With Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Dune almost upon us, here is a chance to revisit David Lynch’s ill-starred attempt from 1984: the version of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel he wrote and directed under the aegis of producer Dino De Laurentiis. At the time, it was greeted with a bored shrug from both press and public, making it a rare failure for Lynch. It would be agreeably contrarian to claim that Lynch’s Dune is an underrated masterpiece – but it isn’t exactly. There are, admittedly, some moments of expressionist panache and dreamlike strangeness; it sometimes feels like a freewheeling sci-fi production of a lost Shakespeare Roman play. There’s a wonderful scene when the mighty sandworm on the planet Arrakis is tamed and mastered, which Villeneuve hasn’t yet offered us.
But there are also a lot of longueurs, a lack of dramatic focus, and simply an attempt to do too much, encompassing and transforming the entire book in just over two hours. (Villeneuve, by contrast, is covering less than half with his version.) The passing of time can be very unforgiving for visual effects, and Lynch’s Dune doesn’t look as good as, say, Kubrick’s 2001, which was made long before. It’s closer in design to Mike Hodges’s intergalactic comic-book comedy Flash Gordon from 1980, which was supposed to be funny, although that also had Max von Sydow in it.
In this Dune, Kyle MacLachlan plays Paul Atreides, the young aristocrat from a noble house ordered by the emperor to take up what amounts to a colonial governorship on the harsh planet of Arrakis, or “Dune”, a place of huge strategic importance. This is where a substance called melange, which endows the consumer with enormous power, is mined. But the planet has an indigenous people who are on the point of rising up against their imperial oppressors – there is talk of holy war – and a terrifying and possibly phallic sandworm that churns the desert landscape. Paul’s mother, Jessica (Francesca Annis), is the initiate of an occult sisterhood that cultivates supernatural powers of the mind and awaits the arrival of a messiah. Jessica is subordinate to a terrifying reverend-mother figure, nicely played by Siân Phillips, who forces Paul to undergo a disturbing initiation ceremony with a box. And as war between the house of Atreides and the various duplicitous families breaks out, Paul falls in love with Chani (Sean Young) and confronts his own messianic destiny.
It is a movie that starts out as if it were going to reinvent Lawrence of Arabia in those eerily rippling sands, and there’s a coolly delivered prologue from Virginia Madsen as the emperor’s daughter Princess Irulan, putting us in the picture about the geopolitics of it all, with her face swimming weirdly in and out of focus. There are intriguing supporting performances from Phillips, from Von Sydow as a scientist on the planet and from José Ferrer as the dignified emperor himself. But this is a film that doesn’t dramatically harness the vast forces it’s gesturing at, but trundles determinedly along with very little variation of tone or pace.
• Dune is released on September 24 in cinemas.