David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s perennial sci-fi epic Dune remains one of the great sadnesses of the celebrated filmmaker’s career. Lynch spent three years working on the project, only for it to be butchered during production and in the cutting room by a studio eager to create the next Star Wars. But despite the well-documented behind the scenes conflict, there is more than enough magic in this peculiar film to appeal to audiences beyond the Lynch die-hards and ‘80s sci-fi fans or fans of Denis Villeneuve’s recent blockbuster adaptation.
First there’s Lynch’s approach to the subject material; the director revels in the opportunity to create the visual language of entire sci-fi civilisations, from the ostentatious set design, to the otherworldly costumes, to the grotesque practical effects used to bring the villainous House Harkonnen to life. Lynch’s visionary imagination is on full display throughout several set-pieces and dream sequences and there are some wonderful early digital effects; the personal force fields used by the warriors of House Atreides are a visual marvel and still impress today. Then there’s the (at times disturbingly) alien sound design, and music courtesy of Toto and Brian Eno, which takes a bombastic, forward-facing, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach, feeling at once reflective of mid-80s pop and something entirely of its own. And there’s the cast; a revolving gallery of Lynch regulars (Jack Nance, Everett McGill, Kyle MacLachlan in his debut performance), respected character actors (Brad Dourif, Max von Sydow) and beyond (Patrick Stewart, Sting).
Who knows what Lynch’s unfiltered vision would have looked like had it been made (rumours persist of a three-hour runtime) and although it seems that Lynch’s experiences working on Dune continue to be a source of great pain to him, luckily for us audiences the results are never anything less than fascinating and (especially comparted to the science fiction film landscape of today) genuinely alien, deliciously bizarre, and utterly unique.