Although David Lynch's Dune (1984) was maligned in many a review, I actually quite enjoy it, albeit in its own way and for what does work in it. A lot of people deride this film for its flaws, and while I can definitely agree with at least some of them (the pacing is definitely screwed up), I try to appreciate what Lynch was able to make work under the terrible production requirements of the De Laurentiis clan. In other words, I find the film by the director to be quite enjoyable, but the film by the producers is quite flawed.
One of the first things a person might notice working for this film before even watching it is just how phenomenal the casting choices were, and they hold up past the credits. The young Kyle MacLachlan gives a subtlety to his transformation from "simple" Paul Atreides to the leader Muad'dib so his progress never seems jarring, even with the fast-paced editing Lynch was forced into so he could meet the requirement of delivering a two-and-a- half hour max film. We first meet Paul bright-faced and eager to learn about the universe he is about to travel into, but as he undergoes more and more hardships he smiles and beams less, adopting a stern glare that is yet not brutal, and a hard line to his mouth. One delectable performance of note is Sting as Feyd-Rautha, who barely talks but never needs to very much, his mad eyes taking in everything around him as if it is only a matter of time before he consumes it all. The only real complaint I have about the characters and acting in the film is the fact that not everyone is given as much screen time as they should have, such as Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck and Linda Hunt as Shadout Mapes, but this is most likely due to the fact that these characters were meant to be given more screen time but were forced into underdevelopment due to time constraints. And Lynch fans will be delighted to see many of his regulars pop up, such as Jack Nance as a Harkonnen captain, Dean Stockwell as Dr. Yueh, and Everett McGill as Stilgar.
As I've mentioned before, perhaps the greatest flaw in the film is the editing, which is constantly on the move, the plot rolling by at the pace of a trip down the open highway. We never get to sit back and really just take in the characters for who they are instead of for what they are doing. I highly doubt this is David Lynch's fault, though; if he needs to slow down and let shots and plot digest for a while in the viewer, even if it pushes the running time to three hours plus, he is a filmmaker who understands that this must be done. As such, I feel that the pacing problem in this film is simply because Lynch was forced to tell this story in under two and a half hours by the De Laurentiis'. The assembly cut he first delivered was four and a half hours long, and while this was longer than his final product was going to be, you can tell this movie is still much shorter than it was meant to be. Considering how the rest of Lynch's repertoire shows his capable skills for taking as much time as needed, from his first film, Eraserhead, to his latest, Inland Empire, I find it more than likely he is not to blame. Granted, David Lynch is one of my favorite filmmakers and I'm sure I am biased on this, but the fact that I really feel this film would have worked so much better if it weren't for the money behind the film, I find it quite easy to take the rushed editing in stride and enjoy the film. Plus, for the amount of story that Lynch had to cram into two and a half hours, the plot is amazingly coherent and still flows logically.
The other major point for which this film should be watched is the brilliant set designs, props, and costumes. The artistic direction of the film shows that Lynch is trained as a fine artist and knows how to make things simply look engaging. The homeworld and fleet of the Emperor are brilliantly barogue in design, covered in lavish gold and mirrors, evocative of Varseilles, but of course in space; this is science fiction, after all. The palace and accoutrement of the Atreides seem more indebted to 19th century European sensibilities, which reflects well the more pragmatic qualities of that house. Arrakis, the planet also known as Dune, didn't leave much to artistic design since it is simply desert, but the filming location in Chihuahua (yes, it's a place in Mexico, not just a dog) worked perfectly well in evoking the sense of what it should look like. My personal favorite for overall design, though, is the lodgings and clothing of the Harkonnen's, the brilliantly mad, technologically obssessed antagonists of the tale. With bright greens and steel blues everything about them seethes industry gone mad, where men have been lost to money and the progress of power through machines. Even the servants of the house are dehumanized, all outfitted with "heart plugs," designed for the film by Lynch, which act exactly how they sound in name: if one is pulled out, the heart is unplugged and leaks everywhere.
Of course, a review of Dune wouldn't be complete without mentioning the giant sandworms that live in the sands of Dune, and boy do they look good. I'm not exactly sure how they were created, but they definitely show that you don't need CGI to make a giant, awesome monster. These things have teeth like a lamprey but honestly look like they could crush you, interacting logically with their environments, never as if they'd been tossed in as a background layer.
Oh, and yes, other than the "Prophecy Theme" by Brian Eno, which is simply a great melody, the music is by Toto, but you wouldn't really notice other than the fact that there is electric guitar in the instrumentation. So don't let this fact distract you from the film or make you think that you're in for some post-'90's film featuring actual rock music throughout. The score is instrumental and more rooted in traditional film scores than many other '80's soundtracks, and therein lies the great distinction: this film has a score by Toto, not a soundtrack.
Another part of the film that is highly discussed is the manner in which the "weirding way" has been interpreted. In the original novel it involves intense, precise psychological control of one's musculature and nervous system, which would understandably be difficult to portray in film as opposed to literature, so it makes sense that it would be changed. And changed it is: the weirding way has become weirding modules, which are essentially guns that focus the energy found in certain sounds (which the wielder must make with his or her own voice) for different effects, but usually the end result is essentially a laser blast. By creating these weirding modules as a mode of combat based around sound, Lynch is able to literally turn Paul Atreides' adopted name Muad'dib into a "killing sound," as his name will trigger a lethal bolt from a weirding module. Although the weirding modules can definitely seem a little silly, watching these great warriors shouting odd noises to kill people, it's an engaging manner in which to present an idea or a sound representing an idea as directly lethal. Moreover, the sound of an army wielding these modules ends up evoking the battlecries many armies from around the world would use to intimidate their enemies; this time the battlecries just happen to be lethal themselves.
One part of the film on which I definitely am left ambivalent are the voiceovers. I understand why they're there in a film that has to cram so much plot and character development in such a short time; it really does help further the narrative in a logical way. But at the same time I really enjoy seeing plot and character development rather than essentially being told what plot and character development is occurring. Again, though, the time constraint put on the film definitely makes it impossible to properly develop these things through visuals and dialogue, and I did get used to the voiceovers as the film progressed.
In the end, Dune is definitely a flawed film, and by far David Lynch's weakest effort (even he doesn't like discussing this film, as he sees it as the one time in his career he truly sold out), but there is still so much to enjoy in the film that it shouldn't be overlooked based on its demerits. Instead, go in and appreciate the film for everything good that is there, because it honestly would be a better than good film if David Lynch had been allowed to do an actual three hour cut of it.
N.B. There is an extended cut of the film, but this was done without Lynch's consultation. Although there are a lot of things that do work nicely within the longer running time, the cut was made without Lynch's consultation, and as such he had his name removed from that version of the film. So if you want to see Lynch's Dune, the theatrical cut is the only way to go, as it is the only cut he has given approval to.