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The Two Dunes, and Why I Choose the Beautiful Disaster

by Fionna Farrell

Staff Writer

art by Molly Chapin

[originally published November 2021]


Google Dune (2021) and Dune (1984) and you will be met with staggeringly different results. In the latter case, here are some choice articles that came up: “David Lynch’s Dune Is A Beautiful Sci-Fi Disaster”. “When Dune 1984 Star Knew the Movie Was in Trouble”. “David Lynch’s Dune Is still the Stuff of Migraines.” By contrast, I found an article titled “The Problem With Dune (2021)” Its first sentence read “There is no problem with Dune (2021).”

Perhaps, from an “objective” (writing that word makes me throw up in my mouth a little) viewpoint, there really is no, or very few, problems with Dune. If there were an Oscar category for “movies with the least problems”, perhaps Denis Villeneuve would be someone you could bet on. He’d probably lose, though, because, as many have pointed out, Zendaya only being in the movie for seven minutes is quite a sizable problem. Hans Zimmer, I also found the score just a bit overwrought. But that’s for another time.

Nonetheless, it is still Lynch’s 1984 version—in which Zendaya accrues zero minutes of screen time—which is universally regarded as the failure. An utter shit show, if you will. Even David Lynch himself agrees, claiming that the film gave him deep “heartache” and he has “zero interest” in watching Villeneuve’s version (It’s been 37 years, David! Give yourself a break!) For a film to deeply distress its viewers and its creator alike, one has to wonder what exactly went wrong. And what, if anything, went right. To what extent are these matters of content or mere aesthetics?

I have never read Dune and have no intention to, but the first question/concern that automatically comes to mind is: which version is truer to the book? And, consequently, is it presented in a way that is graspable? Does the movie feel like it should be a movie? For Dune 1984 the answer is...not quite. I have never been very quick on the uptake when it comes to fantastical science-y stuff, but, even so, I constantly felt like I was missing something when watching the film. Not necessarily due to miscomprehension, but because what I was searching for simply wasn’t explained to me in the first place. At least, not in an intelligible way; there are many haphazard attempts at explanation throughout the film, like, for example the film’s opening monologue, which provides the old spice-rundown, but these only seem to reinforce the viewer’s concerns that they should’ve read the book before jumping into the Lynch abyss. While enduring Dune (2021), I experienced no such feeling. Sure, the film rests on its backbone of stunning visuals, but we get our first “explanation” of what we are really getting into while the screen is still dark: when Zendaya utters to us “My planet, Arrakis, is so beautiful when the sun is low.” A certain feeling is automatically evoked, one in which we might empathize with lived experiences. I remember exhaling a small sigh of relief—okay, now I have something to work with.

For the remaining two hours and thirty-five minutes, the film did not fail to bestow these small gifts upon me. The film is long, but there are checkpoints. Things that at first appear divergent eventually make their way back to the center. All in all, I felt that even I could understand this movie. That is not to say that the film is not imbued with a certain mysticism—a certain enigmatic forcefield that I think would take an entire army of the mind to penetrate. But this does not hinder the movie; it only widens its scope.

Not, however, in a way that is not stultifying at times. Maybe that’s just because movies that I understand tend to bore me. Maybe it’s because Dune was just too perfectly orchestrated—even the questions were within reach. I don’t want them to be! I want to have to snatch them up. I want to have to stretch my arms a bit.

Have I ever watched a Lynch movie and really known what’s “going on”? I can’t recall the last time. That, for me and probably every other Lynch fan, is part of the appeal to his movies. Mulholland Drive might be a bit more seamless than Dune. But what really separates them at their core? It is surely not the fact that they are bizarre. In Dune, it’s just that the bizarreness doesn’t translate to anything meaningful or...comprehensible.

For meaning and comprehension, though, the film does offer two suitable alternatives, who go by the names of Kyle MacLachlan and Sting. The film’s score was composed by Toto (you may know them for such hits as “Africa'' and “Rosanna”), including a song, “Prophecy Theme”, performed by Brian Eno (you may know him for ambient stuff and for making Talking Heads happen). In Dune (2021), I can’t much recall a time when Timothee Chalamet smiled; in Dune (1984), Kyle MacLachlan is possessed by an endearing, impish naivete. And who can really blame him, when the distant moons at which he soberly gazes look like the solar system on The Truman Show? When the technology of 10,191 looks like abandoned early Apple experiments? When the people of 10,191 talk in royal 1891 fashion (and in a royal monotone, at that)? The worm behemoth does look pretty cool though, especially when MacLachlan embraces his chosen-oneness and is able to control it. This is all by 1984 standards, though. But still, the film had a forty million dollar budget. It appears that the studio really was hoping for the Star Wars of ‘84.

Perhaps, this is where all the problems arise. Dune ‘84 is so vastly overreaching, so ridiculous in its mock severity, that it’s impossible not to take it for what it actually is: a lighthearted camp joyride which isn’t, God forbid, supposed to be understood. Do I really want a film with no problems, anyway? In all honesty, those tend to put me to sleep (especially when they are nearly three hours long). Surely, it might be impossible not to cringe in their midst, but I will take the myriad problems of 1984’s Dune in stride. When given the choice between the beautiful masterpiece and the beautiful disaster, I’ll gladly choose the latter. Maybe not every time, but definitely when I need a good pick-me-up. Must entertainment always be so somber nowadays? Visions don’t always have to be fulfilled—sometimes it's their failure that lives on.

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