‘Dune’ Movie 1984 – Should You Watch It?

Denis Villeneuve’s new big screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ is scheduled to release in October 2021. That gives you time to spice-up your ‘Duniverse’ knowledge for the new movie. The first thing to do is read Frank Herbert’s award-winning book, this is world-building at it’s finest. If you haven’t read it recently, read it again. At 400 pages, ‘Dune’ delivers a spectacular theater of the mind. This is why filmmakers have tried for 50 years to translate the novel to the big screen.

Alexandro Jodorowsky’s attempt in 1975 ran out of funding and was never completed. Shortly after, Ridley Scott was slated to direct ‘Dune’ but stepped away when his older brother died of cancer. Scott went on to direct ‘Alien’ which was highly influenced by creative aspects of pre-production work on ‘Dune.’

Universal Pictures

In 1984, award-winning Hollywood director David Lynch brought his version of ‘Dune’ to the big screen. It was met with mostly negative responses from critics and audiences. A lot of strong reactions surrounded the movie when it was released. I’m going to take a fresh look at Lynch’s ‘Dune’ movie (1984) in the context of the renewed interest in the book and in anticipation of Villeneuve’s latest 2-film version.

First Impression

In 1984, I was 14 and I had not read a lot of science fiction. Earlier that year, I read an article in Newsweek magazine about an upcoming science fiction movie entitled ‘Dune.’ The images were dark and obscure, in stark contrast to the familiar worlds of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek.’ I was intrigued, so I read the book. It was like nothing I had ever read before and I was determined to see the movie.

Universal Pictures

David Lynch’s ‘Dune’ opens with a descriptive monologue by the Imperial Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen). This introduction effectively transports us thousands of years into the future and gives us just enough background to get our bearings. She establishes key elements of the story such as the time, politics, spice production and mentions the indigenous Fremen. We have just enough information to enter the story. Barely.

Universal Pictures

Next we are shown the Imperial Palace and the Emperor’s fatal plot to send the Duke Leto and House Atreides to occupy the spice-planet Arrakis. We are introduced to the Duke Leto, his concubine the Lady Jessica and young Paul on their home world of Caladan as they prepare to relocate to the desert planet Arrakis.

Universal Pictures

Cast

Lynch was given a $40M budget, plenty for an 80s science fiction film. He cast a few less-known, but many established actors. The main character, Paul Atreides, is played by Kyle McLachlan, a relative unknown at the time. The Lady Jessica is portrayed by English television actress Francesca Annis, and Duke Leto by German actor Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot). Bloodthirsty Feyd-Rautha is played by none other than 80s pop-star Sting and we also see Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Max Von Sydow (The Exorcist, Flash Gordon).

Universal Pictures

The cast delivers well-acted scenes, but inconsistent editing creates a few unintended humorous moments. If many of these sequences were given more time to develop, the story would be much easier to follow. The cast is not the problem, it’s the lack to space to develop the story and the characters.

Set Design

What does work in this film is the spectacular set design and costumes. Lynch uses magnificent imagery to invite you into a futuristic world that is both alien and familiar. As with most science fiction, we are introduced to new planets, interstellar travel, space ships and other advanced technology, but something is different here. The political structure of ‘Dune’ is based on medieval feudalism. Think ‘Game of Thrones’ in space. Emperor Shaddam IV rules the known universe as he grants fiefs to loyal noble lords, like Duke Leto Atreides.

Universal Pictures

Throughout the film, the production design places design above function. The sets are ornate and delicate, they resemble cathedral architecture more than modernistic glass and steel. The Imperial palace looks like a cross between a Thai temple and a Bavarian castle. Most of the space ships are oblong, ornamented and eccentric, no streamlined X-wings here.

Special Effects

For such beautifully designed sets and costumes, the special effects have some glaring issues. Many of the effects shots were a generation behind what was possible in 1984, especially with such a large budget. When we see House Atreides loading hundreds of transports onto Guild Heighliners, the ships look completely two-dimensional.

Universal Pictures

This immediately stands out and feels cheap for a big-budget film. There are many green-screen effects shots, and they are rough and distracting. The sandworm effects were shot using mechanical miniatures but they have surprising mass and weight.

Universal Pictures

Faithfulness to the Book

Lynch stays relatively faithful to Herbert’s novel and throughout the film you hear familiar quotes from the text. The story, the characters and the planet itself feel like they were lifted straight out the book. However, a few creative decisions stray far from Herbert’s descriptions. One Lynchian creation is the sonic weapon called the ‘weirding module.’ This handheld device uses sound to destroy an enemy from a distance. There is no such ray gun in the novel.

The most significant change to the story is the awkward and completely inaccurate ending. After Paul establishes his supremacy by putting a blade in Feyd Rautha’s skull, he apparently does something that only a god is capable do doing on Arrakis: he brings down rain. Yep, you read that right. Paul causes it to rain on Arrakis to symbolize his ascension to god-hood.

Universal Pictures

I don’t know if this ending was in Lynch’s original script, but it is definitely not the ending of the book. I question if the rain scene was from Lynch’s script, it could have been a device by the studio to wrap up the ending and make something comprehensible out of the story. Lynch wanted to honor Herbert’s novel, so I’m convinced he did not approve the ending because it simply doesn’t fit.

Paul is a messiah-figure but he doesn’t become an actual god, he is a unique and powerful human who is revered by as god-like. Humans tend to do this, and that’s what Herbert wanted readers to question. Paul is a reluctant messiah-figure, he regrets that his jihad took so many lives to achieve to overthrow the Empire. ‘Dune’ is a warning against our tendency to deify our leaders. The film’s ending is unfaithful to the book and the most embarrassing moment of the film.

Final Cut

I recommend this movie only to those who have read Frank Herbert’s novel. Lynch’s right to edit the final cut was denied by the studio. Many of Lynch’s scenes were removed, so the story is hard to follow. Once the Atreides land on Arrakis, the story jumps around and it is difficult to keep all the characters straight.

Herbert’s novel requires mental and emotional investment to absorb the background, politics and religion that lay the foundation of a captivating drama. If Lynch and the studio had agreed on a 3-hour cut before principal photography began, I believe the movie would have been better received. The music, set design and cast were superb and would have worked if only it weren’t for the decimated final cut.

Universal Pictures

A movie adaption of ‘Dune’ must have plenty of time to construct Herbert’s complex, fascinating world. This is what makes his novel so immersive. Lynch was not given the space to do this, so his film only works for those who have read the novel.

If you’ve read ‘Dune,’ you will appreciate Lynch’s artistry and vision. If you watch his film cold, it is a bewildering and frustrating experience. Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’ won’t hit theaters until October 2021, so read the book then watch Lynch’s movie. When you gain an understanding of the story, you can fill in the missing scenes. Since he will have two films to tell the story of ‘Dune,’ I’m optimistic that Villeneuve will succeed where Lynch did not.


 

Later this summer, Arrow Films will be releasing David Lynch’s ‘Dune’ film on 4K UHD for the first time, in the U.S., U.K., and Canada. I had the opportunity to interview Mark, the creator of the fan site Dune – Behind the Scenes, to discuss the new 4K remaster. Read my interview with Mark on Dune News Net.

Pre-Order New 2-Disc Limited Edition Blu-ray on Amazon.com

Pre-Order New 3-Disc Limited Edition 4K UHD on Amazon.com

9 thoughts on “‘Dune’ Movie 1984 – Should You Watch It?”

  1. This was a very interesting review Garin, thank you for sharing it. I had only vaguely heard about Dune before reading your post. I knew it was an ’80s movie but I did not know about it being a book. Now that I know this I feel compelled to search it out and read it because I really do love sci-fi novels. I do like how the director of the original film kept it very close to the novel, this is a big irk of mine with movie adaptations when they are nowhere close to the novel. I do not necessarily want a word for word or scene for scene re-imagining but at least be close. I will definitely act on your recommendation and read the novel and look into watching the movie. Maybe I will be hyped to watch the upcoming movie as well.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment, Rachel. There are so many great sci-fi novels out there it’s hard to find them all. I agree with your comment about movies being word-for-word, they are two different experiences so they shouldn’t be exactly the same. It’s fun to hear from a fellow sci-fi fan. All the best!

      Reply
  2. Thank you for this great, well thought out review. I haven’t seen the more nor have I read the book, but based on your review, I may give it a try.

    I love the layout of your blog and how organized it is as well as the text color used. I know when comparing books to movies, books typically always win due to have way more content than a move does. 

    Reply
  3. Thank you for these insights, Garin!

    Following your blog has stirred up my interest in Dune.
    I’m getting my 3 sons to follow your suggestion – read up on the novel first, before they watch the 1984 movie, then the newest one next year. They love ‘Alien’, ‘Star Wars’ and other sci-fi shows. And it really adds a lot more meaning and depth to read the book first.

    Reply
    • Great to hear from you, Joo. I’m glad you are enjoying the ideas. I hope your sons will add ‘Dune’ to their list of sci-fi faves. Some people don’t like to read, but reading ‘Dune’ really does make the movies more enjoyable. Thanks for your comments.

      Reply
  4. This is the first time that i have heard about the movie Dune. And it makes me very interested when you mentioned that the movie is based from a book. I love watching movies that are based on books, novels because it makes me curious if they really follow the entire story in the book. I have watched several movies based on books, but i was disappointed because there were always some scenes or informations that were not in the book at all. I hope to read the Dune book before the film comes out in 2021.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment, Julai. If you like movies based on books, then you will love the book ‘Dune.’  I hope you give it try. If you like science fiction, I think you will enjoy the journey. Thanks again. 

      Reply
  5. Hey Garin, indeed a commendable effort on writing such a detailed yet comprehensive review. 

    I have not heard of this book nor seen the movie but intrigued to doing so. 

    Definitely l will ask my friends and family members to read the novel first. 

    My kid loves sci-fi movies so I’m sure this watch is a no-brainer. 

    Reply

Leave a Comment