David Lynch’s Dune opens with a blissfully presentational monologue, a female face plastered onto the screen as she intones about spices like some intergalactic trade princess as her head flickers in and out in a tease of a disappearing magic act that implicitly asks us whether we really care about anything she’s saying. It’s an excoriating dose of post-Star Wars and anti-Star Wars nonsense, a mocking of a genre by a director who had in 1977, the same year as that genre’s entrance into the mainstream, blasted a cavern out of the crevice in cinema left in the wake of Luis Buñuel’s quasi-retirement. Actually offered Return of the Jedi, Lynch accepted mega-producer and mega-trend-jumper Dino De Laurentiis’ offer to throw down with Frank Herbert’s story of space drugs and sand worms instead, and what came out of that unholy matrimony was one of the most famous misfires in cinema history.
From there, things thaw out a bit, and any real argument that Dune is a subliminally devious Lynchian satire becomes delusional at worst and tenuous at best, relying on a particularly ascetic and rigid commitment to auteur theory that might even cause Andrew Sarris to turn in his grave. Lynch largely treats Dune like a monolith, negating his typically surreptitious ability to burrow, termite-like, into a topic and implode it from within. Rather than cosmically corrosive melodrama, Dune is a sweepingly simultaneous ascent and descent into quixotic neo-noir baroque fiction that sacrifices the rustic, almost pastoral B-movie punchiness of Star Wars for a heightened, sober-minded theater piece. One, I might add, that operates on a chillier wavelength that is less Western-update a la Star Wars than a submission to the glitzy, excessive style preferred by the film’s producer Dino De Laurentiis. Dune is, essentially, David Lynch playing ball with expectations and producers, which unfortunately involves deflating the ball instead of inflating it with his particularly giddy brand of toxic cinematic air until it balloons outward and explodes the whole cloth of cinema with it. It’s big cinema, but at some level, depressingly basic cinema.
At the same time, the critic’s rebuttal – that Lynch viewed this as a cash-in and wasn’t really trying here – has not only been rebutted by Lynch in interview over the three decades after the film’s release, but it plainly doesn’t survive the actual motion picture viewing experience on its own terms. Melodrama and mid-century pulp fiction are among Lynch’s most abiding love interests, and his gilded treatment of the two styles is surprisingly genuine in Dune. Sure, it’s true that the blockbuster clout of his first-time “big boy” project curtails Lynch’s desire to manhandle the production, so he seems to have been forced to turn it into an outlet for his presentational interests. Which is to say, although it is nullified, simmered-down Lynch – depressing, no doubt – the writer-director obviously cared about this production, and points of poetic ingress for the craft-oriented viewer are multitudinous.
Lynch the boogie man is in short supply, but he’s doing his best to give his condolences without hectoring the audience with an injunction of defiance. Strains of camp are an undercurrent, but Dune is also useful as a reminder that, after you push the boulders of slimy formalism and brazen artifice to the side, Lynch is deeply enjoined to revel in the sincerity of his subject matter as well as intercept them with his own authorial intent. Perhaps this is why Lynch’s mise-en-scene is so luxuriant and not seemingly perniciously inclined in the least. Anthony Masters’ production design is nearly rhapsodic in its dazzling brilliance. Even if it lacks the elan or iridescence of Lynch’s best work, the candy-store glee of the sets and Tolkein-in-space costumes are delectable at times.
The cinematography by Freddie Francis, incidentally, devours the film in a resplendent gloom comfortable with Visconti-levels of aristocracy. Besides, although it isn’t quite elastically-minded enough to ever move beyond largeness-for-the-sake-of-itself, the film is at least playful enough to shift locations on us. The cinematography dons pleasingly intoxicating David Lean-airs when main actor Kyle McLachlan – whose wooden, hyper-artificial style would be put through the wringer in Lynch’s subsequent career to divine effect – is sent on an expedition to the sand dunes of Arrakis, a planet that produces a spice necessary for space travel. Eventually escaping a hostile takeover of his royal family, he mounts a rebellion against the Emperor using the local ecology of Arrakis as his weapon, but Lynch is palpably less invested in the rebellion than in lingering on the resplendence of his mise-en-scene.
If all that says anything to you, it’s that the narrative is a complete knuckle-head, engendered to enact its most byzantine, over-complicated self by Lynch’s bellicose screenplay that acts without a whiff of diffidence to common sense. At least Lynch is operating in a full-bore sort of hedonism that befits his purposely affected brand of cinema, but without the toxic edge he usually brings to his productions, the blend of over-heated melodrama and chilly aesthetics is stranded in its own ego without a path toward provocation or even entertainment. The one-two punch of “Music Written and Performed by Toto” punctuated by “Prophecy Theme By Brian Eno” is just about the platonic ideal of a contradictory film that is awash with ornate pomposity on one hand and shivering ice on the other.
Lynch stages a few coups with the film’s budget; an early fight scene that encases two principles in a gross morass of computer imagery abstracts the two figures in prisons of invisible flesh peeking out beneath only vaguely human geometry. That the scene arrives unheralded and seemingly oblivious to an audience’s desire for explanation pries into Lynch’s fever-dream aesthetics with gusto and glee, but much of the film is too prim and proper in its grandness to strive for this sort of crazed affect.
Turducken overstuffed, Lynch’s full-throated, full-feasted Euro-glitz epic is mounted as if a false premonition of the kind of gold bath Dino De Laurentiis would take after the movie’s success. It’s an ornate misfire that is best enjoyed as a simple wellspring of fantasy verbal bebop more fun to exhume from your mouth than to hear perspiring from the screen. It’s cinema without a safety-pin, which is always a plus, but in this one case, Lynch’s psychotic, crazed ambition gets the better of him. His other films are flickering-mad exercises in redistricting cinema altogether, burrowing into the innards of the art form to scramble its brains and splay something more to Lynch’s liking across the screen. In comparison, Dune feels like a literal-minded attempt to adapt a semi-unfilmable book to a screen with little investment in punching up the laborious text; rather than obliterating the screen with his understanding of cinema as he usually does, Lynch seems to peculiarly avoid a cinematic film and instead simply lays down the law with an unwieldy mess of bookish dialogue.
Ironically, Lynch accepted the project, which was a failure, on the auspices that he would have final cut and complete control over his next project – Blue Velvet – also to be funded by Laurentiis’ company. Lynch was presumably hired on one of Laurentiis’ dumbfounded, unchecked whims that anything popular at the moment would necessarily be popular for him; obviously, the producer’s plan backfired, but the earnest brio of the man lived on when Blue Velvet went from cold-blooded to gilded as a mild success that only bloomed with age, paving the way for Lynch’s magisterial Twin Peaks. Dune is a solemn film that avoids the festive urgency and agility of Lynch’s filmography, but if it was instrumental in his future successes, it’s worth passing over its failure, or at least squinting to see the intermittent life in this often too lifeless package.