A few years ago, Universal Studios Home Video released a flip-disc DVD containing not only David Lynch's Dune but the Alan Smithee Extended Edition and a bounty of bonus materials. As it was a highly-anticipated title for the many fan boys who populated the readership of one of my former outlets, I dutifully watched both versions and the extras and decided that the theatrical cut was superior – indeed, actually a worthwhile film that was perhaps underappreciated thanks to its initial failure at the box office. That said, I also dutifully filed it away in my DVD collection and never watched it again, assuming I'd be interested in revisiting it some time in the future, and presumably further developing my appreciation for its many complexities.
As is the studios' want, Universal conspired to make me (or just make me want to) see the film again with their release of the new Blu-ray. Bereft of that Smithee cut but still retaining the extras, the film enjoys new life in high definition and looks better than it ever has. But is Dune some unheralded masterpiece or just, well, a piece of crap? That's what this week's "Shelf Life" intends to find out.
The Facts: Based on Frank Herbert's novel of the same name, David Lynch's Dune was released on December 14, 1984, and met with extremely disappointing box office returns. Earning only $27.5 million against its rumored $45 million budget, the film was by all accounts a financial disaster; meanwhile, it received scathing reviews from many critics, including Roger Ebert, Janet Maslin, and Richard Corliss. Currently, the film enjoys a 62 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Although Universal released the Extended Edition in 2006 bearing the Alan Smithee directing credit, contrary to long-held rumors, David Lynch never produced a different cut of the film than the theatrical version. Or, perhaps more specifically, the theatrical edition is the only version that was ever approved by Lynch. Otherwise, there are several other versions floating around that incorporate alternate and extended scenes, but none of them have been collected for release – at least not domestically – except in the '06 flip-disc release.
What Still Works: I think conceptually a whole lot about the film works: the idea of a future universe that sort of hangs in the balance as battling clans wage wars public and secret against one another; the concept of an otherworldly material that gives people enhanced abilities and is a prized commodity throughout that universe; and a Shakespearean conflict where families, clans and cultures clash with one another against the backdrop of these political, social and even environmental concerns.
But more than that, Lynch's film is gorgeous, particularly in high definition: the set and production design luxuriates in minute details on the walls, the costumes, and seemingly everywhere else. Although primitive in comparison to the special effects used today, the visual construction of the film is amazing and expansive and creates a palpable sense of size and dimension – one that quite frankly hasn't yet been consistently replicated by the use of CGI. There's an early scene in which a giant slug-brained creature visits the Emperor of the Known Universe, and as absurd as it sometimes seems that Jose Ferrer is talking with this animatronic beast, you do get a sense that he's actually talking to a gigantic creature in a gigantic set, all of which lends the scene (and the film as a whole) a tactile quality and an authenticity as the story moves from one planet to another.
What Doesn't Work: Really, almost everything else. Quite frankly, I have no idea what I saw when I watched the 2006 DVD release, because during this viewing and from almost the first frame, I was hopelessly lost, or at the very least bored. For example, the introduction provided by Virginia Madsen's character fades in and out repeatedly as she provides (I'd say basic, but nothing in Dune can be described that way) logistical details, apparently talking so long that she "almost forgets" that mélange, the spice that everyone in the universe wants, is available on only one planet – Dune.
But rather than limiting the film's exposition to this direct address to the audience, Dune spends at least 30 minutes introducing characters, explaining back stories, and setting up all of the political and personal machinations that are supposed to play out during the course of the film. Unfortunately, even when they do, it seems as if almost nothing is ever happening; there are only about two full-fledged action scenes in the entire film, and the rest of the running time is occupied by grandiose, explanatory, or just plain weird speeches, few if any of which make sense to a person who hasn't committed Frank Herbert's source material to memory.
What remains interesting, however, is who is really responsible for the film's complete and total failure to tell a compelling, coherent story. David Lynch has declined opportunities to revisit the material and assemble a "director's cut," and previously acknowledged that he started "selling out" even while the script was being made, which means that the producers exerted a considerable amount of pressure on him to deliver certain things that he may not have wanted to do. But what the producers saw in Lynch as a director for this particular film remains a mystery, since his work prior to Dune – and especially since – suggests clean, straightforward narratives (much less concepts) are as alien to him as, well, Paul Atreides is to a sandworm.
What's The Verdict: Dune does not hold up really in any way, shape or form. There are certainly fans of the film out there, but I find it extraordinarily difficult to imagine their love for it was based at least in part on previous affection for the source material, since there is almost nothing to grasp in terms of story or character that connects with the audience, much less feels compelling. That said, it feels like there are so many individual ideas that are intriguing in the film – including the design and conceptualization of the characters and their universe, not to mention the dynamics of the different houses and their interactions with alien races and political conflicts – that it's all the more disappointing that someone hasn't been able to reshape this material into something more effective, or better yet, remake or adapt the material into another movie that really maximizes its assets and minimizes its shortcomings.
But as it stands, and cinematically speaking, Dune is a disaster, and while it's important to point out that the new Blu-ray looks absolutely gorgeous and is by all accounts the best the movie has ever looked, there's no denying that what you're actually looking at makes little to no sense, and sometimes style isn't enough if there's no substance to go with it.