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So, Is David Lynch’s ‘Dune’ Really That Bad?

Like a lot of notorious cinematic stinkers, the 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel is far from the dumpster fire its reputation would suggest. If anything, its intertwined flaws and strengths make it a fascinating misfire

When you start really getting into movies as a kid, part of that process is figuring out what films are considered the best and then watching those. You track down Citizen Kane, The Godfather, all the consensus classics. And along the way, you’ll also hear about the infamous disasters — those movies well-known for being total fiascos. Curiosity may draw you to check out Heaven’s Gate or Ishtar or The Postman, all high-profile projects with big budgets and huge hopes that turned out to be utter catastrophes. They’re cautionary tales about how movies can go so very wrong — you cast your eyes upon them the same way you look at an especially cringy viral video. You want to see the calamity for yourself.

One of those movies is back in the news because of next week’s release of the much-anticipated Dune. Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious, often-excellent adaptation of Frank Herbert’s acclaimed novel isn’t the first time Hollywood has tried its hand at bringing that book to the big screen. Yet for years, studios were wary because of an earlier stab that led to ruin. Even if you haven’t seen the 1984 Dune, you’ve probably heard that it’s terrible — easily the worst film David Lynch ever made and a bomb that could have capsized Kyle MacLachlan’s career just as it was beginning. But not unlike other heralded disasters, Lynch’s Dune isn’t, in fact, a giggle-inducing embarrassment. Currently streaming on HBO Max, the film is very much an artifact of 1980s Hollywood and a fascinating what-if that shows Lynch taking a shot at crafting a blockbuster. It’s also plenty awkward, filled with some dazzling moments and many that don’t work. Lynch’s Dune isn’t a catastrophe and doesn’t deserve to be mocked. It’s also not that great either.

The David Lynch who made Dune isn’t the one we know now — the revered, lovably idiosyncratic auteur behind such surrealist stunners as Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks. This was still early in his career, when he’d only had two films under his belt: the mind-tripping Eraserhead and the rather straightforward biopic The Elephant Man, which received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. It was around this time that George Lucas approached him about maybe directing Return of the Jedi, an opportunity, he said later, he had “zero interest” in pursuing. “But I always admired George. George is a guy who does what he loves. And I do what I love. The difference is, what George loves makes hundreds of billions of dollars. So I thought I should go up and at least visit with him.” 

Instead, Lynch turned his attention to adapting Herbert’s 1965 novel, although he was skeptical when the opportunity was first presented to him. “I’m not crazy about science fiction,” he admitted in the September 1984 issue of Cinefantastique, “and I’d never read Dune before I accepted this film. But when I finally got around to it, I was just knocked out. … Dune has believable characters and a lot of depth, a lot of resonance. It’s not all surface flash.”

The idea of a big-screen Dune had been kicking around since the 1970s — Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott had both failed to turn the dense, lengthy book into a movie — and with each aborted attempt, the property began to garner the reputation as being one of those unfilmable great novels. Undeterred, Lynch’s vision came to theaters in December 1984. (Interestingly, it opened around the same time as a few other notable sci-fi films: 2010, Starman and 1984.) And unlike Villeneuve’s version, which is only the first half of Herbert’s tome, Lynch gave us the full story — kind of — in his 137-minute movie. Of course, that was part of the problem, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Lynch’s film signals its loopy ambitions from the start, as the floating head of Virginia Madsen, set against an endless sea of stars, informs us that we’re in the year 10,191. Essentially, she’s serving the same purpose as that opening crawl in a Star Wars movie, letting us know the lay of the land before we dive into the action. The universe is governed by Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer), and the most valuable commodity is Spice, which can do everything from cure ailments to power warships. It only exists on one planet, Arrakis, and the emperor assigns House Atreides, led by the wise, beloved Duke Leto Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow), to safeguard the supply. But the emperor has a secret agenda, plotting to have House Atreides ambushed and destroyed by their enemies, the Harkonnens, who are ruled by the evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan). Also important to know: Duke Leto’s son Paul (MacLachlan) is the chosen one who’s destined for a glorious future.

Although Lynch’s Dune came out after Star Wars, Herbert’s book predates Lucas’ space opera, and so it might have been confusing for unfamiliar viewers to watch Dune, who probably thought, “Oh great, another Luke Skywalker-like story of a scrappy kid who’s going to save the universe.” Of course, heroes’ journeys were around long before Herbert and Lucas, but one of the most striking elements of Lynch’s film is how it’s both connected and a response to Star Wars mania. 

Blockbusters had become part of Hollywood’s business model ever since 1975’s Jaws, but Star Wars two years later further cemented this commercial shift. Soon, sci-fi films were all the rage, whether it was the Star Trek franchise or cheesier space adventures like The Black Hole. Dune opened about 18 months after Return of the Jedi, and it certainly felt like a way to capitalize on that trilogy’s mammoth success. After all, Herbert’s story was filled with shootouts, colorful aliens, mystical powers and a cosmic battle between good and evil. The gross, oozing Baron Harkonnen could have been a distant cousin to Jabba the Hutt, while the gigantic sandworms that wreak havoc across the deserts of Arrakis recalled the faceless, toothy horror of the Sarlacc from Return of the Jedi. 

But because it was Lynch, this Dune was never going to be a conventional action movie. As he himself admitted, he wasn’t a big sci-fi guy. In that same interview, he said, “In a lot of ways, this novel is the antithesis of the usual raygun and spaceship science fiction I’m used to seeing. … I like to go into weird worlds. … There are a lot of visions and dreams and moods in the novel too, and I’m excited about exploring that as well.” 

No surprise, then, that his Dune isn’t a bam-bam event picture. It’s got space battles and the like, but it’s really more of a funky hangout movie as we cut back and forth between the different power players. Lots of franchise filmmakers talk about world-building, but Lynch’s Dune creates a peculiar vibe that’s partly realistic but mostly trippy and weird and playful. Nowadays, that gets reduced to being called “campy,” and I suppose that’s somewhat accurate — how else to label a motion picture in which Sting is decked out in a metal diaper? — but after the rather buttoned-down conformity of the Star Wars pictures, Dune was a genuinely odd epic. Especially now, when Marvel ensures that its movies all have the same cookie-cutter familiarity, Dune feels revelatory. It’s a movie that happens when an iconoclast is allowed to do whatever the hell he wants. Lynch would have never gotten away with any of this in a Star Wars sequel.

Granted, a lot of Dune’s effects haven’t aged well — a fact with many mid-1980s movies — but even so, there remains a dreamlike quality to the spaceships, costumes and future-tech devised for the film. Even at the time, Dune’s visuals were ridiculed — “This whole film looked ugly,” Gene Siskel said in his pan, “as if the lens were filthy” —  but, in hindsight, there’s almost a charming handmade quality to the design, a boyish innocence that undercuts the self-importance of Herbert’s tale of feuding houses and dashing young warriors. Even when Dune stumbles, which is a lot, you can feel Lynch’s influence on the material — particularly, how he sometimes prefers the bizarre and the uncanny to the perfectly polished. (Part of what makes Mulholland Drive or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me unnerving is that some of the visual tricks feel intentionally off.) 

Then there’s the matter of the performances. MacLachlan had never been in a film before Lynch picked him to play Paul, and while he’s not fully confident in the role, it’s striking now to see the beloved Twin Peaks star as an action hero. And he’s joined by a collection of character actors, including Brad Dourif, Linda Hunt and Freddie Jones, who are all slightly hammy, to varying degrees of success. Plus, you have a pre-Star Trek: The Next Generation Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck, Paul’s loyal mentor, showing off the regal manner that would later make him a cultural fixture as Jean-Luc Picard. Often, infamous cinematic disasters are marked by awkward, tone-deaf acting — it’s as if the performers have forgotten everything about their craft — and although Dune is filled with Acting!!! moments, it’s rarely stunningly bad. That said, the way that Lynch can usually coax controlled, off-kilter performances from his casts didn’t happen here. Blame it on the goofy facial hair, if you must. 

But, of course, a significant reason that the 1984 film is so disparaged is that the producers took the movie away from him. His original, longer cut was trimmed down; reshoots happened without him. In 2018, Lynch compared Dune to another movie of his that bombed, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, making this important distinction between the two: “With Dune, I sold out on that early on, because I didn’t have final cut, and it was a commercial failure, so I died two times with that. With Fire Walk With Me, it didn’t go over well at the time, but I loved it so I only died once, for the commercial failure and the reviews and things.” If you bring up Dune to Lynch, he’ll often reply in that same wistful manner. In 2019, he commented, “I always say, Dune is a huge gigantic sadness in my life. … The film is not the film I would’ve made had I had that final control. It’s a bit of a sadness.”

The negative reviews and poor commercial performance, on top of the behind-the-scenes drama, were a perfect storm for this hyped blockbuster to become labeled an all-time stinker. But anyone who gives it a shot today may be pleasantly surprised to discover… it’s actually kinda okay. Lynch’s Dune isn’t the sort of dumpster fire where you want to invite friends over so you can all sneer at it. (It’s not Showgirls.) There’s too much of the director’s patented strangeness in the film to dismiss out of hand — if anything, his elder-statesman status only makes Dune more fascinating as you see hints of some of the surreal touches he’d bring to later films. 

But what ultimately sinks Dune is that, at just over two hours, it’s too condensed in its storytelling to really do justice to such a sprawling, thought-provoking adventure. (Despite Lynch’s best efforts, Dune ends up being too much about the rayguns and spaceships after all.) There are so many characters and so many plot twists that the 1984 film feels like a dashed-off, half-remembered recitation of the book. And for a guy who’s going to rule the universe, Paul isn’t very interesting — even worse, when characters around him die, they don’t really resonate because you haven’t had enough time with them on screen. Dune is rushed, mangled, misbegotten, a good try but not nearly good enough.

Which leads to a funny irony. Modern viewers who check out Lynch’s Dune may not think of classic turkeys like Heaven’s Gate — which, by the way, is actually a pretty good movie — but, rather, more modern misfires like Justice League, where Warner Bros. frantically tried to salvage a crucial franchise installment by hiring another filmmaker, who took the story in a very different tonal direction. Just so long as no one gets the bright idea of launching a “Release the Lynch cut” campaign for Dune: Lynch has said he has “zero interest” in seeing the new movie, and I’m sure he’s even less enthused about the prospect of revisiting one of his greatest disappointments. “It wouldn’t be fair to say it was a total nightmare,” he once said of making Dune, “but it was maybe 75 percent a nightmare.”

No worries: Villeneuve’s version is a better, bolder take on the material, and Lynch has gone one to make enough classics that his legacy is in no way besmirched by Dune. Even so, his movie’s endearing oddness has its charms — maybe they’re not as powerful as Spice, but they’re almost as rare.