Company
“Look at me and despair. Also, kill this character we haven’t met yet who is imbued with weird importance.”

The Baron is even more recognizably Lynchian because he is human, but with distinct physical marks. Namely, he has oozing warts that decorate his sweat-covered corpse. He seems like a hedonist king, a stark contrast to the traditional, formal Atreides family. However, the effect has questionable implications. When we first meet the Baron and explore his base pleasures, we also watch him apparently molest a younger male. When combined with the AIDS crisis of the time and the physical marks (legions) that come with the disease, it’s hard not to ask whether Lynch was drawing analogies to the gay community. Either way, the connection is more than a tinge homophobic, and indicative of prejudiced fears of the time rather than the horrors that live under a perfect facade. Again, the enormity of the story feels undercut rather than serviced by the details Lynch excels in.

Perhaps the failures of these characters—and any other examples of Lynch’s directorial stamp in the film—stem from the hard science fiction setting. After all, the basic thematic string that ties much of Lynch’s work together—the dark world behind the one we see on the surface of suburbs and “normal” families—does make up the central drama of Dune. The Atreides family seems to be comfortable while pursuing a business deal with the Duke (a pseudo-ruler of the government overseeing the universe). But the conflict that House Atreides has with House Harkonnen reveals the evil in trusted friends and family members. It reveals the desire even the best of us have for absolute power, and just how willing we all are to praise and support those with power. Lynch threatens on occasion to bring his worldview to the Atreides’ plight with a subversion of the hero’s journey, filtered through a slimy, almost kinky lens. But because the entire universe is unfamiliar to us—the first ten minutes of the film are almost all backstory for the film’s world, if that’s any indication—Lynch cannot subvert and twist it. If none of it is familiar, how can we know what you want to de-familiarize?

Dino De Laurentiis CompanyI will admit that Sting is sufficiently de-defamiliarized, though.

Dino De Laurentiis Company
I will admit that Sting is sufficiently de-defamiliarized, though.

I don’t mean to give Lynch a complete pass, but it does feel like someone should have stopped this movie long before it started. Even Return of the Jedi, which Lynch had been loosely tied to, would have fit better in terms of Lynch’s filmography. With a universe already established, he could have brought his unique vision to it, although it might not have been a huge hit with Star Wars fans. Instead, though, we have one of the most bafflingly poor movies to enter Lynch’s filmography and the annals of science fiction. While Lynch certainly could make a memorable entry into the genre, and has flirted with some of its elements in the likes of Twin Peaks, this movie was simply not a good fit for his strengths, and came to him way too early in his career.

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