Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune is a soft science fiction epic which had been shopped around as a potential film for decades. David Lean was attached, followed by the surreal madness of Alejandro Jodorowsky, the efforts of which were recorded in a documentary. Ridley Scott likewise took a run on it before it finally fell to David Lynch who despite not having read the novel or being particularly interested in Science Fiction was courted to direct the film on a high from the success of The Elephant Man.
It wasn't his first offer of a big science fiction movie. George Lucas met with Lynch to offer him Revenge of the Jedi, but assisted by a strategic migraine, Lynch turned the offer down. And many, including Lynch himself, would suggest he should have done the same with the space opera Dino de Laurentiis and his daughter Rafaella would offer. The book is a hefty SF equivalent of Lord of the Rings. It's complicated plot revolves around the conflict between powerful feudal families to control a planet Arrakis, on which a vitally important spice is mined. The House Atreides are the good guys, and specifically the Duke's son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) who will attain mythic status as the plot progresses. The Atreides take over Arrakis from the fiendishly and cartoonishly malevolent Harkonnens, who already plot to return with the help of the treacherous Emperor who wishes to crush the house whose Duke he fears is too popular.
It is difficult to even consider this film as just a film. Its troubled production and specifically postproduction means that many don't even consider it a David Lynch movie and he has consistently refused to talk about it and declined offers from the studio to produce a director's cut. Legend of a three hour version are tantalising but unlikely to ever be seen. None of this would necessarily be a problem if it wasn't evident in the film itself. As soon as Virginia Marsden appears on the screen with a prologue explaining how 'beginnings are always difficult', I feel an internal 'uh oh'. Explanatory voiceover runs throughout the film, partly justified by the mindreading capabilities of some of the characters. And for the first half we're almost okay. Almost fine. But once Paul is in the desert and has joined the tribe of Fremen, the film itself decides to fast forward several years and, in the words of Simon Pegg in Spaced, 'skip to the end'. This effectively breaks the back of the movie. Already the emotional connection between the audience and the dorkish hero was stretched fairly thin, but now that we've just been told a bunch of stuff - the love affair between Paul and Chani (Sean Young), Paul becoming a religious leader etc. - it seems like there's nothing more to do but wait until Sting dies.
Now, before we dismiss the film entirely, I have to rewind. Beginnings can be difficult it turns out. My relationship with Dune was definitely as a fan of the Frank Herbert novel, a book which, alongside Lord of the Rings, was foundational to my tastes. So I came to the film as a fan and was ready to like it and I did like it very much. It lead me to being interested in David Lynch and seeking out his other films. Also, being 12 years old, I was unaware of the critical and commercial reception of the film. As far as I was concerned this was a big budget, spectacular piece of science fiction and I loved it. I still have a lot of affection for it and I'll try and express it before we go back into the wastes of what went wrong. First of all the design is stupendous. On the Atreides home planet, the ocean is the dominant factor and the castle in which they live seems to built entirely from wood, like a ship of the line. The Emperor's planet is all opulence and filigreed gold. The Harkonnens live in an industrial urban space of green and black, not many miles away from where Henry Spencer lives in Eraserhead. This wonderful design also is evident in the details and the costumes. From the stillsuit to the little rodent drink the Beast Rabban sucks from. Arakis itself is almost a disappointment. There's no sense of the city where they live and it feels suddenly very studio bound. Even the desert scenes feel unimpressive.
Another aspect is the wonderful cast. As well as some familiar faces - Freddie Jones and Jack Nance - we have some actors who will go on to appear in other Lynch projects such Dean Stockwell, Everett McGill and MacLachlan. Patrick Stewart, Jürgen Prochnow, Jose Ferrer and Brad Dourif make up a brilliant cast who all manage to both take it seriously and yet occasionally play it to the hilt. Speaking of which the Harkonnens are the most wonderful grotesques Kenneth McMillan as the Baron and Paul Smith as the Beast and Sting in his leather shorts. The Baron's skin disease and the red hair and the generally pantomime horribleness of the baddies is ludicrous and entertaining.
So I like the acting, the design, I like the music by Toto, and I like the genre of steampunk science fiction. There don't seem to be lasers or engines or computers. Some of the spaceships look like they date back to old Flash Gordon serials. But all these parts still don't come together to make a good film. The action sequences are terrible. There's barely a single scene in the film which is exciting. The special effects for the big worms, which should be the centerpiece of the movie, are embarrassingly bad. MacLachlan has very little charisma. His determinedly uncoolness will actual work in his later outings as Agent Cooper and Jeffrey in Blue Velvet, but here the hero is just not heroic, going from callow youth to callow adult. It is an irony that exactly when the film should be getting good, it falls apart. That wonderful cast disappears for a huge chunk of the film and after all that wonderful design we are left in the desert and not a beautifully filmed Lawrence of Arabia desert. The film can still be enjoyed as an oddity and the stills from the film always thrill me in the way that actually watching the film doesn't. As Virginia Marsden might say 'Beginnings are difficult, and second acts, and conclusions.'