OK, I’m technically trying to be on vacation right now. I even took some summer time away from writing weekly articles – regular readers may have noticed the gap. But Warner Bros just released a new trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune, so I thought maybe I’d write something a little different this week. Call it an opinion piece, maybe.

You probably know that I work in a creative space in which engaging experiences are driven by storytelling. Some of the work I do is squarely in the realm of entertainment. Over the years I’ve done plenty of work for clients that are in the movie business, sometimes working with IP from well-known films. For a while I ran a VFX studio and worked directly on a few films. Video production is a key element of our creative capabilities. So a lot of the expertise and opinions I usually write about here are at least movie business adjacent. But today I’m not here for professional opinions – I’m writing purely as a fan.

I’ve been a huge movie fan for as long as I can remember. I clearly recall seeing Star Wars five times in the theater when it came out. I would have been 8 years old in 1977, so I guess that’s the first movie that I really responded to. And with the original sequels it became the first movie franchise I cared about. But even then I think it was somewhat unusual for my sensibilities to coincide with popular success. As a teenager I quickly learned that my tastes in movies (like my tastes in music, and indeed most things) were not very mainstream.

Back then, before the internet, we lived in a mass-market media world and it wasn’t yet cool to be in the long tail. As a geek and a nerd (also not yet cool), I read more science fiction than most. In college I considered myself a cinephile and would argue about the difference between “movies” and “films”. I spent a lot of time at repertory houses and indie theaters, NYC being uniquely positioned for such things. I watched a lot of foreign films and preferred indie video stores like Kim’s, that organized their VHS tapes by director.

David Lynch was one of my first favorite directors, ever since I saw Blue Velvet in high school. His films are deeply weird, but in a way that always spoke to me. In the late 80s I sought out everything he’d done and quickly fell in love with Dune. So it was a few years old already by the time I first saw it. A bunch of years had passed since the Star Wars trilogy, Alien and Blade Runner – there was a dearth of good sci-fi movies. For many years my very unpopular answer to the question “What’s your favorite movie?” was “Dune.

Of course Dune has always been widely reviled, and very little loved. And much of what’s being written about the anticipation of Villeneuve’s remake reminds us about how hated Lynch’s original was. So I thought I’d write this week about why I love it, which I think is counterintuitively not too dissimilar to why so many others hate it.

Exhibit A for most Dune haters is the movie’s commercial failure. There’s no denying that the film was expensive to produce and made back very little at the box office. But there are plenty of examples of creative endeavors that didn’t find their audience right away. For painters, it’s practically a cliche to not become famous until after you’re dead. To be honest, back in the 80s, punk rock me would have considered mainstream popularity virtually disqualifying in questions of creative credibility. I’m more commercially-minded these days, but let’s at least stipulate that lack of commercial success is not necessarily indicative of creative quality.

But the critics also panned Dune, the naysayers will say, so it wasn’t a critical success either. That’s also undeniably true – many of the contemporary reviews were scathing. But I’d argue that most of the commonly quoted critical reviews from the time looked at Dune from the standpoint of mass market entertainment. And that was never really its audience. The film has deep flaws, to be sure, and central to those is the tension between the stakeholders pushing to make it viable for a mainstream audience and those pushing to challenge audiences with a “Star Wars for smart people.” I’d argue the latter mostly won.

Dune is a terribly confusing movie, it’s argued. On this point I can only half agree. True, it’s a much more complex story than Star Wars, to which it’s usually compared. But it was never trying to be a kid-friendly movie, and it was working from far more complicated source material. It definitely helps to have read Frank Herbert’s book, which remains one of the best and most finely imagined science fiction novels ever. The book is incredibly intricate and insightfully explores topics as complex as tribalism and religion. Probably no movie could do justice to all that nuance, but I actually think Lynch’s Dune does a decent job of extracting a reasonably compelling hero’s narrative from the story.

Keep in mind also that I came to Dune from the opposite direction narratively than most viewers. I was an avid David Lynch fan, and the narrative of Dune is mundanely straightforward compared to a movie like EraserheadDune is my favorite David Lynch film precisely because being constrained to the book’s broad narrative reined in some of Lynch’s tendency to take a turn toward the inscrutable. It was a movie that knew it was challenging its viewers, and sci-fi is a great genre for such challenges. And over the decades since it came out our entertainment has clearly taken a turn towards challenging viewers more, not less. So I’d say the movie was largely just ahead of its time in this regard.

Dune was ahead of its time in being more loyal to its source material as well. Its inscrutable terminology was widely derided by critics, but it’s all true to Herbert’s world building. In recent years we’ve seen far less complex books made into multiple films or full television seasons. Lynch reportedly wanted Dune to be two movies, or at least one much longer one, but was overruled by the studio. Lynch disclaimed the final cut, and sadly no director’s cut was ever released. So it’s hard to know exactly who to blame for the fact that some of the plot points are filled in with narrated exposition. But for an astute and patient viewer – one willing to be challenged – this device basically works.

The visual effects were not spectacular, especially with regards to the ships occasionally seen in space. But they were mostly passable, and in some cases fairly impressive – the sense of scale achieved by Arrakis’ giant worms, for instance. But it’s an ambitious movie in other ways, often utilizing massive sets and very large casts, which helps to set the tone for the scale of Herbert’s universe. While much of the ensemble cast are virtual unknowns, they are all very good, and there are an abundance of memorable performances.

But where Dune really shines is visually. Herbert’s story is replete with some of the darkest elements of human behavior and Lynch’s movie doesn’t shy away from any of it. Lynch is at his best expressing fever dreams of bizarre perversions, and the material here gives him plenty of room to do so while still remaining grounded in a coherent structure. And he was able to tap into much great work that was done during Jodorowsky’s ill-fated attempt. The costumes and production design are incredibly compelling – here is where the best instincts of David Lynch and some of the best remnants of Jodorowsky’s attempt combine to create real magic.

Beneath the confusion of half-explained scenes, the viewer is left with a deep sense of foreboding. We glimpse a society almost as varied as the one we live in, but several times darker. And it’s all imagined gorgeously. The stylish darkness of later works like American Horror Story have nothing on the grotesque beauty imaged in Dune. And from this compelling place of darkness, we are ultimately taken on a hero’s triumphant journey. What’s not to love in that? Maybe you’re not convinced, but at least Frank Herbert was reportedly satisfied with the movie. That’s enough for me.

From the new trailer, Villeneuve’s new Dune appears to follow the plot of Lynch’s Dune fairly well. I can only assume that Villeneuve is a fan, like me (I know, he’s implied otherwise). More importantly, it seems that Lynch had it right the first time – it will take two films (at least) to do the novel justice. Warner Bros has already told us to expect a sequel for the second half of the story.

I’m excited to see this new Dune. Moviemaking has progressed a lot since 1984 and it will be great to see the story told with modern effects and techniques. It will also be nice to see what Villeneuve can do with more time to express the richness and depth of Herbert’s story. But more than anything, I’m excited to see Dune reborn into a world that’s probably now ready to embrace some challenging storytelling.

Featured Image: Universal Pictures