Before the new version, let’s revisit 1984’s Dune—the greatest movie ever made


the spice must flow! —

The pursuit of greatness must embrace the ridiculous.

Peter Opaskar

Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel Dune gets a new film adaptation—this one helmed by Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049)—later this month. But before Ars Technica reviews the movie, there’s the matter of its predecessor: 1984’s Dune, made by a then up-and-coming filmmaker named David Lynch.

Detractors call Lynch’s saga—a tale of two noble space families 8,000 years in the future, fighting over the most valuable resource in the universe amidst sandworms the size of aircraft carriers—incomprehensible, stilted, and ridiculous. It lost piles of money. Yet fans, especially in recent years, have reclaimed Lynch’s film as a magnificent folly, a work of holy, glorious madness.

  • Lynch begins Dune where his previous film (The Elephant Man) ends: a starfield. The Emperor’s daughter (Virginia Madsen of Sideways) fades in to bring us up to speed. She doesn’t appear again for nearly 2 hours and, when she does, she doesn’t say or do anything.

  • Jose Ferrer is more subdued than the moniker “Emperor of the Known Universe” might lead you to believe. His son Miguel was on Twin Peaks. Siân Phillips plays his personal space nun.

  • The Emperor talks to a Guild Navigator. Look at that set. Your ranch-style two-story in the exurbs doesn’t seem so fancy now, does it?

  • The Guild Navigator started out as a regular human but has been mainlining the Spice for a thousand years or something. He can fold space but probably can’t get a date.

  • This is where the Atreides family lives. Long live models.

  • Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) has a tête-à-tête with the Emperor’s space nun. Fear may be the mind killer, but that thing at his neck is the regular kind of killer. Phillips has more dialogue in this scene than in any other, but she gets in some grade-A sighing and moaning throughout, because Lynch loves showing older women with wild hair having meltdowns. She’s why you hire great talents.

  • Little spaceships carry the Atreides and their entourage to a big spaceship for the journey to Dune. This whole space-travel sequence, like much of Dune, plays out like a ritual. See the docking bay where the spaceships are going in? I don’t think this screenshot does justice to all the baroque decoration. Nothing says, “We’ve had space travel for thousands of years” like needless ornamentation.

  • A Guild Navigator in his natural habitat. The Spice lets him move the Atreides’ big spaceship.

  • The Guild Navigator looks for Dune on his handy starchart. Complaining about dated special effects is like complaining when you see a Model T at a car show.

  • The big spaceship has been teleported to Dune. Note that it has no means of propulsion; it doesn’t need any.

  • Small spacecraft bring Atreides to the surface of Dune. The little ships look kind of like birds with their heads cut off.

  • Unloading.

  • A shuttle flies across the surface of Dune.

  • How’d I forget that Max von Sydow is in this? Anyway, he’s flying the shuttle. The patriarch of the Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow) is the hale fellow on the right.

  • Why wouldn’t David Lynch be a Spice miner on the planet Dune? He is, after all, the kwisatz haderach.

  • The hoopla around Duncan Idaho’s (Richard Jordan) appearance, followed by him doing just about nothing, helps give Dune its dreamlike feel.

So which group am I in? Both. Am I about to describe Dune as “so bad it’s good”? No, that’s a loser take for cowards.

I once half-heard a radio interview with someone speculating that the then-current artistic moment was not “so bad it’s good,” and it wasn’t “ironic” either—it was actually “awesome.” (I didn’t catch who he was, so if any of this sounds familiar, hit me up in the comments.) Art can speak to you while at the same time being absurd. The relatable can sometimes be reached only by going through the ridiculous. The two can be inseparable, like the gravitational pull between a gas giant and its moon—or Riggs and Murtaugh.

The example the radio interviewee gave was of Evel Knievel, the ’70s daredevil who wore a cape and jumped dirt bikes over rows of buses. Absurd? Heavens, yes. A feat of motorcycling and physicality? Absolutely. But beyond that, we can relate to Knievel’s need to achieve transcendence at such a, shall we say, niche skill. We might also marvel at our own ability to be impressed by something that should be objectively useless but is instead actually awesome.

A more contemporary example might be Tenet. It’s a relentless international thriller about fate and climate change and the need for good people to hold evil at bay. But it’s also a “dudes rock!” bromance between Two Cool Guys in Suits spouting sci-fi mumbo-jumbo. It can’t be one without the other.

  • From their first appearance, the Harkonnen are all about domination and humiliation. Nature is being dominated on the Harkonnen home world.

  • Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) has problems. I took so many screenshots of him because I was trying to get one in midspittle. He’s a spittle-heavy guy.

  • His nephews are The Beast (Paul Smith) and Feyd (Sting). Their uniforms combine Flash Gordon schlock with fetish gear and are obviously too heavy for the sweaty environs of the Harkonnen home world.

  • Some Harkonnen lackeys. On the left is Eraserhead himself, Jack Nance. He also finds Laura Palmer’s body and has the first line of dialogue in Twin Peaks. Next to him is Brad Dourif, who has been in sequels to Alien, The Exorcist, Lord of the Rings, and Bad Lieutenant, and he is the voice of Chucky. Truly, a weirdo’s weirdo.

  • Here’s a Harkonnen servant. Remember to join a union, kids!

    Universal Pictures

  • A behind-the-scenes shot of the Baron’s… throne room? Having your lackeys watch you get your zits popped is a flex, I guess. Also, the Baron can fly.

  • Here’s the image you’ve been clamoring for, you animals.

  • Paul trains to fight with this voice gun, but Dune is mostly a quiet movie. I’m showing off this screenshot at my next performance review. I got mad screenshot skills.

  • No, your monitor isn’t messed up, and you’re not having a stroke—that’s Paul wearing an energy shield!

  • The shield is activated by a button on your belt, which was the style at the time.

  • Harkonnen soldiers prepare for battle.

  • The Harkonnen en route to Dune.

  • A pitched battle in the sky. Pew-pew!

  • Ka-blammo!

  • My mom does the same thing when I drive.

  • Paul and his mom (Francesca Annis) flee the Harkonnen assault.

Travel without moving

I love Dune because it feels just as alien as something set 80 centuries in the future should. (To put that span of time in context, remember that 8,000 years in the past would still be 3,500 years before the Great Pyramids were built.) To create this feeling, Lynch blurs the novel’s plot and characters into a Spaceballs “ludicrous speed” lightshow.

Dune is the dream you have after reading a book about the distant future while listening to a 90-minute prog-rock album. Also, you may have done a pile of blow before falling asleep, because Sting is strutting around in Batman’s speedo.

Characters drift in and out, and their identities and relationships are unclear. A bear-sized scrotal mutant can move spaceships with drug-induced mind-magic. Soldiers bring drums to a knife fight. Plot threads are left untied. Brad Dourif has breathtaking eyebrows. Cast members deliver their inner thoughts via whispered, close-to-the-mic voiceovers worthy of an ASMR YouTube channel. The pacing is leisurely, almost hypnotic. You’re here for the wild sights, the rococo spaceships, the high-collared uniforms, and conversations so formal they border on liturgical. Just sit back and let them wash over you.

In other words, this was not exactly how Universal Studios intended to spend $40 million in 1980s money.

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