Half operatic space epic, half eco-political allegory, Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel Dune covers a lot of narrative and metaphorical ground. Too much, according to some, to ever be effectively adapted for the big screen. A theory that was only reinforced when David Lynch’s ill-fated attempt at an adaptation premiered in 1984. For decades, the film has been dismissed as an unfortunate footnote on the otherwise highly esteemed director’s career.
Now, 37 years later, sci-fi auteur Denis Villeneuve has hazarded his own excursion into the cinematically inhospitable world of Dune. Released last month, the new film has prompted a long-overdue reevaluation of Lynch’s maligned cult classic, resulting in a growing appreciation of its unique design. There are undeniably things that Villeneuve’s adaptation does more successfully, but the distinct fantasticality and utter weirdness of Lynch’s version will likely see it overtake and outlast the new film in the coming years.
The ‘84 Dune was Lynch’s only true foray into the worlds of both science fiction and blockbuster entertainment, and it was not an experience he enjoyed. In his memoir Room to Dream, Lynch details his frustration with the constraints of a major studio production, particularly over slashing the film’s length to maximize sales, stating:
“It was like a [nightmare]. Things were truncated, and whispered voice-overs were added because everybody thought audiences wouldn’t understand what was going on. Some voice-overs shouldn’t be there and there are important scenes that just aren’t there. Horrible”
Lynch has publicly declared his adaptation a failure, and he’s certainly not alone in that. It has been ridiculed as an “incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion,” – and there’s, unfortunately, a degree of truth to that assessment. The discordance behind the scenes between Lynch and the studio is palpable throughout the film. A feverish blend of surreal filmmaking, hardcore science fiction, and big-budget entertainment, the movie never quite settles into a singular, coherent product.
While that internal incongruity might be a structural detriment to Lynch’s Dune, it also affords it one major advantage over Villeneuve’s new adaptation. It makes Lynch’s film diverse in the way that a sci-fi space opera should. An outlandish concoction of disparate elements that feel as if they’ve been pulled from diametric corners of a vast universe. The film’s production designer Tony Masters even compared Lynch’s composition to the fragmented masterpieces of Picasso. “He comes up with weird ideas that make no sense. When we put them in, they do make sense in the overall scheme” he stated in an interview with the New York Times a year ahead of the movie’s debut.
While comparing the disjointed film to the works of one of history’s greatest artists might be a bit of a stretch, there’s some validity in the underlying sentiment. The universe of Dune is a sprawling assortment of disparate peoples, environments, cultures, and planets. It really shouldn’t possess a singular, cohesive overarching aesthetic – which is exactly what Villeneuve’s adaptation has done.
The monstrous insect-worm hybrid Spacing Guild Navigator of Lynch’s Dune is has been replaced by a handful of human beings in minimalistic masks. The ambiguous Bene Gesserit martial art of the “Weirding Way,” which Lynch interprets as some bizarre module of sonic weaponry, is now only shown as a technique of hand-to-hand combat. Even the two great houses of Atreides and Harkonnen, who should be antithetical to one another, possess fairly similar designs in the new film. Villeneuve’s battles consisting of men in grey combat armor charging men in black combat armor, whereas in Lynch’s film Harkonnens wear rubbery hazmat suits into combat against pug-brandishing Atreides.
Lynch’s frivolous additions and interpretations may have been a source of his film’s condemnation, but their absence in the new adaptation illustrates their important function. These bizarre quirks are what help the film feel unique, alien, expansive; as if the story actually takes place in a galaxy that exists beyond our comprehension. In comparison, Villeneuve’s Dune is very uniform. His interpretation is brutalist and functional, an aesthetic that meshes well with his more serious tone, but one that also makes his film somewhat monotonous. It may help keep the film cohesive, but also chips away at the vibrancy of the universe.
Of course, Villeneuve isn’t quite finished yet. A Dune: Part Two has already been greenlit following the relative success of his first chapter, and it’s certainly a chance he deserves. Despite its flaws, his film is a more faithful, and arguably more successful, adaptation of the book. The cohesion makes it measurably easier to follow, particularly for the uninitiated, and the sheer scale of his film is mesmerizing and engrossing. To fans and critics alike, his interpretation is a welcome addition to the Dune cannon. But as time passes and the hype dissipates, the outright, unmitigated strangeness Lynch’s original adaptation will stick in people’s brains long after the next sci-fi phenomenon has swept Villeneuve’s new version aside.