Dune is an absolute triumph of art direction over coherency. That’s not to say that it’s completely incomprehensible, but in its theatrical length, the average moviegoer will probably be lost in this heavily compressed version of Frank Herbert‘s mythos.
The Dune series of novels, especially the first, has been compared to the Lord of the Rings stories, due largely to density of detail in the universe. Another parallel is that both were considered virtually unfilmable. Unfortunately, David Lynch was not given the degree of control and freedom that Peter Jackson< had and the film suffers for it. Forced by the De Laurentiis family to condense his movie into just over two hours, Lynch's theatrical cut feels more like a highlight reel than a cohesive story.
It’s a shame, too, because what’s on screen is beautiful to look at. The production design by Anthony Masters is absolutely eye-popping. They’ve also populated this richly designed world with a stellar international cast, including José Ferrer, Max von Sydow and Jürgen Prochnow but none of the characters are given enough time to breathe. Newly discovered future David Lynch regular Kyle MacLachlan is unfortunately miscast as Paul Atreides, although it’s doubtful that an actor of the correct age (15) could have handled the part.
There is a three-hour cut of the film that had been shown on American television for years. Known as the “Alan Smithee cut” because Lynch disavowed any connection with it, it does fill in a lot of the details left out of the theatrical version, but the scenes are sometimes assembled so haphazardly that coherency actually suffers compared to the original.
It wouldn’t be until the year 2000 when the Sci-Fi channel produced a three-part mini-series version that Dune was brought to the screen in a format suited to the novel’s complexity and length. The new interpretation may have lacked the name cast and the visual sumptuousness of the Lynch version, but the greater length and respect for the source material puts it, in my mind, head and shoulders above this film.
Note: Be forewarned that the DVD version of Dune, which contains both the theatrical version and the Alan Smithee cut, is another double-sided, dual-layer disc and appears to suffer from the same quality control issues as other such discs from Universal. After spending a lot of time and money restoring the Smithee cut, why Universal would cheap out like this is beyond me. This insistence on using this discs, which have a problem since DVDs were invented, has cost Uni a great deal of credibility among the DVD collecting hobbyists.