What’s the most popular unpopular science fiction movie of all time? Easy: 1984’s Dune, and it’s not close.
Unlike critically loved, but box office failure of 1982’s Blade Runner, the general consensus for David Lynch’s Dune is that not only did it fail to connect with a mainstream audience — it failed to connect with its intended audience, too. Further muddying the waters is the fact that Lynch asked his name be removed from several cuts of the film, and the fact that the movie deviates pretty substantially from Frank Herbert’s book in a few key areas: Mostly notably the end of the film where Paul suddenly has a magic power to make it rain.
These days, however, there’s more than a little bit of nostalgic love for the messy movie that is the 1984 Dune. There’s evidence for this nostalgia everywhere, and, it's very possible that without this tortured and much-maligned “first” Dune film, director Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming movie wouldn’t have a leg to stand on — or a sandworm to ride on, as it were.
Why the failure of David Lynch’s Dune spells victory for Denis Villeneuve’s movie
Just like the stillsuits of Arrakis reclaim your urine and turn it into drinkable water, the 1984 Dune has been reclaimed by contemporary science fiction fans not as an overlooked gem, but as an interesting and adorable failure. Some of this has to do with its kitsch value, but some of it is because there are aspects of the film that are genuinely thrilling when viewed in isolation.
Case-in-point, the popular vinyl record subscription service Vinyl Me Please is set to put out a reissue of the famous Dune soundtrack. As their liner-notes put it: “The film might be flawed, but there's one thing we can all agree on: the soundtrack for Lynch's version totally whips. Toto — the prog-rock legends mostly known for "Africa" — team up with Brian Eno for a soundtrack suitable to ride giant spice worms to.”
This is pretty much the tip of a much larger nostalgia sandworm. The beautiful failure of the 1984 Dune has only helped the legend of a possibly much better Dune grow. Arguably, the indie-hit documentary Jodorowsky's Dune (2013) couldn’t have even found an audience if the Lynch film hadn’t been made. That doc tries to turn the ‘84 film into a punchline, but the problem is, Jodorowsky's unmade 1970’s attempt would have been even more unfaithful than the Lynch version.
The 1984 Dune spawned coloring books and toys for children of the ‘80s who certainly didn’t love the movie then, but as adults, embraced the bizarre mishmash of sensibilities nonetheless. For several generations of young science fiction fans raised on Star Wars and Star Trek, Lynch’s Dune was a window into an even geekier and more hardcore sci-fi world. The amorality of Dune in a mainstream Hollywood movie also scanned as edgy. Infamously, Lynch was asked by George Lucas to direct Return of the Jedi, but he declined. The 1984 Dune is almost better viewed through this lens. It’s not that it's a strange adaptation of the Herbert book, and more that this was David Lynch’s Star Wars.
And, on top of all that, the exact phrase “The Spice must flow,” does not come from the Herbert novel, but from the screenplay to the Lynch film. Even when it got something wrong about Dune, the 1984 film also isolated what made Dune cool, and, sometimes, made those concepts even cooler.
“One of the lynchpins of Dune’s importance is that it ever actually got made... it was a book that shouldn’t have been shot. It was a script that couldn’t have been written. It was a directorial job that was beyond anyone’s doing... it was a production that could not possibly be marketed in any way that anyone could understand... it seemed to insult its audience... and yet. The film. was. made.”
In the 21st Century, it's almost never strange to think of even a moderately famous science fiction novel being turned into a film or TV series. But, relative to the history of filmed sci-fi, this status-quo is pretty new. Even just 10 years ago, before the first Avengers, and right at the beginning of Game of Thrones on HBO, the marketability of edgy and amoral science fiction was questionable, and, the notion of another Dune feature film, something of a pipedream.
But thanks to the passage of time, and the growth of nostalgia for the Lynch film in specific, a larger part of the moviegoing population is ready for a more faithful version of Dune. This mainstream evolution is impossible to imagine without the 1984 film coming first, and being just as exactly bonkers as it was.
Yes, most fans are excited about Denis Villeneuve’s Dune because of the promise that it will be more faithful to the source material. But, embedded within that anticipation is the notion of correction. If Lynch hadn’t failed first, and that failure not be interesting, would we have really cared about somebody else giving it another shot?
Fear is, of course, the mind-killer, but when it comes to the longevity of various sci-fi franchises, one thing that frees the mind — more often than we’d like to admit — is nostalgia for something that kind of sucked.
Dune is set to hit theaters on October 1, 2021. The 1984 version is streaming on HBO Max.