Ben Hibburd’s review published on Letterboxd:
*There are spoilers for the book and film in this review.*
Where do you even start trying to dissect this iconic cinematic gallimaufry of a film? David Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal Sci-Fi masterpiece is an overwrought, often tedious experience that’s bursting at the seams with a thousand different ideas. The script spends the majority of the run time wrestling with the complex themes of the novel whilst fundamentally misinterpreting the text at its core.
First off, I have to say that for the most part this film is utterly breathtaking to look at. There are dozens of shots that could quite easily sit amongst some of the greatest artistic renditions of all time. David Lynch and cinematographer Freddie Francis did a truly remarkable job of bringing Herbert’s world to life. Whilst some of the sets looked cheap (mainly everything set in the Harkonnen house), the overall quality is at a high standard. There were scenes where I truly felt the book come to life. The Atreides house and the world of Arrakis itself felt like they came straight from the page. The bright orange cinematography used to accentuate the landscape would later become synonymous with “Blade Runner 2049” but here it’s used to great effect and the results are just as potent.
The story of “Dune” is richly dense and features layers upon layers of world building so I’ll do my best to condense it down to its basic set up and not confuse myself, which will likely happen anyway.
The story is focused on Paul Atreides, played here by debutant Kyle McLaclen. He was birthed by his mother, Jessica, who went against the Bene Gesserit. They are a religious sisterhood who hold social and political influence in the “Dune” universe, and they’ve been manipulating bloodlines for centuries in order to create the Kwisatz Haderach. Their goal was for Jessica (who is one herself) to have a girl with Duke Leto Atreides and wed her to a member of House Harkonnen in order to bridge an allegiance between the two houses with their offspring to be a male and become the Kwisatz Haderach. The term loosely translates to: “One who can be many places at once.” Thousands of years of manipulation and careful breeding are destroyed as Jessica wants to give Leto a male heir, which in turn causes the downfall of House Atreidies.
At the same time House Atreides takes over mining operations of Spice on the desert planet of Arrakis from the Harkonnens. Spice, or melange as it is known, is the most valuable commodity in the universe as it allows for interstellar travel, as well as extending the lifespan of people who consume it. There’s one small catch though and that is that the spice is guarded by hundred foot sandworms that react to vibrations on the ground. This makes harvesting the spice as dangerous as it is lucrative, and whoever controls the spice, controls the universe which doesn't sit well with the Harkonnens.
After political backstabbing and betrayal House Atreides falls. Paul and Jessica manage to escape and come across the planet's natives, the Fremen. They view Paul as a deity and he in turn accepts the role despite knowing the impending chaos and genocide that’ll happen in his wake. He tries everything he can to avoid the inevitable jihad but he knows it’s a fruitless cause.
Where the film and the book differentiate the most is in Paul’s characterisation and the ending. In the book he’s viewed as a saviour figure, “The One” for lack of a better term. However, Paul himself is acutely aware that this is not the case. The book attempts to invert this trope by flipping it on its head that he’s not a savoir or some kind of deity. Instead, he’s aware that he’s trapped by his own fate. The film, however, takes this in the opposite direction and leans heavily into Paul being the One and that it’s his destiny to solve the problems of the universe which is the antithesis of the book.
The film also glosses over a large portion of the back half of the novel. For the most part up until the Duke’s betrayal the film is pretty faithful. It cuts some scenes and trims some characters for time. Duncan Idaho is basically a non factor in this film, same with Kynes (Max Von Sydow), however, it’s inevitable that a two hour film has to trim some plot threads/characters that didn't have too much of an impact on proceedings.
However, what did bother me was the lack of depth we got with the Fremen. Chani and Paul’s subplot received barely any attention and the chemistry between the two was non-existent. Same with Stilgar (leader of the group). The film also comes to a screeching halt during the last hour of the film as there’s way too much inner-monologue telling the story rather than the narrative thrusting the story ahead. Inner-monologue was a heavy feature of the book and it didn’t quite translate well to film. Maybe if it was just Paul’s thoughts we were privy to it would’ve worked better, but it felt like an easy crux to explain away aspects of world building.
Another issue I have with this film was the casting. This film has some bizarre casting choices. Stilgar and Chani are straight up white washed, despite Everett McGill giving an excellent performance as Stilgar. In fact he’s probably the best character in the film. However, I’m excited to see what Javier Bardem and Zendaya bring to the respective roles in Denis Villeneuve’s remake. Sting (the musician, not the wrestler) feels like he was just cast to boost ticket sales and whilst he’s not terrible, he gives some truly bizarre facial expressions. The rest of the cast is made up of David Lynch’s pals and they just didn’t belong. Jack Nance is shoehorned in and Dean Stockwell isn’t very good as Doctor Yueh. Patrick Stewart is fine as Gurney but is way too theatrical in the role and Brad Douriff is uncharacteristically terrible as Piter. The best piece of casting is Jurgen Prochnow as Leto, he carries himself well and despite the lack of screen time he’s able to display the spirit of Leto from the book.
I really wanted to give this film more than three stars but I just can’t. From a visual perspective this film is a marvel to behold. The effects, set design, costume design and visual artistry create a truly unique experience. The world building for the most part is on point, despite the script not retaining the depth of the book. However, I just can’t overlook the script. So much of the book is either chopped out or misunderstood. I don’t envy Lynch being given two hours to tell this story because it’s near impossible. What he was able to do in two hours is impressive but this needed to be either four hours long or a ten part miniseries to truly do the book justice. As it stands Lynch did his best to incorporate as much as he could but by doing so it spread the story too thin. There’s not much depth beyond the ideas it tries to set up and the visual imagery.
It’s a shame that Lynch never got to play in the Sci-fi sandbox again because he’s a true visionary, however, his ideas clashed too much with the book in order for the marriage to be a happy one. Denis Villeneuve, however, is a filmmaker that has a fundamental idea of storytelling, especially in the sci-fi genre that I feel he’ll do the book justice. Thankfully, it’s being split into two films so there should be every chance of success.