We Watched David Lynch’s ‘Dune’ And It’s … Not Bad!

About a month ago I knew very little about Dune. As opposed to now where I’ve seen two full Dune movies and even watched a documentary about another one that was never made, Jodorowsky’s Dune. So I guess it’s fair to say that, now, as I type this, I at least know something about Dune.

I had avoided David Lynch’s 1984 version for, well, pretty much all my life because when the director of a movie won’t even talk about it in interviews, as Lynch famously won’t, that’s a pretty good sign something went wrong. I do remember as a kid trying to watch it on HBO. It’s hard, now, to convey just how popular Sting was at the time. This was the rocker Sting. This was still the Sting that was the lead singer of The Police. And, yes, I wanted to watch the movie that starred Sting! A big deal was made about the fact that Sting was in Dune. At the time, this was much more important than the fact this was a David Lynch movie. Well, as a little kid with a short attention span, I didn’t have the patience to sit through this whole movie just for the surprisingly few scenes with Sting. And, frankly, I had no idea what was going on. It just felt like a confusing, kind of gross movie with hardly any Sting.

With the new Dune coming out and the fact Arrow was releasing a new 4K disc of the original, I decided to buy the disc and sit down and watch David Lynch’s Dune from beginning to end for the first time. And I’m still shocked at what I’m about to say: I found myself kind of, sort of, enjoying it.

Comparing David Lynch’s 1984 Dune and Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 Dune is actually pretty interesting when you get beyond the obvious: the new one has modern effects and costs a whole lot of money. But a lot of the same scenes happen in both movies, with very different approaches. And even though the new Dune is only half of the first book, it still covers about three-fourths of the material that’s in Lynch’s film. (I get the feeling that a lot of what Villeneuve wants to do in a second Dune movie, Lynch just “montages” through, with a voice-over that basically says, “we fought a lot of battles.”)

Lynch’s Dune over explains the story, to a fault. To the point that we hear what the characters are thinking. Yes, it creates a maddening amount of exposition, but at the same time, if you look at Lynch’s Dune as a king of the annotated movie, it serves as a really good primer headed into the new movie.

Here’s an example: In Villeneuve’s Dune, space travel is hardly explained. We know the spice on Arrakis is basically a fuel, making it very important to all these different factions, but that’s about it. When Leto and Paul Atreides (Oscar Isaac and Timothée Chalamet) travel from their planet to Arrakis, they just kind of fly up to a big space tube and then magically appear out the other end at their next destination. For whatever reason, Villeneuve doesn’t seem very interested in the more, let’s say, nerdier aspects of this story. His Dune kind of does away with all that and just focuses on the battle for spice on Arrakis.

The problem is, I kind of like those nerdier aspects. Because what that space tube does is it uses the spice to fold space (I know I’m oversimplifying this), creating the possibility of travel. And Lynch seems fascinated by this (I guess that’s not very surprising) and leans into all the nerdy things about Dune. So when Paul (Kyle MacLachlan, who makes a pretty bizarre, interesting Paul) travels to Arrakis in the 1984 movie, we get a whole lesson about how this all works. And how there’s a whole guild that controls travel and how that guild is causing trouble for everyone. I wish the new one had this stuff because I find this whole concept really interesting. But because I had watched Lynch’s first, I had an okay enough working knowledge of this anyway.

Look, Villeneuve’s Dune is a better movie. I’m not here to offer some sort of contrarian opinion that Lynch’s is “actually better.” It is not “better,” but I will say I’m pretty sure I had more fun watching it. Now, that could be by the time I watched Villeneuve’s movie, I had watched this same story twice in one month. But, watching Lynch’s Dune in 2021, it’s retroactively interesting. In that when it came out, it was “David Lynch is trying to make a good Dune movie.” But now it’s more, “Dune got the David Lynch treatment.” It feels more like a David Lynch movie than it does a Dune movie. There are so many visuals in Lynch’s Dune where you can kind of see where he’d go soon with Blue Velvet then, later, Twin Peaks, both also starring MacLachlan. (But, also, some scenes are still really gross. But, again, it’s David Lynch.) Imagine walking out of the new movie this weekend and thinking, “I wonder what a David Lynch version of that movie would look like.” Hey, that actually exists!

For its faults (and it does have those), it’s a colorful, weird, overly-explained Dune movie. As opposed to Villeneuve’s movie, which is beautifully shot, but the colors are purposefully drab. (In Lynch’s movie, he even makes sand look kind of pretty.) There’s one sequence in Villeneuve’s Dune where two characters are in a particular situation, they go to a place where not much of anything happens, then are back in the same situation. Lynch’s version just skips this sequence altogether. And, infamously, some of Lynch’s scenes were edited out in a, “Well, those 100 pages of the book will be a montage,” kind of way. So it’s hard to tell what got cut and what he just found boring. I get why filmmakers get so caught up in the story of Dune, but a good case could be made that maybe it was best to skip over some of these scenes for a movie. (And, yes, in the new Dune, I’d have been okay if a couple of these scenes were skipped.)

I keep trying to get people to watch Lynch’s Dune. Probably for selfish reasons, because I want to discuss it and not many people I know have watched it, for basically the same reasons I hadn’t: they heard it’s “bad,” it’s long, it’s a chore. I don’t think any of those things are true. It’s too interesting to be bad, it’s about 20 minutes shorter than the new movie and it’s a full story, and it moves a lot quicker than I expected. He won’t, but I wish Lynch would talk about it more. I understand making Dune wasn’t his favorite experience, but in 1984 this movie seems like an impossible task. (At the end of Jodorowsky’s Dune, Alejandro Jodorowsky is ecstatic talking about how Lynch’s Dune was terrible. It’s a funny moment in the movie, and I see his point that it’s a human reaction after all he went through and having it taken away from him, but also I have no doubt his end result of a movie would have been similar.) But, if, after you see the new Dune you are thinking, hey, I wonder what this same story would look like, only David Lynch directed it … you are in luck.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.