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Revisiting The Marketing Quandary of ‘Dune’

Let’s revisit the spicy original trailer for David Lynch’s 1984 disasterpiece.
Dune
By  · Published on April 15th, 2020

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Let’s talk about how weird Dune is.

Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert‘s seminal sci-fi novel is in the can, and there’s a very good chance that the film will be the boldest and most bizarre sci-fi blockbuster we’ve seen in a long time. Villeneuve can try to reign in the madness with as many muted color palettes as he wants, but there’s no escaping it: at its core Dune is extremely, famously, banana pants.

And modern audiences haven’t gone weird and off-world with a blockbuster in a long, long time. These days, most large-scale sci-fi films are part of a familiar franchise and tend to operate within the confines of a recognized brand and with the expectations of a long-time fanbase. Star Wars slaps but we know how that world works; what rules govern its aesthetic, political makeup, and even its storytelling. Thanks to the internet, average pop culture literacy is up. Most folks know what “The Force,” “Repiclants,” and the “Kobayashi Maru” are.

Indulge me: here’s a glossary of Dune terminology. Take a peek. Does any of that make sense to you? If it does, congratulations, you’re a dork. But I suspect most folks are currently squinting at words like “Djedida,” “Ijaz,” and “Mantene” like they’re trying to solve a magic eye puzzle. Dune is an obtuse black hole in the popular conscience and that’s a good thing. Discovering new shit rules. But it does beg the question: how do you sell a movie like Dune?

That was the million-dollar question in 1984. The marketing for David Lynch’s Dune was extensive, in part because of the popularity of the novel, but also because of Lynch’s recent success with The Elephant Man. And, there was another goal: to cram as much exposition into trailers as humanly possible. Get the people up to speed. Tell them about the spice, the worms, the prophecy. In three minutes.

You can watch the original cinematic trailer for David Lynch’s Dune here:

Who made this?

The troubled history of Dune‘s (ongoing) journey to the big screen is the stuff of legend. After madman/visionary/surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s failed attempt to adapt Herbert’s novel, Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis purchased the rights. De Laurentiis first attempted to make the film in 1979 with Ridley Scott directing a script by Rudy Wurlitzer (Candy Mountain), with H. R. Giger retained from the Jodorowsky production. Scott abandoned the project when his brother suddenly passed away (he had intended to split the project into two films, as Denis Villeneuve has). In 1981 De Laurentiis renewed the rights, and Raffaella De Laurentiis (daughter of Dino) brought on David Lynch to direct after seeing The Elephant Man. You know. How you’re watching The Elephant Man and you think is: “wow this guy should absolutely direct a big-budget pseudo-religious space epic.” When the film finally premiered, it did a critical and box-office face-plant on release, and Lynch was so ashamed with the studio’s final cut he removed his writing and directing credits when the film eventually premiered on television. Lynch’s Dune has since developed its defenders, but its status as one of cinema’s greatest disasters remains undisputed.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).