David Lynch’s Dune Might Not Be Perfect, but Its New 4K Restoration Reminds Us It’s Admirable

Movies Features David Lynch
David Lynch’s Dune Might Not Be Perfect, but Its New 4K Restoration Reminds Us It’s Admirable

Does a home media release require a thesis statement? Do boutique and specialty home media labels need a good, compelling argument for securing the rights to add a movie to their library? “People who like this film should be able to own a copy themselves” seems like reason enough to feed physical and digital libraries, but Arrow Video’s new 4K treatment of 1984’s Dune makes an implicit plea of its director, David Lynch: Break the 37 year silence and talk about the film.

Lynch has famously declined opportunities to produce a director’s cut of Dune and, perhaps even more famously, shies away from discussing his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s massive, influential 1965 science fiction epic in interviews. Speaking to the former point on the 4K’s Deleted Scenes feature, producer Raffaella De Laurentiis, the daughter of the film’s legendary executive producer Dino De Laurentiis, mentions the sticky claim that “there was a four-hour version of the movie edited by David Lynch, but that never really happened.” There was an assembly cut, a concept that’s foreign to an astounding number of people in 2021: That’s the first cut, where every bit of usable footage is strung together by the editor (in this case Antony Gibbs) into watchable shape and subsequently trimmed into a more watchable shape.

Whenever a DCEU or MCU movie is reported as having an uncut four-hour runtime, fans go a-frothing to Twitter demanding the full “director’s cut,” unaware that this is simply how movies are made. Dune met with no such fervor in 1984, and no such fervor exists today. The version we have is more or less the only version there is, save for a 186-minute cut that aired on TV in 1988 which Lynch disavowed for how brutishly it handled his original vision: It credits Alan Smithee for direction and Judas Booth for the script. Between that and the stories of what went into the film’s production, it’s little wonder why Lynch is reluctant to open up about it. Dune is a towering pile of imperfection, the end result of years of work—nightmarish, hard work that critics and audiences rejected (at best) and disdained (at worst) when it premiered.

Almost four decades later, Lynch, who arguably walked so that John Harrison could run in his 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries, Frank Herbert’s Dune and so that vaunted French Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve could reportedly soar in his own forthcoming adaptation, deserves reconsideration for what he achieved in bringing Dune to life. That’s the heart of the Arrow set: Not simply presenting the movie in a breathtaking restoration, though this is absolutely the set’s highest prize, but digging through the past to learn how the movie was made from the people who made it, and how it was received by people who were around either to receive it or witness its reception.

“When David Lynch got Dune, I think it was generally perceived that he got it because he was coming off the success of The Elephant Man,” explains critic David Ansen in Impressions of Dune, a 40-minute 2003 documentary that’s included in the package, “which in turn was a big surprise to Lynch fans because before that, all he’d done was this very strange cult underground movie Eraserhead.”

Ansen is talking about Dune as an inherent risk, despite its relationship to preexisting IP, for practical and logistical reasons. Lynch, his new success aside, was a risk for the project; IP aside, reimagining Herbert’s dense, labyrinthine book as cinema was a risk, too. But Ansen frames neither as negative. Instead, he praises De Laurentiis for taking the risk in the first place, and that praise resonates through 2021. Major studios today are wary of bankrolling anything aside from that attached to preexisting IP, movies that pose not so much a risk but an upside-only gamble for their bottom line. Reliance on IP for big-screen inspiration isn’t a new practice, but it’s considerably more widespread today than it was in the 1980s. Comic book films dominate moviegoing culture still, even in COVID times: The pandemic delayed the releases of Black Widow and Shang-Chi, but the association Marvel’s streaming series’ share with the movies have helped the brand stay visible for the last year. Shang-Chi, for its part, is already looking like a hit. In non-comic viewing, the rash of live-action takes on Disney classics and theme park rides has spread with movies like Cruella and Jungle Cruise.

But if throwing out cash for projects that don’t have immediate name recognition is anathema for big studios today, watching Dune reminds us to embrace chance instead of betting on a sure thing. It’s true that the specific outcome here—financial failure, critical embarrassment—doesn’t exactly endorse risk. But we remember what Lynch, his cast, his effects team, his producers, his engineers and everyone involved in making Dune accomplished here. Ansen astutely points out that Dune endures in memory because of imagery, comparing his recollections of the film with his recollections of Superman, which performed better commercially and, he adds, is pretty darn good. Despite all that, “[Superman] doesn’t stick with you the way that Dune sticks with you,” says Ansen, “and it’s not about storytelling.”

“The storytelling isn’t particularly great in the movie, and that’s one of the reasons why it wasn’t a commercial hit, but boy, it’s a visionary thing,” he explains. “Even for all its flaws, I think it’s much more interesting than most of the Hollywood science fiction fare.”

Dune tries, and succeeds, in creating something that lasts, and to create something that lasts when that something is rooted so deeply in the psyche of its author is a titanic challenge. Frederick Elmes, second unit cinematographer, notes that as a consequence, “everything had to be made,” from the costumes to the weapons to the sets to the miniatures. (“That blasted worm,” groans production coordinator Golda Offenheim on the Dune Models & Miniatures featurette. “We’re not going to discuss worms, are we?”)

Nothing could be recycled from past productions. The crew’s only option was to build Dune’s world from the ground up using Herbert’s insights as raw material. This is a daunting task made more daunting given that Herbert, according to Oppenheim, couldn’t explain to the people involved what anything in the novel meant to him. She doesn’t elaborate or provide specific examples, but recalls that he always pointed people to Dune’s indexes instead of breaking down details of plot, or the Dune universe, or the characters—and that maybe this contributed to the ultimate lurching, bizarre qualities that audiences tend to think of first when Lynch’s film is mentioned in casual conversation.

“There are some books that should never be made into movies,” declares Harlan Ellison, screenwriter and one of the film’s few defenders via his 1989 book Harlan Ellison’s Watching.

He’s right. Some books don’t lend themselves to cinema. But Ellison isn’t quite right about Dune, which probably shouldn’t have been made into a movie, much less two movies, much less a miniseries. But as Villeneuve’s take on the source material lumbers from the Rialto to HBO Max and into theaters, we should all be grateful Lynch did it first. To hear Kyle MacLachlan, playing Paul Atreides (the son of the fallen House Atreides, the novel’s protagonist-cum-eventual god-ascendant), talk about Lynch as cool and composed on set clangs with Lynch’s determined refusal to say anything about his Dune. Arrow has put together a strong case as to why the filmmaker should.

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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