Set in the distant future, the film chronicles the conflict between rival noble families as they battle for control of the extremely harsh desert planet Arrakis, also known as "Dune". The planet is the only source of the drug melange—also called "the spice"—which allows prescience, and is vital to space travel, making it the most essential and valuable commodity in the universe.
The film was negatively reviewed by critics and was a box-office failure, grossing $30.9 million from a $40 million budget. Upon release, Lynch distanced himself from the project, stating that pressure from both producers and financiers restrained his artistic control and denied him final cut privilege. At least three versions have been released worldwide. In some cuts, Lynch's name is replaced in the credits with the name Alan Smithee, a pseudonym used by directors who wished not to be associated with a film for which they would normally be credited. The extended and television versions additionally credit writer Lynch as Judas Booth. The film has a cult following but opinion varies among fans of the novel.
In the distant future, the known universe is ruled by Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV. The most important substance in the empire is the drug known as melange or "the spice". It has many special properties, such as extending life and expanding consciousness. The most profitable and important of its properties is its ability to assist the Spacing Guild with folding space, which allows safe, instantaneous interstellar travel.
Sensing a potential threat to spice production, the Spacing Guild sends an emissary to demand an explanation from the Emperor, who confidentially shares his plans to destroy House Atreides. The popularity of Duke Leto Atreides has grown through the empire, and he is suspected to be amassing a secret army, which Emperor Shaddam sees as a potential threat to his rule. Shaddam's plan is to give House Atreides control of the planet Arrakis (also known as Dune), the only source of spice. Once installed on Arrakis, he intends to have them ambushed by their longtime archenemies, the Harkonnens, with assistance from the Emperor's elite troops, the Sardaukar. The Guild Navigator also commands the Emperor to kill Duke Leto's son, Paul Atreides, a young man who dreams prophetic visions of his purpose. The execution order draws the attention of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, as Paul is tied to its centuries-long Bene Gesserit breeding program which seeks to produce the universe's superbeing, the Kwisatz Haderach. Before he leaves for Arrakis, Paul is tested by the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam by being forced to place his hand in a box which induces excruciating pain. To Mohiam's surprise and eventual satisfaction, he passes the test.
Meanwhile, on the industrial world of Giedi Prime, the sadistic Baron Vladimir Harkonnen tells his nephews Glossu Rabban and Feyd-Rautha about his plan to eliminate the Atreides by manipulating someone in House Atreides into betraying the Duke. The Atreides leave their homeworld Caladan for Arrakis, a barren desert planet populated by gigantic sandworms. The native people of Arrakis are called the Fremen, a mysterious people who have long held a prophecy that a messiah would come to lead them to freedom. Upon arrival on Arrakis, Leto is informed by one of his right-hand men, Duncan Idaho, that the Fremen have been underestimated, as they exist in vast numbers and could prove to be powerful allies. Leto begins to gain the trust of the Fremen, but before the Duke can establish an alliance, the Harkonnens launch their attack.
While they had anticipated a trap, Harkonnen's traitor within House Atreides, Dr. Wellington Yueh, Duke Leto's personal physician, has disabled critical shields and destroyed their sonic weapons, leaving them nearly defenseless. In the attack, Idaho is killed, Leto is captured, and nearly all of House Atreides is wiped out. While captured, Leto dies in a failed attempt to assassinate the Baron Harkonnen using a poison gas capsule planted in his tooth by Dr. Yueh, who is double-crossed by Baron Harkonnnen and executed by Piter De Vries. However, Leto's concubine Lady Jessica and his son Paul survive the attack and are able to escape into the deep desert, where they discover a sietch of Fremen, led by Stilgar. Paul and Jessica are taken in by the Fremen; Jessica becomes their Reverend Mother, and Paul falls in love with Chani, a Fremen warrior he had previously seen in one of his visions.
Paul takes on the Fremen name Muad'Dib, and emerges as the leader for whom the Fremen have been waiting. He teaches the Fremen to build and use Weirding Modules—sonic weapons developed by House Atreides—and begins to target spice mining production, which is back in control of the Harkonnen, overseen by Rabban. Over the next two years, spice production is effectively halted, a fact Rabban tries to keep hidden from the empire. The Spacing Guild returns to the Emperor to warn him of the deteriorating situation on Arrakis. They also fear that Paul will consume the Water of Life, a powerful poison used by the Bene Gesserit to help induce their abilities. The meeting is revealed to Paul in a prophetic dream, but then the dreams suddenly stop. Shaken by the absence of his visions, he goes out into the desert, drinks the Water of Life and enters into a trance. Upon awakening, he is transformed, obtaining powerful psychic abilities and the ability to control the sandworms. Paul has also regained his ability to see into space and the future, and learns the Emperor is amassing a huge invasion fleet above Arrakis to wipe out the Fremen and to regain absolute control of the planet.
Upon the Emperor's arrival at Arrakis, he executes Rabban for failing to remedy the spice situation, calling in Baron Harkonnen to demand an explanation. At the same time, Paul launches a final attack against the Harkonnens and the Emperor's Sardaukar at the capital city of Arrakeen. His Fremen warriors, riding in on sandworms and brandishing their sonic weapons, easily defeat the Emperor's legions, while Paul's sister Alia kills Baron Harkonnen. Once in Arrakeen, Paul faces the Emperor and engages Feyd-Rautha in a duel to the death; Paul kills Feyd and relieves Emperor Shaddam of power. Paul then demonstrates his newfound powers and fulfills the Fremen prophecy that he is the promised messiah by causing rain to fall on Arrakis for the first time ever, as Alia declares him to be the Kwisatz Haderach.
In 1971, film producer Arthur P. Jacobs optioned the film rights to Dune, but died before a film could be developed.
Two years later, in 1973, the option was acquired by a French consortium led by Jean-Paul Gibon, with Alejandro Jodorowsky attached to direct. Jodorowsky proceeded to approach, among others, the progressive rock groups Pink Floyd and Magma for some of the music, Dan O'Bannon for the visual effects, and artists H. R. Giger, Jean Giraud, and Chris Foss for set and character design. For the cast, Jodorowsky envisioned Salvador Dalí as the Emperor, Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen, Mick Jagger as Feyd-Rautha, Udo Kier as Piter De Vries, David Carradine as Leto Atreides, his son, Brontis Jodorowsky, 12 years old at the time, who had co-starred in his father's film El Topo (1970), as the protagonist Paul Atreides, and Gloria Swanson, among others. The project was ultimately abandoned when Jodorowsky was unable to get funding for the film.
Although their version of the film never reached production, the work that Jodorowsky and his team put into Dune did have a significant impact on subsequent science-fiction films. In particular, the classic Alien (1979), written by O'Bannon, shared much of the same creative team for the visual design as had been assembled for Jodorowsky's film. A documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune (2013), was made about Jodorowsky's failed attempt at an adaptation.
In late 1976, Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis purchased the rights from Gibon's consortium. De Laurentiis commissioned Herbert to write a new screenplay in 1978; the script Herbert turned in was 175 pages long, the equivalent of nearly three hours of screen time. De Laurentiis then hired director Ridley Scott in 1979, with Rudy Wurlitzer writing the screenplay and H. R. Giger retained from the Jodorowsky production. Scott intended to split the book into two movies. He worked on three drafts of the script, using The Battle of Algiers as a point of reference, before moving on to direct another science-fiction film, Blade Runner (1982). As he recalls, the preproduction process was slow, and finishing the project would have been even more time-intensive:
But after seven months I dropped out of Dune, by then Rudy Wurlitzer had come up with a first-draft script which I felt was a decent distillation of Frank Herbert's. But I also realised Dune was going to take a lot more work—at least two and a half years' worth. And I didn't have the heart to attack that because my older brother Frank unexpectedly died of cancer while I was prepping the De Laurentiis picture. Frankly, that freaked me out. So I went to Dino and told him the Dune script was his.
—From Ridley Scott: The Making of his Movies
by Paul M. Sammon
In 1981, the nine-year film rights were set to expire. De Laurentiis renegotiated the rights from the author, adding to them the rights to the Dune sequels (written and unwritten). After seeing The Elephant Man, producer Raffaella De Laurentiis decided that David Lynch should direct the movie. Around that time, Lynch received several other directing offers, including Return of the Jedi. He agreed to direct Dune and write the screenplay, though he had not read the book, known the story, or even been interested in science fiction. Lynch worked on the script for six months with Eric Bergen and Christopher De Vore. The team yielded two drafts of the script before they split over creative differences. Lynch subsequently worked on five more drafts.
On March 30, 1983, with the 135-page sixth draft of the script, Dune finally began shooting. It was shot entirely in Mexico. With a budget of over $40 million, Dune required 80 sets built on 16 sound stages and a total crew of 1700. Many of the exterior shots were filmed in the Samalayuca Dune Fields in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua.
The rough cut of Dune without post-production effects ran over four hours long but Lynch's intended cut of the film (as reflected in the seventh and final draft of the script) was almost three hours long. Universal and the film's financiers expected a standard, two-hour cut of the film. Dino de Laurentiis, his daughter Raffaella and Lynch excised numerous scenes, filmed new scenes that simplified or concentrated plot elements and added voice-over narrations, plus a new introduction by Virginia Madsen. Contrary to rumor, Lynch made no other version besides the theatrical cut. A TV version was aired in 1988 in two parts totalling 186 minutes including a "What happened last night" recap and second credit roll. Lynch disavowed this version and had his name removed from the credits, Alan Smithee being credited instead. This version (without recap and second credit roll) has occasionally been released on DVD as 'Dune: Extended Edition'. Several longer versions have been spliced together. Although Universal has approached Lynch for a possible director's cut, Lynch has declined every offer and prefers not to discuss Dune in interviews.
Dune premiered in Washington, DC, on December 3, 1984, at The Kennedy Center and was released worldwide on December 14. Prerelease publicity was extensive, not only because it was based on a best-selling novel, but also because it was directed by Lynch, who had had success with Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. Several magazines followed the production and published articles praising the film before its release, all part of the advertising and merchandising of Dune, which also included a documentary for television, as well as items placed in toy stores.
The film opened on December 14, 1984, in 915 theaters and earned $6,025,091 in its opening weekend, ranking number two in the domestic box office behind Beverly Hills Cop. By the end of its run, Dune had grossed $30,925,690 ($71,689,559.32 in 2016 dollars). On an estimated $40 million budget, the film was considered a box office disappointment.
Roger Ebert gave Dune one star out of four, and wrote, "This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time." Ebert added: "The movie's plot will no doubt mean more to people who've read Herbert than to those who are walking in cold", and later named it "the worst movie of the year." On At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Ebert, Siskel began his review by saying "it's physically ugly, it contains at least a dozen gory gross-out scenes, some of its special effects are cheap—surprisingly cheap because this film cost a reported $40–45 million—and its story is confusing beyond belief. In case I haven't made myself clear, I hated watching this film." The film was later listed as the worst film of 1984 and the "biggest disappointment of the year" in their "Stinkers of 1984" episode. Other negative reviews focused on the same issues as well as on the length of the film.
Janet Maslin of The New York Times also gave Dune a negative review of one star out of five. She said, "Several of the characters in Dune are psychic, which puts them in the unique position of being able to understand what goes on in the movie" and explained that the plot was "perilously overloaded, as is virtually everything else about it."
Variety gave Dune a less negative review, stating "Dune is a huge, hollow, imaginative and cold sci-fi epic. Visually unique and teeming with incident, David Lynch's film holds the interest due to its abundant surface attractions but won't, of its own accord, create the sort of fanaticism which has made Frank Herbert's 1965 novel one of the all-time favorites in its genre." They also commented on how "Lynch's adaptation covers the entire span of the novel, but simply setting up the various worlds, characters, intrigues and forces at work requires more than a half-hour of expository screen time." They did enjoy the cast and said that "Francesca Annis and Jürgen Prochnow make an outstandingly attractive royal couple, Siân Phillips has some mesmerizing moments as a powerful witch, Brad Dourif is effectively loony, and best of all is Kenneth McMillan, whose face is covered with grotesque growths and who floats around like the Blue Meanie come to life."
Richard Corliss of Time gave Dune a negative review, stating, "Most sci-fi movies offer escape, a holiday from homework, but Dune is as difficult as a final exam. You have to cram for it." He noted that "MacLachlan, 25, grows impressively in the role; his features, soft and spoiled at the beginning, take on a he-manly glamour once he assumes his mission." He ended by saying "The actors seem hypnotized by the spell Lynch has woven around them—especially the lustrous Francesca Annis, as Paul's mother, who whispers her lines with the urgency of erotic revelation. In those moments when Annis is onscreen, Dune finds the emotional center that has eluded it in its parade of rococo decor and austere special effects. She reminds us of what movies can achieve when they have a heart as well as a mind."
Film scholar Robin Wood called Dune "the most obscenely homophobic film I have ever seen",–referring to a scene in which Baron Harkonnen sexually assaults and kills a young man by bleeding him to death–charging it with "managing to associate with homosexuality in a single scene physical grossness, moral depravity, violence and disease." Gay writer Dennis Altman suggested that the film showed how "AIDS references began penetrating popular culture" in the 1980s, asking, "Was it just an accident that in the film Dune the homosexual villain had suppurating sores on his face?"
While most critics were negative towards Dune, critic and science fiction writer Harlan Ellison had a different opinion. In his 1989 book of film criticism, Harlan Ellison's Watching, he says that the $42 million production failed because critics were denied screenings at the last minute after several reschedules, a decision by Universal that, according to Ellison, made the film community feel nervous and negative towards Dune before its release. Ellison eventually became one of the film's few positive reviewers. Daniel Snyder also praised elements of the film in a 2014 article which called the movie "...a deeply flawed work that failed as a commercial enterprise, but still managed to capture and distill essential portions of one of science fiction’s densest works." Snyder stated that Lynch's "surreal style" created "a world that felt utterly alien", full of "...bizarre dream sequences, rife with images of unborn fetuses and shimmering energies, and unsettling scenery like the industrial hell of the Harkonnen homeworld, [making] the fil[m] actually closer to Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) than [George] Lucas. It seeks to put the viewer somewhere unfamiliar while hinting at a greater, hidden story." Snyder praised the production and stated that Herbert had said he was pleased with Lynch's film.
Science-fiction historian John Clute argued that while Lynch's Dune "spared nothing to achieve its striking visual effects", the film adaptation "unfortunately-perhaps inevitably-reduced Herbert's dense text to a melodrama".
The few more favorable reviews praised Lynch's noir-baroque approach to the film. Others compare it to other Lynch films that are equally hard to access, such as Eraserhead, and assert that to watch it, the viewer must first be aware of the Dune universe. In the years since its initial release, Dune has gained more positive reviews from online critics and viewers. As of July 2016, it holds a 57% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 42 reviews.
As a result of its poor commercial and critical reception, all initial plans for Dune sequels were canceled. David Lynch reportedly was working on the screenplay for Dune Messiah and was hired to direct second and a third Dune films. In retrospect, Lynch acknowledged he should never have directed Dune:
I started selling out on Dune. Looking back, it's no one's fault but my own. I probably shouldn't have done that picture, but I saw tons and tons of possibilities for things I loved, and this was the structure to do them in. There was so much room to create a world. But I got strong indications from Raffaella and Dino De Laurentiis of what kind of film they expected, and I knew I didn't have final cut.
In the introduction for his 1985 short story collection Eye, author Herbert discussed the film's reception and his participation in the production, complimented Lynch, and listed scenes that were shot but left out of the released version. He wrote, "I enjoyed the film even as a cut and I told it as I saw it: What reached the screen is a visual feast that begins as Dune begins and you hear my dialogue all through it." Herbert also commented, "I have my quibbles about the film, of course. Paul was a man playing god, not a god who could make it rain."
In the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune, filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who had earlier been disappointed by the collapse of his own attempt to film Dune, says he was disappointed and jealous when he learned Lynch was making Dune, as he believed Lynch was the only other director capable of doing justice to the novel. At first, Jodorowsky refused to see Lynch's film, but his sons dragged him. As the film unfolded, Jodorowsky says, he became very happy, seeing that it was a "failure".
In the documentary about the 2000 miniseries Frank Herbert's Dune, actor William Hurt said that he was a fan of the book series and that he wanted to be a part of the 1984 film, but seeing what it turned out to be, he was happier not having had a role in it.
The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound (Bill Varney, Steve Maslow, Kevin O'Connell, and Nelson Stoll).
The movie won a Stinkers Bad Movie Awards for Worst Picture.