Last summer, a major studio allowed James Gunn, an untested indie darling, to helm a big-budget adaptation of an obscure science-fiction property. That the result, Guardians of the Galaxy, was a global hit, struck many as a surprisingly lucrative gamble. In hindsight, it was no gamble at all, but the end result of three decades of corporate moviemaking perfecting itself to a meticulous science. Savvy executives handpicked a director just idiosyncratic enough to turn out a unique product without overturning his creative ambitions against the established grain a la Edgar Wright. Thirty years ago, a major studio released another cult director’s adaptation of an obscure sci-fi series. But where James Gunn’s Guardians shines with affable, studio polish, David Lynch’s Dune was an instant disaster, ignored by audiences and unloved by critics. Today, it can be seen as emblematic of the commercial filmmaking world of 1984. Though the marketing synergy of the global blockbuster was still decades away, the ambitions of filming alien fantasy stories loomed large. But instead of making gold, the cinematic alchemists created Dune.
Common knowledge asserts that the failure of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in 1980 secured the proverbial coffin lid of high-budget, auteur-driven projects with industrial-sized drywall nails. Hollywood cinema of the 1980s, we tell ourselves, was filled with red-vested time-travelers and action comedies. In truth, the decade was also a petri dish for the hyper-sophisticated formula for blockbuster marketing. The idea that, nowadays, major studios map out cinematic universes five years in advance may smack of hubris, but such calculated, long-con movie production is the end result of a three-decade-long development of movie studios becoming the subsidiary shadow of multinational conglomerates. With this incorporation came an increased degree of formula that extended beyond the screen and into merchandising, promotion and director selection. It took a long time for the science to become exact. But in 1984, the alchemists were only tinkering, meaning there were still opportunities for art-house wunderkinds like a young Lynch to do some very strange things with studio money.
No scene in Dune illustrates this more than the one in which Sting, at the height of his sex-god perfection, introduces a prisoner to a box containing a hairless cat attached to a series of tubes. A poison has been introduced into the man’s body. The antidote to this poison is produced within the cat’s milk. The man will have to drink it to survive. This fictional bizarre bargain is not what makes Dune so well-tuned to its era. That fact lies in the existence of the Sting action figure, advertised to children and packaged with a tiny replica of that same cat. For Christmas in 1984, marketing executives truly believed that children would pine for the chance to recreate Dune’s R-rated torture scenarios.
For every great American director who emerged in the 1970s, there was an accompanying big- budget 1980s failure. Take Steven Spielberg’s 1941, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club, Robert Altman’s Popeye, or Elaine May’s Ishtar. Standing alongside them is Lynch, only two films removed from his surreal debut of Eraserhead, tapped somehow to helm a huge studio genre picture. It may baffle us now, that hurling of money at such a project. But Dune was a failure during the golden age of failure. It came four years after Heaven’s Gate and three years before Ishtar. But there is something totemic about the failure of these projects that eclipses those of other decades. Perhaps it is the friction between the talent involved and the bloated messes that ensued. The 1980s was also a decade to which time has proven kind. Nearly all of these films have been critically re appraised and viewed positively in passing years. They have gained their defenders, though Dune perhaps not so much. Its most recent cultural moment came as a punchline near the end of the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. Following the failure to launch his own version of the project, Alejandro Jodorowsky expresses the relief he felt when Lynch’s take turned out to be terrible. By virtue of being flops, films like Dune have become synonymous with failure and hubris. This has resulted in Dune splitting into two films. There is the unforgivable disaster in the collective imagination, a film created through assumptions. And then there is the film itself, a lumbering Chimera of half-realized ambition that recalls a long-gone era before blockbusters exchanged personality for boilerplate success.
Let’s not mince words. Dune is leaden, empty spectacle. It is clinical, hard to follow and often unconvincing. It opens with a didactic lecture, followed by a strange sort of curriculum vitae with its opening credits, which lists half a dozen special-effects consultants and no actors, and then transitions into what is essentially a narrated PowerPoint presentation about imaginary planets. Later, two minutes are given to explain the hydration systems of desert survival suits. Describing the plot would be like summarizing the manual to a 1992 Honda Civic. Essentially, it’s Avatar with giant sand worms, a colonialist hero leading a native tribe against speculative miners. These miners want “Spice!” The “Spice!” is on Dune, a desert planet populated by those same giant worms. The film gave the world Kyle MacLachlan, debuting on screen as a young prince with great hair. Kenneth McMillan is having more fun than everyone else as the sadomasochistic, boil-infested Baron Harkonnen. He can fly for some reason. Sting shows up and his character has an irrelevant name; you’re just going to call him Sting anyway. He has great pecs and wears a metal thong. The film was shot on the cheap in Mexico. Producer Raffaella De Laurentiis reported that a typical shooting day involved Lynch obsessing over a close-up on an actor’s eye while thousands of extras stood around in the desert, breathing in noxious fumes from piles of burning tires.
And yet through it all shines an unmistakable sense of personality. Unlike other cynical sci-fi flops of its era like Howard the Duck or Krull, Dune exudes a misguided but admirable sincerity. Beverly Hills Cop may have been playing to full crowds one theatre over, but maybe through the wall those audiences could hear the operatic madness echoing out of the near-empty Dune screenings. Two more delectable curios in the film include: a sadomasochistic space emperor bathing in oil before doing something unspeakable to a terrified servant; and a giant, sentient fetus in a water tank spewing “Dust!” out of a vaginal hole in its allometric head, like the bloated decedent of Lynch’s Eraserhead baby.
Along with the signature sand worms—a stunning combination of miniatures, puppetry and slow-motion photography—Dune sports some of the most striking practical effects of the 1980s. Sometimes, they share the same frame as some of the decade’s most embarrassing optical effects (the early CGI three-dimensional armor provides some of the ugliest special effects ever allowed into a major studio release). Many of Dune’s most memorable elements (including the hairless cat scene) weren’t in the source material. Lynch himself wrote the script, and in between characters giving endless monologues about Weirding Molecules and “Spice!” you can sense Lynch clamoring to assert himself. Lynch spent years on the project, toiling away in the Mexican desert, only for creative control to be wrestled away from him in post-production. He took MacLachlan along with him to make Blue Velvet two years later, the frustrations of Dune seeming to have only made him double down on his own singular artistry. Let loose from studio control by the grace of diminished budgets, Lynch remade himself as one the late 20th century’s most significant artists.
Dune was left in the dust. In some ways, it’s even easier to poke fun at the film now, when immaculately rendered alien worlds are the norm. We look upon those worlds’ creatures and yawn in the absence of wonder. It makes one almost yearn for the days in which Christmas-season films involving pulled-out nipple plugs could still become fodder for children’s coloring books. Dune’s failure may have helped take Hollywood one step closer to realizing its dreams of antiseptic, meticulously crafted franchises and cross-platform content integration. But, like John Hurt’s deformed face in Lynch’s The Elephant Man, one can feel Dune lifting its face to us, thirty years later, and asking us to see the humanity in its far-from-perfect visage.