The 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 science fiction novel Dune offers one of the most interesting of all wrinkles to auteur theory, as it is generally understood. The film was the third feature directed by David Lynch, and the last before he became "David Lynch" as we now understand that phrase with 1986's Blue Velvet. That's probably not the only reason, but surely it's a big one, that a box office failure with a cold critical reception has been taken into the bosom of a fairly vocal cult: looking for the Lynchian qualities in a film we just weren't ready for in '84. This is pretty standard fan behavior, and it is not worthy of note in and of itself. The wrinkle is that Lynch himself has done nothing at all to encourage this re-evaluation, and in fact has done quite a bit to dismiss it: as late as the very year I write this, 2021, LynchΒ still refuses to talk about the film, revisit it, or do more to acknowledge it than to express his great regret that he so readily compromised himself as an artist to take the money and play the good studio hack for producers Raffaella and Dino De Laurentiis.

We're under no obligation to agree with Lynch's assessment of his own work - filmmakers have been getting their own films wrong for decades - but in this case, I am sorry to say that I'm much closer to Lynch's position than to the fans who have so carefully worked to restore Dune's reputation over the course of the last 37 years. I don't dislike it as much as Lynch does, since that seems like it would would be a very difficult level of hate to match for any of us who don't regard Dune as the specific most shameful professional mistake of our careers. I merely think it is a good-faith failure at attempting to turn an extremely dense book with a great deal of complicated world-building into a movie of a fairly digestible 137-minute running time (a length decided upon rather late in post-production). Not even a glorious mess of a failure, either, as I imagine we'd have gotten if Alejandro Jodorowsky had gotten to make his version of the story (as outlined in the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky's Dune). Just a reasonably good-looking failure with a fantastic musical score (guitar-driven spacey rock mostly provided by the band Toto, though the main theme that gives it most of its personality was from ambient music pioneer Brian Eno) and a lot of terribly confused-looking actors plowing through way too much exposition.

The degree to which this incarnation of Dune will be primarily focused on just getting something across of Herbert's grandiose, indulgent exercise in world-building and predicting the warped echoes of the present in the unimaginably distant future of 10,191 is clear literally from the first shot. In a moment that plays a little bit like a sad, self-loathing echo of the opening of Eraserhead, the film opens with a human face floating against a field of stars. The face belongs to Virginia Madsen, playing Princess Irulan, though I forget when if ever we hear that name specifically applied to her. She will be our vocal companion throughout the film, piping in with her calm, lightly "Regal" tone of voice any time Lynch couldn't figure out another way to stitch scenes together (he wrote the script himself; the last of six drafts he was primarily or exclusively responsible for, plus a few other the De Laureniises had commissioned. The result resembles a piece of beef that has been overworked and overcooked until it resembles a blackened piece of old leather). So far so... not good, in fact it's a pretty dispiriting sign of how little imagination the film will have about trying to pump information into our ears and eyes. But it gets worse, when Madsen starts to fade to black, and then comes back, and then fades to black again, and fades back in, this time apologising that she forgot to tell us one important part. In a different film - not even one made by a different director - this might have played as absurd comedy, a film that doesn't even know how to narrate itself. In context, the nicest way I could describe it is that it's a joke that didn't land; maybe it's just a desperately self-conscious attempt to do something "weird" and thereby keep the film messy and loose, an attempt to break away from the pre-designed, mechanically precise visual effects and composite shots that leave no room for the film to be an organic object. And if that was the intention, I'm not sure burying in this moment, goofy and sloppy but played perfectly straight, was the right strategy.

It's not a moment that will be replicated in any of Dune's remaining length, but it does suggest what we're in for, more or less: exhausting, artless exposition with effortfully strange touches provided at the edges, as a kind of filigree. I don't want to undersell the strangeness. Dune is never top-shelf Lynch (I frankly wouldn't know what to do with any ranking of the director's filmography that doesn't put it dead last), but even as his most overt journeyman work from before he'd started to refine a signature style, it certainly has Lynchian touches. There are obvious things, like the grotesque physical deformities of the film's villain, the vampiric Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan), or the large salamander-like Navigators that drive spaceships and initiate the entirety of the film's thorny, complicated plot involving "spice", the invaluable substance found on the desert planet Arrakis that's at at center of all the elaborate politicking of the story. Hardly less obviously, there's the uncanny, nightmarish effect of the appearance, in the film's second half, of small human girl, Alia (Alicia Witt), who speaks in a voice that has obviously been post-dubbed by an older actor, and laid into the rest of the sound mix without any attempt to match the presence of the rest of the audio in her scenes. And there are "off" compositions, weirdly flat and cramped clusters of people with an unnatural amount of headspace, moments where the rear projection or compositing are so bad that it becomes its own kind of distinctive effect, as though we're actually meant to think of the actors parading in front of flat surfaces feigning three-dimensional space.

So we definitely have a distinct vibe, one that hindsight allows us to call "Lynchian", though in the moment of watching Dune, the most expressly "David Lynch" moments blend into ones that don't really feel like the rest of the director's work, but still get at a sense of the distorted and profoundly unfamiliar. Given how much attention and money were obviously lavished on the sets and costumes, it's somewhat impressive how fucking ugly Dune can be: the world it builds is often as off-putting in its jarring color combinations and sharp metal lines as it is enthralling in how it creates a sense of sci-fi grandeur. One of the best things the movie does that not even the novel especially tries for is to create a sense of a world that is truly not our own; I don't know how much we can credit Lynch with that, but it fits in with some of his later preoccupations, within reason.

Then there's an entirely different vibe, the De Laurentiis, "we want a Star Wars" vibe (at which point I have to mention the obligatory fun fact that Lynch signed up for Dune after turning down an offer from George Lucas to direct Return of the Jedi). For this is a big-budget sci-fi epic from 1984, when all is said and done, and one produced by a father-and-daughter team uniquely prone to trend-hopping. So Dune is full of expensive model shots that somehow look a bit crude, not fitted in with the live action quite right; it has a sense of expansiveness that's heading in the direction of garishness without ever exactly getting there. Other than maybe some specific details of the sets, I can't quite pin down what I mean by this comparison, but it feels like it misses the mark in the same direction as 1980's Flash Gordon, Dino De Laurentiis's other, much cheesier attempt at a grand-scale space opera. The two films have not much in common, including none of the same crew heads (for the record, Anthony Masters was Dune's production designer, Bob Ringwood its costume designer), but there's a similar feeling of excess in both of them, a sense of gaudy showmanship that jars against the nervy weirdness that Lynch seems to be going for. These two modes don't entirely conflict with each other, and they manage to produce a fairly unique feeling of being lived-in; not in the banged-up "used future" aesthetic that Star Wars made ubiquitous in big-budget science fiction for pretty much all of the 1980s, but a strange, hard-to-describe feeling like the world is rotting away and has been preserved in a thin layer of epoxy in some desperate attempt to halt the decay. It is both slick and scuffed-up simultaneously.

That Dune looks arresting, even when it looks bad, is very much to its benefit, because this film absolutely relies on its visuals to distract you even a little bit from what a complete wreck the story is. Herbert's world was just too busy to reduce it down to such a scrawny form, even with omnipresent voiceover trying to patch things together - and not just Madsen's frequent vocal appearances to give us a paragraph or two covering material that's necessary to understand how two consecutive scenes fit together. The film also tries to recreate what might be the single worst feature of Herbert's prose, his willy-nilly mixing of third-person limited perspectives. Throughout the film, seemingly every major character has a moment, or several, where we stare them in the face while the actor whispers (it's always a very pensive, scratchy whisper) what they're noticing in that particular moment. This is very rarely used as a character beat; generally, it's a shortcut to make sure that we understand what's going on in a particular moment, since Lynch's script has run out of time to present that information in any more conventionally elegant form. Part of my wants to love the sheer brazen chutzpah of this gesture, but it's just so stupid, the last-ditch effort of a desperate filmmaker to cram last-minute chunks of exposition in wherever a little bit of spare room to be found. It's too persistent and strange an aesthetic to be the result of a studio note to explain more, but that's exactly what it feels like.

Unsurprisingly, given how messily it drops in a constant stream of explanatory notes, Dune barely manages to tell its years-spanning story of how Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan, visibly unsure of what he's meant to be doing in his feature debut; fortunately, Lynch spotted something he could use in the actor, and their subsequent collaborations were vast improvements, to put it mildly) went from cossetted youth to battled-hardened desert survivor to the actual, literal Messiah, genetically engineered to fulfill an socially engineered prophecy of salvation, though I now realise that I'm not sure if the movie Dune explains that last part, or if I just know it. Either way, the first 80 minutes are a basically nonstop run of explaining how the politics of this far future empire work, arranging two entire armies of opposing forces, and how Paul fits into that; the next 50 minutes are basically a giant, blobby montage, hopping across action scenes and moments of psychedelic revelation until it can quickly button things up with a straightforward duel scene that Lynch is palpably at a loss to film in an interesting way. It simultaneously feels like a tedious grind and a restless top-speed plunge through far too much story in far too little time; it's frustrating enough to piece it all together knowing the book, and I imagine it must be borderline-illegible to anyone who doesn't.

The story is where this is clearly the most uncomfortable fit for Lynch, who even by 1984 was more interested in moods and subjectivity than moving us through well-articulated events; this is probably why so much of the second half feels like a badly-described vision quest. The massive cast, including several future Lynch collaborators, has almost nobody who seems to understand what's expected of them; the best among them, and I am here mostly thinking of Dean Stockwell and Brad Dourif, have some instinct that going fully inhuman is the best option, and so they play to the garish expressionism of the most weird images (I'd also consider putting Sting here; he's a bizarre presence, certainly with no inherent sense of how to "act", but he gets a shocking amount of mileage out of opening his eyes enormously wide and grinning an unpleasant bared-teeth grin). Most of the weaker performances are simply too small to compete with the expansiveness and messiness of the film, trying to stake a claim on small human moments that simply aren't there, though McMillan deserves some particular notice for playing the Baron as a broad, goofy clown, in a performance where I can almost see what he and Lynch were going for, but it either doesn't go far enough, or goes too far, but either way doesn't have any actual menace, so we just get this strange, gross comic figure in a film that is trying very hard to create a sense of epic atmosphere above all else, and which certainly didn't need this kind of feckless villain to get in the way of that goal.

Dune, in any incarnation, really isn't meant to be a character study, so it's no real harm that this version misses that mark by so much; but it is meant to be a mythic tragedy, and this is where the film's storytelling fails it. It is simply too messy for any of its ideas to clearly express themselves. At the same time, it's too cautious in pursuing the really outrΓ©, wild ideas that might have allowed to work purely as a matter of visionary derangement. It's stylishly weird enough to ornament a well-told story, but not to compensate for a badly-told story, and the fundamental fact of this Dune is that it tells its story quite poorly indeed.