David Lynch's 1982 Dune wasn't well-received at the time, but over the years has become a cult classic—perhaps even a good film. With a few nods to the lavish sets and striking set-pieces, Emily Asher-Perrin takes a weirding module to the latter claim: David Lynch’s Dune is What You Get When You Build a Science Fictional World With No Interest in Science Fiction.
Any attempt at cohesion on a more granular level, which is where worldbuilding is most essential in science fiction, is shrugged off in favor of another inexplicable style choice that brings a bit of form and zero function. With the exceptions of military collars and crests, there is nothing that communicates how these things and people connect—some have tried to christen it “noir-baroque” which is a cute thought, but it’s hard to believe that any detailed reasons for the aesthetics were considered beyond “this looks cool.”
Dune wants to be phantasmagorical and it wants to be offensive to your senses, and those things can work in cinema, as Lynch’s career communicates incredibly well. But this film does not carry off that off-kilter creepiness as anything more than a parlor trick. It fails to be authentic because these cues are not entrenched in the universe projected on screen. They are there to shock the viewer, to disgust them, but they don’t mean anything. The Guild member floating in its chamber of gas is strange and otherworldly and grotesque, but communicates nothing besides that. It is not integrated into its setting, its surroundings. It exists to be gawked at, to unsettle us, and then it disappears from view and we go back to the part of the narrative that needs to hold our attention.
Dune (1982) is a Lawrence of Arabia pastiche with a mad bucket of half-baked science fiction tropes bolted onto it. It includes so much extraneous, confusing detail from the novel's world, but when you think of all the things it omits you really get a good sense of why Lynch (or anyone?) could not form it in 2 or 3-hours.
I think there are two things that could be done to fix it. Firstly, remove all the speaking and turn the whole thing into a hallucinatory Lynchean nightmare, perhaps to be accompanied by Brian Eno's mythic 45-minute album of Dune music. (The first scene of the movie thus improved, by me, is embedded at the top of the post.)
Secondly, use Lynch's movie as the basis for a full-length animated TV miniseries by rotoscoping it and bringing back the original actors for several hours or so of newly-animated scenes.