As Denis Villeneuve’s Dune becomes the most anticipated movie of 2021, there’s a good chance several spice addicts will watch the film on HBO Max and not actually venture out to the theater. On October 22, in the US, you’ll be able to experience Dune: Part 1 in all its glory, finally. And fingers are crossed everywhere that it will be awesome enough to fund a sequel.
But, if you want to dip into HBO Max before October 22, you can also watch Dune. The 1984 David Lynch-directed version of the movie is streaming there right now. But is it any good? Is it actually terrible? Should you watch it?
The short answer is: Yes, you should watch it. But the 1984 Dune has a peculiar specificity in that it’s both a disaster and a triumph at the same time. Here’s why. Mild spoilers ahead.
Saying a bad movie is actually good is a familiar tactic when talking about films in general, but it’s a particularly common flex in the discourse of science fiction flicks. Because of its pulpy origins, sci-fi is one of the few types of fiction where the flaws aren’t always flaws but instead can be qualified, after the fact, as the price of admission and simply part of the art form. To put it another way, this is like saying Planet of the Apes is good because the rubber masks look fake, not despite it.
I love this line of thinking and make this kind of argument all the time, and it works on “good” and “bad” sci-fi in equal measure. Any narrative flaws or unintended kitsch inside a science fiction show or movie is helpful because it makes the viewer work harder to find the thing that’s profound and good about the art. This is why I like to say that you'll find it's a great show if you can get over the outrageous hairstyles in Babylon 5. Correlatively, if you can’t get over it, that’s fine, and maybe just as well. The art abides all on its own.
But what is really being said when we say bad sci-fi movies (or shows) are good? Unless you’re only asking people to look beyond aesthetics that have aged hilariously and poorly (Logan’s Run), the claim that bad sci-fi is actually good usually contains a contradiction: This art isn’t really good, but it is watchable and “fun,” like The Chronicles of Riddick.
Failing that, maybe this troubled art is essential for understanding aspects of the genre, like the original Flash Gordon or, in rare cases, the film captured a certain mood, even if the film is still bad like 1998’s Lost in Space. Perhaps if something is a noble attempt at adapting a beloved science fiction story, then that’s enough, too, which certainly applies to the 1995 film Johnny Mnemonic, a movie that is awesome but still, basically, a failure.
The 1984 David Lynch Dune comes closest to that last criterion, but the truth is, none of the easy ways of talking about science fiction films really apply to it. It is not a misunderstood “bad” sci-fi film, nor is it a “good” one that is simply “underrated.” Lynch’s Dune is all of those things and none of those things simultaneously, and something else, too. It’s a movie that will cause fights. Not just among hardcore Dune-head fans but people who have never read the book too.
Getting into the making and the problems behind the scenes on Dune is a boring way to assess its whole schtick. Suffice to say, Lynch took his name off some versions and refuses to talk about it today. Part of that seems to be connected to the fact that he wasn’t given the ability to have a final cut which could suggest that somebody should start a #ReleasetheLynchCut movement. (That would be super misguided.) There’s no reason to believe such a thing exists, and even if it did, the problems with this version of Dune have nothing to do with length. What makes this film so strange is that the choices are equally baffling, infuriating, and inspired.
Without spoiling the movie itself (because you should watch it), here’s one example of the trifecta of 1984 Dune weirdness: There’s constant voice-over narration from a ton of the characters.
Now, this isn’t some Blade Runner action, where someone forced David Lynch to do voiceovers. That’s because, by and large, the voiceovers are super-faithful to the Frank Herbert novel. There’s also something brilliant about how actors like Kyle Maclachlan and Max von Sydow deliver wordless performances that enhance and balance out the voiceovers. When Liet Kynes (von Sydow) says — in voiceover — “I’m beginning to like this Duke,” the tension in the scene is layered because Liet Kynes is not really giving that impression. On the page, the story of Dune contains hidden motivations and schemes-within-schemes. The voiceover demystifies that and also gives the film a surreal feeling that complements the novel.
The constant voiceovers are also annoying. Hearing various characters, sometimes in the same scene, add up to create a second audio-only movie, one that is whispering at you while you’re trying to watch the regular movie. It makes the film seem unsure of itself at many times.
One example of this is when Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) kills an underling for sport in a gut-wrenching, utterly disgusting scene. And while it’s happening, we get a voiceover from Feyd (Sting), and he’s like, “This is what I’m going to do to the Duke and his family.”
Now, we can debate until the end of the day whether or not Lynch wanted that particular on-the-nose voiceover, but that’s not the point. The point is, the entire scene sucks. Yes, we need to know that the Duke is evil and sadistic. Still, something about this scene, in particular, is in terrible taste and — intentionally or not — homophobic. David Lynch has many problematic “villains” in his movies, which is kind of the entire point of Blue Velvet, but in Dune, that excess doesn’t always work.
One way it does work is when Dune establishes The Harkonnens as unlikable in a depraved, unthinkably disgusting way, as opposed to an evil empire kind of way. In the moments that the Harkonnen dominate the screen, it’s like you’re watching a horror movie or a disturbing David Lynch arthouse film.
The cast is also excellent, but occasionally some performers are painfully miscast. Patrick Stewart has repeatedly claimed he believes he was accidentally cast in the role of Gurney and would have probably been better suited to another role. This is accurate. And yet, Patrick Stewart looks like he belongs in the Dune universe. It’s hard to imagine the cool things about this movie without him.
The score from Brian Eno and the band Toto is good, but it’s not great in the same way the Daft Punk Tron: Legacy score is way better than the film. Instead, the Dune score is pretty close to the film itself in terms of quality: It’s great in some places (like the “Main Theme”), embarrassingly conventional in others (“Big Battle”), and just-weird-enough-to love with tracks like “Robot Fight.”
The music, the voiceovers, and the excellent production design (those desert stillsuits are STILL rad) are all superficial microcosms for understanding the disparate ways to think and feel about this movie. The 1984 Dune is not greater than the sum of its parts. In some ways, it’s actually less than the sum of its parts. Because all of these facets contain the essence of Dune, however diluted, some of those parts are pretty great. The line “the spice must flow” does not exist in the original Frank Herbert text, but thanks to this movie, it feels like that line has always been a part of the Dune mythos.
If the fictional spice melange is the ultimate narcotic, then watching the 1984 version of Dune is like doing spice that has been cut with a bunch of other ingredients. It's less pure. Sometimes it's going to send you on a bad trip. But it’s still the spice, and you’ll still be changed by it. Forever.
Dune (1984) is streaming now on HBO Max.