Some artists' career leaps are hard to fathom either before or after the fact. Who, for instance, looked at Peter Jackson's early-career splatter films and twisted fantasy-tinged features and decided he could be trusted with close to $300 million in studio money and one of the most epic fantasies ever written? In the same vein, who, on the basis of the creepy domestic horror film Eraserhead and the touching biopic The Elephant Man, suggested that David Lynch should direct the 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert's staggeringly dense science-fiction novel Dune? While Lynch's ambition for the film's scope and lush visual texture suited the material, the hushed, fulminating, fearful tension he later channeled to such terrific effect in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks gives the whole film a breathlessly awkward air. It's bigger, deeper, denser, and more meaningful than 1980's Flash Gordon, but it has the same whiff of overproduced sci-fi cheese.
Kyle MacLachlan (whose fruitful collaboration with Lynch began here) stars as a messiah figure caught up in interplanetary intrigue. He may or may not be the end result of a 90-generation breeding program designed to produce the ultimate superhuman, but he's certainly the lynchpin of a struggle involving two powerful planet-ruling families, the emperor of "the known universe," the space-manipulating Guild, a cult of telepathic bald women, a tribe of desert-dwelling nomad super-warriors, and a species of 300-foot sandworms. Herbert's book piles on the backstory and vocabulary fast and thick, and Lynch's 137-minute version of the film attempts to keep pace, throwing out chunks of exposition as they become necessary, though the 177-minute television version—disowned by Lynch, but included on the flip side of this single-DVD release—just opens with a lengthy picture-book explanation of the key figures, factions, and history. Either way, it's a lot to swallow in one sitting, and the film's grim, pretentious tone and Brechtian detachment don't help. Neither does Toto's sweeping rock score.
Still, under all the baroque sets and costumes, gasped voiceovers, silly retro-futurism, and laboriously explained conflicts, Dune still feels like a Lynch film. He's always had a masterful grasp on the way people hide their deepest emotions but helplessly act on them anyway, and the way crisis heightens such emotions' repression and expression. Dune's characters bury their emotions under mask-like control, but they're passionately involved in every new development in their world. It's almost enough to tempt audiences to care as well. Almost.
Key features: Short making-of featurettes and a montage of deleted scenes that didn't make either cut of the film.