The 1984 version of Dune is not very good, flat-out. There’s some level of revisionism occurring around David Lynch’s version of Frank Herbert’s seminal science-fiction novel, in part because the new version by Denis Villeneuve left a portion of viewers cold — including Lou Harry in his review of record on our site. I don’t agree with Lou on the new Dune, but I understand his reaction to the new film and am relieved he hasn’t gone so far as to start lauding Lynch’s version as a counterpoint; Lou is from the era of people who eagerly anticipated it in the pages of Starlog and got … well … this. It doesn’t take much to find glowing discourse surrounding the 1984 Dune, though, that conflates its otherworldly production design and makeup with being a good adaptation of the book or even a good movie in its own right.
This is the film that gave Lynch such a bad experience that he swore off studio filmmaking forever. We’re all the better for it. I’m a fairly strong Lynch apologist, and after rewatching Arrow’s new 4K release of the film, I just have to emphasize: There’s no need to rehabilitate it. This is a fundamentally bad movie filled with baffling decisions in how it abridges the novel and no clear feeling about the story it wants to tell by utilizing Herbert’s iconography and ideas. For what it’s worth, I think Villeneuve knows exactly what he wants his version of Dune to be, and it’s notable that, unlike Lynch’s film, he excises vast amounts of superfluous world-building to do so.
It’s strange to compare Dune with the rest of Lynch’s work and see just how weird and inhuman the whole film is. Lynch is a director whose surreal style and absurd humor has won him the hearts of 18-year-olds for generations when his true skill has always been expressing universal feelings of love, discomfort, displacement, passion and fear. He’s not an optimist in his work, but I think he wishes he could be. Lynch wrote the screenplay for Dune, but his film focuses so intently on everything surrounding his expansive cast rather than ever letting them live and breathe within the world. I know some would say the same about Villeneuve’s film, but it’s noteworthy just how much bland exposition exists in Lynch’s version.
For instance, we get the opening with Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) explaining the four main planets of the Padishah Empire, the nature of the Spice Melange and the political situation at the start of the story. Then we transition to a scene where Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer) explains in detail his plan to destroy House Atreides. Basically none of this stuff is in the new film. It’s rote and unwieldy stuff. After some time spent building up to the fall of House Atreides, the last 45 minutes rush through Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) ascending with the Fremen to become the Kwisatz Haderach. Lots of talking. Not much story.
My feelings about Dune aside, I guess the real question at hand in this review is whether or not Arrow’s new release is worth it as a home-video purchase. Frankly, if you like this version of Dune or are simply curious enough to view it, this would be the ideal way to do so. Although it is not a particularly engaging retelling of the story, Dune still looks incredible, and the 4K UHD scan looks much better than the previously released DVD version (which I owned and have rarely finished). The model work remains incredible and the makeup … well, kudos to Lynch, as at least he leaned into the unthinkable fashions of a future time rather than just dressing everyone up in black plastic. The audio is great as well. Toto’s music is hard to fault.
Arrow rarely disappoints in special features. In fact, they’re one of the few studios who seem to really embrace them and this is no exception. Two new audio commentaries accompany the film, as well as multiple small documentaries about the making of the film’s visuals. Thirteen deleted scenes are included, as well as a 1983 feature made to promote the film almost 40 years ago.
There are several new featurettes as well, including one about the merchandising aspect of the film — executive producer Dino De Laurentiis believed it would be his own Star Wars — hosted by Brian Stillman of The Toys That Made Us. The other is about Toto’s memorable score for the film.
David Lynch’s Dune is a frustrating mess and recent attempts to say otherwise are ahistorical. But damn, the new Arrow release is the best way to experience it for fans of Herbert’s novel, the new film or Lynch’s filmography. It’s not a great movie, but it rests at the intersection of multiple important strains of late 20th-century American pop culture. It’s a historical object and artifact, and this is the best presentation of it.