Dune (1984) – Blu-Ray Review

David Lynch is undeniably the modern-day face of surrealism on the big screen: only Luis Buñuel (who of course was an original surrealist) is maybe more synonymous with surrealism in cinema. Lynch, however, claims Buñuel had little influence on his work, because he didn’t see his films until much later, and allegedly very few of them even then. Given his orientation, Lynch was clearly not the right director for Dune, although it would be interesting to see what the film might have been without the studio interference that caused Lynch to essentially walk off the film during the post-production phase. It has much to admire—the noir-baroque production design is to absolutely to kill for, and the special effects are far better than producer Dino De Laurentiis’ sci-fi extravaganza Flash Gordon. The fault of the film probably lies with the fact that in the end, David Lynch wrote the script himself, after working with his The Elephant Man co-writers, Eric Bergren and Christopher De Vore, for six months. Maybe if they could have worked out their creative differences, the film would have worked better. But despite everything, Dune is a grand sci-fi epic that was flawed from its inception, but has enough Lynchian touches to ensure that it’s always interesting

That said, Dune is undeniably Lynch’s worst film, although he would follow it up with his best film, Blue Velvet. Lynch disliked talking about it for many years, but more recently has said that he likes many parts of it. At the time, however, he practically disowned the film, and the longer TV cut (which isn’t included on the Arrow release reviewed here) carries the dreaded “A Film By Alan Smithee” tag.

Dune is based on the widely successful sci-fi epic by Frank Herbert. Lynch himself admits that he wasn’t really a science fiction fan when maverick producer Dino De Laurentiis offered him the chance to adapt this door-stopper of a novel. It wasn’t the first adaptation attempt by a visionary director: both Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott tried and failed. The Jodorowsky attempt even got its own documentary. Later this year Canadian director Denis Villeneuve takes a stab at directing a new adaptation, which comes with the hopes of making a franchise.

Given its history, Dune was always going to be a difficult production, and to some extent Lynch was completely out of his depth. Lynch had access to way too much money, and the film ended up costing in the region of $40,000,000. If you adjust for inflation, the film’s budget almost equals the combined cost of every feature Lynch has done since. However, they started running out of money near the end of production, so a lot of what Lynch had envisioned had to be scrapped, and the effects ended up suffering in the end. He vowed to never make another “big” film after Dune.

For a director whose own name has entered the vernacular as a description of strangeness, it’s funny to find out that Lynch’s biggest film is actually his most incomprehensible. Even his more deliberately experimental films, like Eraserhead, or his last feature, Inland Empireare more narratively coherent. The dialogue is almost exclusively exposition, which to somebody who hasn’t read the novel makes little to no sense. The film does, however, improve on subsequent viewings and as it goes along. Lynch’s visual genius is on full flow here, with beautiful, intricate set and costume designs that are a wonder to behold.

Dune does boast an extraordinary cast, a large chunk of whom Lynch recast for his next film, Blue Velvet, and in Twin Peaks. Lynch discovered Kyle MacLachlan for Dune and gave this unknown actor the lead in a huge film. MacLachlan tries his best, but is somewhat out of his comfort zone. Sting has a memorable role, more for his winged Speedo than necessarily for his acting ability. Kenneth McMillan also has a deliciously evil turn as the obese Baron Vladimir Harkonnen with his pus-filled face. Much has been said about it being some homophobic comment on the AIDS epidemic, because Harkonnen is explicitly gay, but that’s all in Frank Herbert’s novel, written in the mid ’60s, it wasn’t some result of Lynch’s imagination.

Arrow Video has compiled a nice set, including the 4K remaster that the film really desperately needed. Two commentary tracks from film historian Paul M. Sammon and Mike White of The Projection Booth podcast are featured: I think this is the first Lynch film that has commentary tracks, since Lynch doesn’t believe in them. The Aussie label Imprint’s upcoming release of The Straight Story will also feature a commentary track. The rest of extras are vintage featurettes from previous releases of Dune and deleted scenes, which come in at around 18 minutes in length. The second disc includes a fun feature about the Dune toy line, a featurette about the film’s soundtrack (which is mainly Toto, of all bands), an interview with make-up effects artist Giannetto de Rossi, and archival interviews with the actor Paul Smith, production coordinator Golda Offenheim and make-up effects artist Christopher Tucker. The disc was originally set to include the feature-length documentary The Sleeper Must AwakenMaking Dune from Ballyhoo films, which reportedly would’ve been ready in a few weeks, but Arrow decided to stick to their release date. This may mean that there will be another release down the line. The TV version, which is 46 minutes longer, is not included, nor is the much-celebrated fan cut dubbed the “Spice Diver” version. The book includes new writing on the film by Andrew Nette, Christian McCrea and Charlie Brigden, an American Cinematographer interview with sound designer Alan Splet from 1984, excerpts from an interview with the director from Chris Rodley’s book Lynch on Lynch, and a Dune Terminology glossary from the original release. A double-sided poster and lobby card reproductions finish off the release. 

★★★

Ian Schultz

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