In the far future, all interstellar trade depends on a spice found only on the desert world of Arrakis. When Paul Atreides and his family are sent to govern the planet, the stage is set for a tale of betrayal, murder and prophecy that will reveal the planet's secrets...
Derided, disowned, and debated endlessly, David Lynch’s weird venture into big budget sci-fi spectacle (having turned down the chance to make Return Of the Jedi) is a most fascinating disaster of genre making.
On a storytelling level Frank Herbert’s swollen book, a thinly disguised allegory of the Arab control of oil supply, proved far too intricate and unwieldy to cohere into a sensible film. And Lynch wasn’t about to worry about it, wrapping the film in swathes of religious symbolism, and letting it devolve into a rare form of highly expensive gibberish. No matter which, of many, extended cuts you watch the yarn retains no holding logic. Even lovers of the book’s dense arcana — a universe of squabbling aristocratic families, mystical witches, messiahs, and emperors all vying for control of the necessary spice —found it impossible to follow.
Yet, on another level, it isn’t without artistic merit. Story was never going to concern Lynch for long (making him a foolish choice for director), but he lends Herbert’s crowded mythos with its low-level fusion of the hi-tech and the Biblical, a vivid design. From the red-stained deserts (it was shot in Mexico) to the industrial horror of Harkonnen, to the great worms, giant phallic beasts coursing through Dune’s outback, the film has a surreal grace that draws you in. And the characters, as is Lynch’s wont, are rich and wild and amongst his funniest.
While MacLachlan’s hero-messiah Paul is bland, a good looking trope for the film’s peculiar destiny, Kenneth MacMillan has a whale of a time as the corpulent villain Baron Harkonnen, coated in suppurating boils as if his whole body oozed with his avaricious evil. Although, Sting in naught but a codpiece might have been an extravagance too far — the singer turned actor never fully recovered from the look.
Thus, it is hard to truly punish Dune. As a version of the book it remains hopeless (John Harrison’s TV mini-series made in 2000 does a far better job in adapting the book) but as a piece of outrageous sci-fi art, thrilling to its own excess, it is far more of a piece with Lynch’s idiosyncratic career, than he has made out.
It's not for everyone, but if you don't mind the brain-bending confusion of the plot and occasional feeling of '80s high camp, this isn't as bad as its detractors would have it.