Anyone who knows David Lynch’s work is familiar with his penchant for messing with the audience. One only has to look at how he ended his popular series Twin Peaks, or pretty much any part of the mind-bending Eraserhead, to realize this.
Even though in the early 1980s, Lynch had been courted as a potential director for some major films (including Return of the Jedi… wouldn’t you have liked to see the Ewoks in that version?), he had his big studio break with the adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. While it was a commercial and critical failure, Dune also represents Lynch’s subversive filmmaking nature, more than some people even realize.
At the time, Hollywood was looking for the next Star Wars, much like how they are furiously searching for the next Hunger Games now with films like Divergent and The Maze Runner. Dune had been in development since the early 1970s, and it finally got off the ground with Lynch at the helm.
Lynch was a bold choice for the film, considering he was handed a massive potential franchise when he was known for more intimate and often obscure and surreal personal films. Ultimately, Lynch made a film that ensured a sequel was impossible, and that was a brilliant though almost career-ending move.
The easy answer to why there was no Dune sequel is its box office performance. During production, the budget ballooned to $42m, which might not seem like a lot in today’s dollars, but it was unheard of 30 years ago.
To put it in perspective, in 1984 dollars, only 15 movies even made more the $42m domestically, and only five of those (Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, and The Karate Kid) made more than the $85m or so would be needed to just break even at the box office. For further perspective, Ghostbusters had a budget of only $30 m, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had a budget of just $28m.
It wasn’t just the box office. A Dune sequel was doomed before the film was even released, and it hinged on the very ending of the film.
[Please note that several spoilers for both the book Dune and Lynch’s movie follow, so if you want to quickly read the 412-page novel and watch the 137-minute film first, now’s your chance.]
At the end of Dune, Paul Atreidis (Kyle MacLachlan) defeats House Harkonnen and ascends to the throne as the Emperor of the Known Universe. Like the book, he plans to transfer power to his adopted home of Arrakis, fulfilling the Fremen prophecy of the Kwisatz Haderach, a superbeing messiah. As proof that he is the Kwisatz Haderach, Paul uses his psychic super powers to cause the skies to open up, and it rains on Arrakis for the first time ever.
This was dramatic, sure, and it certainly seemed a miracle that a Christ-like figure might perform. However, this would be equivalent of the Gospels ending with Jesus walking out of the tomb and laying waste to civilization by setting Jerusalem on fire.
Because the Arrakis was a desert planet on which it never rained, its life forms ‐ in particular the massive sand worms ‐ had evolved in a completely arid environment. Water was poisonous to them. In fact, a sand worm could easily drown in a small amount of water. A deluge like the one we see at the end of the movie would kill all the sand worms on Arrakis.
When those sand worms drown, they would secrete the Water of Life, which has hallucinogenic and mystical powers. Sure, the Water of Life has the ability to transform some women into psychic “witches” known as the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. However, most people (including all the men in this patriarchal society) would die a horrible, horrible death. So, instead of having Arrakis as the hub of all political power in the Known Universe, the Dune sequel would present a soggy desert environment with dead sand worms everywhere covered in hallucinogenic goo that was poisonous to only a chosen few.
With the sand worms gone, the entire political and social system of the Known Universe would collapse. The Spice Melange ‐ which is vital to the Bene Gesserits, the Spacing Guild’s political power, interplanetary commerce, and all forms of space travel ‐ is only produced by the sand worms of Arrakis. With the sand worms gone, the Spice would no longer be made.
Sure, massive Spice reserves would exist throughout the galaxy, but the value of those would skyrocket, and it would no longer be a sustained, renewable resource that could be used in a casual manner.
Space travel would no longer be readily available because the Guild certainly wouldn’t be used to fold space for frivolous missions. So if you were vacationing on planet Caladan (home of House Atreides) or taking a depressing work trip to Giedi Prime (home of House Harkonnen), tough beans. You’d be stuck there. Presumably forever.
In the opening scene of the film, a secret report from the Guild declares, “The Spice must flow.”
At the end of Dune, Paul Atreidis ensures that the Spice does not flow at all. He doesn’t seize control of Spice production or distribution. He, makes sure the Spice flow stops. Permanently.
In the book, Paul ascends to the throne as the leader of Arrakis, allowing him and the Fremen to control the Spice and consequently control the economy and politics of the known universe. In Lynch’s film, Paul uses his Kwisatz Haderach super powers to pretty much destroy the Spice and send the known universe back to the dark ages.
I’m not saying that there couldn’t be a sequel to David Lynch’s Dune at all, but it would look nothing like the world Frank Herbert spent years developing. In the end, it might have resembled The Road Warrior or other post-apocalyptic science fiction film from the 80s. It certainly would not have been a grand continuation to a Star Wars-like saga that Universal was hoping for.
On the plus side, that sequel probably would not have cost $42M to make.
Love it or hate it, Dune is David Lynch’s masterpiece because it didn’t just mess with the audience, it messed with the entire studio system and their newly-found love for sequels in the 80s. Part of me believes that Lynch torpedoed any hope of a sequel on purpose, just to mess with the system.
If he did, it was a work of genius.