Ignored, maligned and hammered out into an ‘Alan Smithee’ extended cut for TV, David Lynch’s outstanding Sci-fi epic arrives on 4K Ultra HD, finally achieving the visual opulence on home video that it had in 70mm prints at the end of 1984. The fractured, de-Lynched storyline can be argued over, but the amazing design and arresting characterizations never fail to impress — Lynch attracted a world-class cast of movie stars and used them well. Even if it’s described as a hundred fragmented scenes from a larger narrative, they’re superlative fragments. Lynch should have been authorized to make an alternate cut, his own completely personal ‘impressionist’ version of the Frank Herbert story.
4K Ultra HD
1984 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 137 min. / Street Date August 31, 2021 / 59.95
Starring (alphabetically): Francesca Annis, Leonardo Cimino, Brad Dourif, José Ferrer, Linda Hunt, Freddie Jones, Richard Jordan, Kyle MacLachlan, Virginia Madsen, Silvana Mangano, Everett McGill, Kenneth McMillan, Jack Nance, Siân Phillips, Jürgen Prochnow, Paul L. Smith, Patrick Stewart, Sting, Dean Stockwell, Max von Sydow, Alicia Witt, Sean Young.
Cinematography: Freddie Francis
Production Designer: Anthony Masters
Art Director: Benjamín Fernández
Costume Design: Bob Ringwood
Visual Effects: Barry Nolan (photographic effects), Albert Whitlock, Syd Dutton (matte work), Brian Smithies (model work), Kit West (mechanical effects), Emilio Ruiz Del Rio (miniature effects), Carlo Rambaldi (creature effects)
Film Editor: Antony Gibbs
Original Music composed and performed by Toto (David Paich, Jeff Porcaro, Steve Lukather, Steve Porcaro, Mike Porcaro). ‘Prophecy’ theme composed by Brian Eno, Roger Eno, Daniel Lanois. Score conducted by (and additional music composed by) Marty Paich.
Written by David Lynch from the novel by Frank Herbert
Executive Producer Dino De Laurentiis
Produced by Raffaella De Laurentiis
Directed by David Lynch
David Lynch’s Dune has suffered more than its share of abuse over the years, with the director taken to task for making the most eagerly awaited sci-fi film since Star Wars into a talky bore. Unlike his previous features Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, Lynch either didn’t have final cut or lost it during a filming process with some of the most difficult producers out there. Although severely hampered on the narrative plane his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel is one of the most beautifully produced Sci-fi epics ever. It has a grandiosity we only associate with classics like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis… which was also mangled by its producers. I was surprised how freshly the film played in 4K UHD; it displays a more intense look than previous home video versions. More on that below.
Dune shares much in common with Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis. The release cut for each leaves the impression that big pieces of storyline are missing. The setting, costume and creature designs for each evoke fantastic worlds and marvelous visions previously unseen in movies. And both films were largely rejected by the public. As Universal’s Christmas release for 1984 Dune was met mostly with indifference. It was slighted as a ‘two-hour trailer for a twelve-hour movie.’ The literary faithful resented omissions and changes to Frank Herbert’s original text. Ironically, a Herbert quote in a video promo indicates that the author may have believed the film would faithfully transpose his novel in full detail.
Yet Dune is an ultimate Space Opera that ‘sets the imagination in motion,’ a feudal struggle in which one crucial planet becomes the battleground for galactic domination. David Lynch’s superb casting of at least twenty unique roles is some of the best ever done for a fantasy. The director’s vision is no less exciting here than in his more celebrated personal films.
David Lynch fans both happy and discontent know that the adaptation reduces the vast tapestry of Herbert’s novel to an adventure about interplanetary rivalries and a mystical messiah. The political balance between a number of rival planets is threatened when the Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer) conspires with Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) to destroy the clan of Duke Leto Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow). The focus is the isolated but crucial planet Arrakis. The desert planet is the only source for the powerful spice Melange, a substance that has made a race of Navigator monsters capable of instantaneous intergalactic space travel. Leto’s son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) is revealed as the prophesized messiah who will restore order to the galaxy; much of the movie sees Paul seeking his destiny.
Dune is staged and framed as a great epic, not a mere action thriller. David Lynch clearly worshipped the book yet slightly re-shapes its visual wonders in the countours of his sensibility. Each sequence introduces dazzling new visual compositions, none of them beholden to George Lucas… and before signing on to do Dune Lynch had been approached by George Lucas about directing Return of the Jedi. The ‘epic’ battles maintain a vast scale, with armies of bizarrely-costumed soldiers clashing beneath worm monsters the size of skyscrapers. Not since Metropolis had a sci-fi film relied so well on graphic tableaux: Atreides spaceships lining up in a vast cylinder to be transported across the universe; armies arrayed to watch the Royal family de-plane on their new planet; aerial views of giant worm creatures churning through desert sands like whales in the ocean. I’ve always liked Lynch’s graphic sensibility and his pictorial economy — unlike cut-happy action-oriented directors he goes easy on montage, never using multiple angles when one artful image will do the job.
“For he surely IS the Cuisinart Hat Rack!”
Unfortunately for David Lynch, respect for the source material compelled him to include all of this terminology in his movie, along with exact explanations for all of the exotic, inter-related characters. This backstory cosmology is repeatedly explained, in depth: a dominant sisterhood of telepathic witches, the Bene-Gesserit, has been struggling to breed a super-being over the course of ninety generations, yadda yadda. And don’t forget the present political conflict between two clans (we’re told there are many more), in which a galactic Emperor and the Harkonnen Clan hatch a conspiracy to crush the Atreides Clan. But wait, there’s still the over-arching power represented by the Spacing Guild and its mutated navigator creatures (giant Eraserheads in forty-foot aquariums), who need the spice of Arrakis because it enables intergalactic commuting.
With all that information and much more to dispense, Dune is at least 50% lecture. It comes from numerous characters; when not speaking out loud, we hear more of their thoughts in voiceover. The selectivity of this doesn’t help the storytelling: why don’t we hear the ‘intimate’ thoughts of The Beast Rabban (Paul Smith)? Or the thoughts of a sandworm, for that matter. We also hear more than one official narrator, Shaddam’s daughter Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) dominating. Princess Irulan otherwise has little to do except stand about in attractive dresses.
The constant explanations make much of Dune play as a semi-static pageant, a contemplation of mighty conflict. Big action scenes arrive before we know the players well enough. With so much exposition to expose, character opportunities fall by the wayside. The potentially exciting Atreides secret agent Duncan Idaho (Richard Jordan) doesn’t get to do anything — we respond to the charismatic Duncan almost more than we do our hero Paul Atreides. After just two brief dialogue moments — information dumps, really — Duncan exits in an over-in-a-flash action scene.
Whether spoken or in text, expository narration is traditionally ignored by theatergoers settling in with their popcorn. Dune loses half of its audience after just a couple of minutes of indigestible backstory. The who, how, and where of the basic setup is declaimed over and over again, and the ‘why’ is often buried in a half-heard sentence somewhere. We don’t discover the story, it’s dished out in the cinematic equivalent of the fine print in a product warranty.
I remember understanding practically nothing of Dune in my first viewing. The information overload is too much for the mental buffer. We can’t pay proper attention to the dazzling visuals and also concentrate on the dense storyline. Not even the giant ‘Eraserhead’ space navigator worm has it figured out. Venting orange Melange spice from his obscene gash of a nose, he admits that there’s too much intrigue to take in all at once:
“I see plans within plans.”
Lynch’s top rank cast handles much of this constant exposition extremely well, at least those characters given enough screen time. Kyle MacLachlan, Jürgen Prochnow and especially Francesca Annis (of Polanski’s Macbeth) are a solid royal trio. Freddie Jones, Everett McGill, Kenneth McMillan, Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell and Max Von Sydow light up the screen with interesting, unique characters, especially when engaged in relevant activity we can see for ourselves, like spice mining. The villains are a helluva rogues’ gallery, enthusiastically nasty perverts and gloating goblins. Weirdly, the Lynchian poetic reveries that so impress us in his other films are here less effective. Paul’s ‘prophecy’ montages become strings of symbols: The second moon? Hands? The laughing face of Sting?
Perhaps the trick to enjoying Dune is to watch it as if it’s part 3 of a six-part serial, and you missed the first two chapters. The characters still talk as if reading from the Bible but they begin to show uncommon richness. Jürgen Prochnow’s doomed Leto seems more vulnerable. Max von Sydow’s Dr. Kynes has quiet wisdom and authority, and each of Paul’s royal tutors (Patrick Stewart, Freddie Jones, Dean Stockwell) has a sharply defined character. Kenneth McMillan’s hideous Baron Harkonnen feeds on cruelty, pulling heart-plugs from shivering flower boys and keeping a doctor on hand to cultivate the facial infections that help him maintain his foul temper. Sting and Paul Smith are perverse meanies under Kenneth McMillan. Smaller functionaries also make their mark, like Jack Nance’s tremulous Harkonnen captain and Brad Dourif’s goofball Mentat assassin. Dourif’s stylized gestures are brilliant: “It is by will alone that I set my mind in motion.”
I also frankly admit to luxuriating in the film’s lavish designs. They’re not just ornate: the settings, props and costumes inflame the imagination. Little things like back-collar epaulets make an impression, along with extravagant halls with rich tile work and carved wall decorations made from exotic materials. Francesca Annis’ hairstyle is an erotic wonderment in itself. Objects and spacecraft are an intriguing blend of technologies and cultures. The space navigator’s Rendezvous with Rama– like cylinder ships provide instantaneous mass-transport from one end of the galaxy to another. The little Arrakis hovercraft looks like a boxy DIY kit, similar to vehicles seen in the ancient Sci-fi High Treason (1929).
I remember my friend Mark Sullivan once dismissing Dune because (in 1987) he was “sick of idiotic Luke Skywalker movies about Princes inheriting their rightful kingdoms.” I understood exactly what he meant, as George Lucas’ commercial fantasy is tailored to appeal to under-achieving teenaged boys. It’s a glorious galactic Entitlement Program. Sure, you’re failing in school / lazy / ignorant and proud of it. But hey, the universe really is about YOU and nobody else. Luke’s progression to Jedi-hood is a joke. He gripes to his mentor and his supposed long hours of study and meditation mostly happen off-screen. All Luke must do is invoke a magical heritage already within him. Paul Atreides is the product of a generations-long breeding program that constitutes a similar ‘magical heritage.’ But he undergoes major trials and a frightening transformation ordeal to achieve his destiny.
Of course, critcs of Star Wars griped that much of its ‘world’ was borrowed from Frank Herbert in the first place, and simplified into an efficient fantasy machine. The Jedi mystique baloney is a Cliff’s Notes version of the ornate ‘spiritual politics’ in Dune.
Readers of the Dune books revel in its ‘created world’ with its culture and history. Dune the movie of course plays as a metaphor for war in the Middle East, with giant outside civilizations fighting to control a crucial resource. Much of the verbal imagery is Arabian, with the struggle of the Fremen referred to as a Jihad, etc.. This is a familiar observation doubtless debated better elsewhere.
Frankly, there’s not much to like in Dune’s feudal, barbaric world. As with orthodox religious systems, the culture has a deep misogynist streak. Powerful women are BAD — female perfidy is at the center of the political struggle. After his training, conditioning, and drug-induced mental implosions, the male messiah Paul’s main task is to suppress the Bene-Gesserit sisterhood. He demands that women be silent and stay that way. Those uppity dames with no eyebrows will no doubt be sent back to the kitchens and bedrooms. In one deleted scene Paul even screams out his rage at his mother. It’s an unpleasant image of the entitled masculine prerogative.
What exactly happened during production?
Detractors often conclude that the epic scope of Dune was too much for David Lynch to handle, an argument that falls apart when one beholds the beautifully produced final product. I think what really happened was that, as the price tag rose, Universal came down with a case of Michael Cimino Fever. At some point producer Raffaella de Laurentiis decided to take control of the movie, and insist that it play like a conventional space opera, Star Wars- style. Reportedly a straight shooter in production matters and business, Lynch cooperated to the extent that his contract required. He didn’t walk off the picture or bad-mouth it. As explained by producer de Laurentiis, he actively aided in a compromise cut, throwing out a long series of scenes and creating a new sequence to bridge the gap.
The director had surely envisioned his Dune as another audio-visual fever dream like his semi-experimental AFI feature Eraserhead, and at least 30% of his more conventional The Elephant Man. I believe that Lynch wanted a Dune organized along similar lines: dark, mysterious, with the main emphasis on intense visual poetics.
The original 137-minute release frustrated most fans. I too wondered what had happened to unused scenes remembered from promo teasers. Would Dune have fared better split into two 2.5-hour movies, as the Salkinds had done with Superman and The Three Musketeers? This was years before the millennium brought us serialized franchise epics, such as the fabulously successful Lord of the Rings trilogy. That also seems to be the plan with the new Denis Villeneuve Dune expected soon.
Fritz Lang had already experimented with vast, multi-part films way back in 1920s Weimar Germany: Die Nibelungen and Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler were cinematic milestones. But when Metropolis came along, UFA’s new partners Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer were not interested in four-hour serialized epics. Metropolis was given a bungled, aborted brief first run before being mercilessly hacked into incoherence. Lynch’s dutiful sectioning of Dune for the de Laurentiis group looks reasonably benign by comparison.
Over time rumors would surface that David Lynch had plans to re-edit Dune into his ‘intended’ director’s cut. But in 1987 or 1988 there appeared on syndicated TV stations an unwieldy compromise re-cut that added much new material. It was disowned by David Lynch and given an “Alan Smithee” director credit, as well as an unsubtle “Judas Booth” screenwriter credit. Dune the Extended Version clocks in at a hefty 177 minutes, but at least ten of those are devoted to yet more droning backstory lectures spoken over promotional artwork. Yet the Extended Version has numerous important and welcome scenes. A terrific new sequence details the milking of a baby sandworm. It adds a lot, showing the relationship of the Fremen to the mystic ecosystem of Arrakis.
It’s too bad that David Lynch was uninterested in extending the film himself; more likely than not there are other reasons that made such a project impractical, or perhaps he became disenchanted with the movie and just wanted to move on. Lynch surely imagined editorial solutions to his epic puzzle. Heck, if it were Lynch’s doing we would happily welcome a completely obscure ‘impressionist’ version of the film. Try to picture a Dune shorn of Princess Irulan’s droning narration, with fewer explanatory sequences, with fewer ‘thought speeches’ attempting to clarify scenes. With more time to think instead of listen to exposition, viewers might pay more attention and pick up the essential clues on their own. The actual storyline isn’t that complicated, it’s the layers of back-story that gum up the works. I think that Dune would be improved by pulling things out as well as adding excised material… although some narrative leaps would still need serious reinforcement, like the rushed birth and maturing of Paul’s sister Alia (Alicia Roanne Witt).
Why does Dune appeal so strongly, when any practical assessment must conclude that it’s a mess? For this viewer who doesn’t know the books it has a feel of greatness about it. A true epic, so meticulously appointed and detailed, that I believe ‘the world’ that has been constructed. And unlike so many hollow franchises, we can tell that David Lynch put everything he had into it — it does have an artistic vision that works most of the time. Much of it is grandiose, and in spectacle I can appreciate grandiosity for its own sake, as with maligned epics by Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, etc.. Dune makes me work to understand it, and in this case the effort is a pleasure.
Arrow Video’s 4K Ultra HD of Dune is an eye-popping home video rendition of this ambitious, densely plotted and richly visual David Lynch epic. Encoded with HDR10, the newly remastered 4K image gives a range and depth to the film’s look, going far beyond previous home video versions. Ace cameraman Freddie Francis does in color here what he did in B&W for The Elephant Man.
The sets look richer and sharper; the design of the Emperor’s throne room (candles in the ceiling!) comes out in full relief. I was advised that for original-run 70mm prints David Lynch timed everything dark and rich, as was his habit. But in 4K the background sets don’t clog up with blacks as they get darker. We still see all the detail. Bright visual accents are more pronounced. The blue eyes of the Fremen now shine like headlights. Special-effect red lightning bolts almost seem in 3-D.
Although a few optical composites are a tad rough, almost all of the visual effects look sensational. Those massive forced-perspective setups by the Spaniard Emilio Ruiz del Río look even better — Darby O’Gill– ‘size’ illusions created first-generation in the camera, without opticals. Behind-the-scenes material in the extras shows Río’s ‘miniature masterpiece’ sets with their throngs of doll-soldiers.
The post-production job is beyond praise, something we can appreciate after hearing the sometimes uninspiring tracks recorded on the set in the outtakes. I’ve played the Dune soundtrack CD many times, and the music on the 4K disc sounds much richer & fuller. The formidable (and mostly synthesized) music score dominates when Lynch’s industrial presences aren’t front and center. Brian Eno is credited with Paul’s ‘prophecy theme;’ the main title theme by Toto is only a few notes away from Ronald Stein’s bombastic composition for Roger Corman’s 1963 The Haunted Palace.
Only the theatrical, 137-minute version of the show is present, and only in 4K UHD. The second Blu-ray disc in the set just contains more extras, so if you only have a Blu-ray player you’ll need Arrow’s separate Blu-ray edition. If you’re curious about that longer, compromised TV re-cut, you’ll have to track down a 2006 Extended Version DVD.
The many older video extras are from the early years of ‘Electronic Press Kit (EPK)’ movie promotions. They’re in flat NTSC yet are extremely valuable for their glimpses of BTS activity from the sets and locations in and around Mexico City. The unattributed docus display the wonderful designs and effects of an international group of designers and modelmakers speaking English, Italian and Spanish. We get a good explanation of those spectacular foreground miniature shots. We see meet & greet moments between Lynch, Dino de Laurentiis and effects artist Carlo Rambaldi. As the newer (2003, 2005) featurettes have no input from the main cast and production crew we wonder just what the relationship between Lynch, Universal and the de Laurentiis people was. There is also a huge selection of stills and advertising video.
A fun new featurette is an extended piece about the toys and tie-ins organized for the movie; a collector shows mockups of toys that weren’t manufactured and wonders how anyone thought the fairly adult Dune could be marketed to kids. Daniel Griffith’s Ballyhoo label gives the featurette a fine polish.
The most informative extra is still Rafaella de Laurentiis’ deleted scenes piece. Her introduction omits mention of efforts to involve David Lynch, and insists that no separate super-long Lynch rough cut ever existed. Ms. de Laurentiis explains that the rough cut at its longest was a 4.5 hour assembly interrupted by many ‘scene missing’ place holders. Some effects were never completed, which may imply that Universal pulled the plug at some point. Raffaella shows us a nice selection of workprint material, too much of which is just dailies of characters staring and spouting more mind-numbing exposition. But there are also wonderful unseen bits, like Paul’s final wedding plans and the fate of Thufur Hawat (Freddie Jones). In the final film Thufur disappears right in the middle of the climactic throne room confrontation.
Paul Sammon’s original short EPK piece on the production ends with a shot of a happy Frank Herbert, a visitor to the set. He’s delighted that the big-budget adaptation of his novel will not omit a single important scene from his book! Boy, Herbert must have gotten a real surprise later on.
Addendum: On April 16, 2010, correspondent George Godwin, a witness to the filming in Mexico City, wrote me this letter in response to an earlier review. It’s too good not to repeat here:
Hi Glenn. Your review of Dune brought back some memories. I was on set for the whole six months in Mexico and saw how much more was shot than made it into the artificially compressed Universal cut. The script was a good 3-4 hour epic, but Universal insisted on a maximum of 2 1/4 hours — an obvious locus for conflict and confusion! To make matters worse, as it became more and more apparent that length was going to be a huge issue, suits were sent down to cut entire scenes out of the script, while Lynch quietly kept writing in new ones as he went along.
I liked the script a lot, but it was always going to be an awkward, wordy project. For me, the biggest loss was the way the length was brought down — most of the introductory section was kept pretty much intact, and of course the big finale had to tay in with the battle, etc … so what was turfed was most of the detail about Fremen life, the textures and rituals rooted in the ecology of Arrakis. So the film ended up being pretty much about a scrap between a couple of noble families.
The “extended” TV version was a terrible missed opportunity. There was no chance that Lynch would be involved as he was really unhappy with the experience of making the film and subsequently pretty much wrote it out of his filmography (quite literally at an event I attended a couple of years ago where he was introduced with a complete listing of his work — except for Dune!). But because the company guys who were given the job of patching the longer version together obviously had no understanding of what the film was about and how the material worked, they made appalling decisions — that wretched intro with the voice droning over a lot of sketchy artwork is no clearer than Irulan’s intro to the theatrical cut, just ten times longer. One of the dumbest decisions involved Paul and Jessica’s first encounter with the Fremen: this is very abbreviated in the theatrical cut, but pretty nuanced in the script and the actual shooting. When Jamis challenges Paul to the fight, he reluctantly has to take part and just as reluctantly ends up killing the Fremen warrior … at which point (remember, it’s the first time he’s actually killed someone), he weeps. The Fremen are awed by this “giving water to the dead” and this is the beginning of them believing him to be special, which eventually leads to them following him as a messiah. I was initially happy to see the whole fight business restored in the TV cut, only to be struck by utter disbelief when they cut it short before the pay-off of the weeping — obviously they assumed the only value of the sequence was in the action of the fight itself; the meaning was irrelevant. The whole extended version is full of bone-headed choices like this …
Given Lynch’s feelings about the project, we’re unlikely ever to see a more complete version of “his” film — even if all the elements still exist, a third party attempt to reconstruct it from the script still wouldn’t bear the full stamp of Lynch. Cheers, George
4K Ultra HD rates:
Sound: Excellent Uncompressed stereo and DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio
DISC 1: FEATURE & EXTRAS (4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY)
New commentaries: (1) Paul M. Sammon and (2) Mike White;
Impressions of Dune, a 2003 documentary on the making of the film;
Designing Dune, a 2005 featurette on the work of production designer Anthony Masters;
FX, a 2005 featurette on the film’s effects;
Models & Miniatures, a 2005 featurette on the film’s model effects;
Costumes, a 2005 featurette on the film’s costume design;
11 deleted scenes, with a 2005 introduction by Raffaella de Laurentiis;
Destination Dune, a 1983 featurette;
Theatrical trailers and TV spots, Image galleries
DISC 2: BONUS DISC (BLU-RAY)
Beyond Imagination: Merchandising Dune, a brand new featurette on the ffilm’s promotional merchandise;
Prophecy Fulfilled: Scoring Dune, a brand new featurette on the film’s music score, with interviews with members of Toto and film music historian Tim Greiving;
(1) with make-up effects artist Giannetto de Rossi (new);
(2) with production coordinator Golda Offenheim;
(3) with star Paul Smith;
(4) with make-up effects artist Christopher Tucker.
Plus 60-page book with writing by Andrew Nette, Christian McCrea and Charlie Brigden, an interview with sound designer Alan Splet from 1984, excerpts from an interview with the director and a Dune Terminology glossary.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD and One Blu-ray with in Keep case
Reviewed: August 29, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson