Paul Atreides with his mother, Lady Jessica

“Dreams are messages from the deep,” it says right up at the front of Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 adaptation of Dune, possibly a nod to David Lynch, whose hazy 1984 version crashed and burned in spectacular, almost sci-fi fashion.

Other nods – the design of the stillsuits and the sandworms for instance – also hark back to Lynch, a magnanimous gesture on the part of Villeneuve who, after Arrival and Bladerunner 2049, has nothing to prove in the realm of sci-fi.

Lynch was trying to make his version of Frank Herbert’s novel a David Lynch film, dreamy and out there, but his film also tugged in the opposite direction, towards the mainstream Star Wars-y sci-fi vision of his producers. Neither ended up getting what they wanted. Villeneuve, by contrast, can do exactly what he wants at this point in his career, having not made an artistic or financial mis-step since his mainstream breakthrough with 2010’s Incendies (though Enemy came close).

In short, Lynch’s is a mess, Villeneuve’s is a masterpiece, and there are a mass of reasons for both that go beyond the skill, talent and vision of either film-maker.

The story here remains the same – it’s the future and out in the galaxy somewhere the Emperor is worrying that he’s losing his grip on power. So he indulges in a bit of divide and rule with the two noble houses most likely to threaten him, by getting them to fight over a desert planet called Arrakis, source of Spice, the most valuable commodity in the known Universe, a substance with both practical and magical qualities. Not only is Arrakis (known as Dune) a sandy wastland, it’s infested with sandworms, predatory monsters that erupt from beneath the surface to devour whatever has disturbed them.

Josh Brolin and Oscar Isaac
Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) with Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac)

On one side (boo) we have the Harkonnen, led by the fat and uncouth Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (almost unrecognisable Stellan Skarsgård), on the other (hooray), the slender and refined Atreides clan, headed by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), accompanied by his svelte consort Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and his son and heir Paul (Timothée Chalamet).

Paul is the focus, since this is a Jesus-Buddha-Mohammad-Luke Skywalker-Neo story of the callow youth overcoming obstacles and growing into a prophet/master of his own destiny, and Chalamet, it must be said, is perfectly cast as Paul, the proud yet delicate looks of the Renaissance princeling being ideal for what Villeneuve is laying down.

When Lynch made his Dune in 1984, Star Wars (which had borrowed so much from Frank Herbert’s book) was only seven years in the past. I’m guessing, but Lynch, possibly keen to avoid the charge of plagiarism, fought shy of leaning too closely into George Lucas’s vision. All these years later, Villeneuve has no such qualms and goes all in on the Star Wars ethos, borrowing its swagger, its “hey, kid” camaraderie and, to an extent, its look, especially in the many sandy sequences filmed in Jordan, the stand-in for Arrakis.

It’s got a medieval Game of Thrones glam thing going on too, and its narrative joys are similar – there is no really strong plot pulling us through, rather we’re expected to enjoy rolling around in the lore.

This Dune is all about world-building on the most massive of scales, yet there’s a fanatical attention to detail throughout, most obviously in the various flying vehicles, the cityscape on Arrakis and the sandworms (nod to Lynch). Villeneuve’s pique when Warners decided to stream it on HBO (Covid played a role here) is entirely understandable. He’d shot it for IMAX and though I’m not one of those “you really should see this in the cinema” wonks, for maximum effect here’s one you really should see in the cinema.

A visceral, spectacular experience that only gets to roughly the halfway point in Frank Herbert’s story, the rest of it coming in part two. “This is only the beginning,” says Chani (played by the much-trailed Zendaya, who’s clearly coming into her own in the next instalment). And you believe her. Please don’t make part two be like The Matrix Reloaded.

Dune – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Max von Sydow, Patrick Stewart, Kyle MacLachlan and Jürgen Prochnow

Dune. Not Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 behemoth, that pleasure still awaits. But David Lynch’s 1984 version, the only film in his career that he wished he hadn’t made and will not talk about in interviews, except to say he shouldn’t have made it.

And not the theatrical version either, but the “extended” one worked up for TV so it could be shown in two 90 minute chunks. Lynch hated this one so much he had his name taken off the credits. So welcome to another “Alan Smithee film”.

Acutally Lynch originally had a four-hour cut in mind but had managed to get the running time down to three hours. Not short enough for his producers, who were worried that anything over two hours and 17 minutes would mean one fewer showing per day in the cinemas. And so two hours 17 minutes it is, and comprehensibility be damned. Which is why I turned to the TV version, hoping against hope that three hours would fill in some of the gaps.

The vastly sprawling plot can be distilled down to: the Emperor Shaddam IV (Jose Ferrer), anxious that his barons are gaining in power, sets two houses – Harkonnen (boo) and Atreides (hooray) – against each other in a divide-and-rule contest over who will control the mining and trade of Spice, a magical substance with bitcoin-meets-crack allure found only on the planet Arrakis (aka Dune), a sandy waste where killer monster sandworms hold sway.

Think of Harkonnen as the Empire and Atreides as the Rebel Alliance, if you want a Star Wars hook to hang this film on, and young Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan in his debut) as a Luke Skywalker type growing in stature from callow youth to mighty warrior as he faces down the Harkonnen and uncovers the Emperor’s treachery.

On the planet Arrakis, aka Dune
On the planet Arrakis

Both Star Wars and Dune are in hock visually to the 1930s Flash Gordon films but David Lynch seems to have been drinking deeper from the cup than George Lucas ever did. The faintly militaristic look, the art nouveau styling, the hair just so, the way everyone speaks in awed sci-fi tones about concepts that must be everyday to them, that all connects directly to the era of Buster Crabbe’s Flash and Jean Rogers’ Dale Arden.

Lucas, his scrolling preamble aside, found clever narrative ways to explain the who, what and where of what was going on in his film in a way that Lynch never manages. This film is heavy with explication, with a voiceover narrator (some of it added for the TV version, admittedly), internal monologue from characters and a tendency for every new interaction between people to begin with an explicatory preamble contextualising what the characters are about to discuss.

Villeneuve’s film has broken Frank Herbert’s original novel into two halves, and watching Lynch trying to get all of its plot onto the screen in 1984 you can’t help feeling he (or the De Laurentiises, who produced) would have done better to do the same. This Dune is drowning in guff.

Blame Herbert’s book, if you like. Personally, reading it was the moment when I broke with sci-fi, which until then I’d associated with pithy, ideas-driven stories from the likes of Asimov, Le Guin, Dick, Heinlein and Bradbury. Dune, by contrast, was a soap opera in space. And long. The original book was 400 and something pages, with more volumes forming a traffic jam behind. Call it an attention span disorder but I gave up around the halfway mark.

This is not a good film, not at any level. Lynch is not an action director, the look of it is shonky, even with the great Freddie Francis as DP, the sets are frequently wobbly, and though vast amounts of money have clearly been spent on the mostly practical effects (there are some crude early CG moments), it’s been wasted. Toto’s soundtrack is senseless – it brings to mind the vamping Lynch would get from a later musical collaborator, Angelo Badalamenti, which is fine for odd open-ended dramas but does not work here, where a bit of ta-daa and boom is needed rather than airy blah.

There are good things to be found. MacLachlan is fantastic as the wide-eyed youth growing into the nobility already possessed by his father (Jürgen Prochnow). Francesca Annis as his mother has that fatalistic Lady Macbeth thing going on. Siân Phillips is a fantastically swivel-eyed priestess. Max Von Sydow in warrior attire is dignity incarnate. Sean Young, underused but welcome in a Princess Leia-ish role as Paul Atreides’ love interest. Jose Ferrer, not in it half enough, makes a great and commanding Emperor, and Kenneth McMillan as Baron Harkonnen, face covered in pustules and with a tendency to float off into the air, seems to be enjoying himself in his pantomime role.

Imagine if Ridley Scott had made this, as was mooted at one point (he made Blade Runner instead). That would have freed David Lynch up to make Return of the Jedi, which he turned down to make this. Right there, two alternate-reality sci-fi scenarios.

Dune – Watch /buy the theatrical version at Amazon

David Lynch box set at Amazon – Includes Dune, Blue Velvet, Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

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© Steve Morrissey 2021