There are moments of dreamlike brilliance in this extravagant fable of imperialism – provided you can stay awake to see them
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.