The movie certainly feels trimmed. There’s a lot of narration, particularly at the beginning where we have not one, but two extended scenes of exposition, one with Virginia Madsen’s disembodied, disappearing and reappearing head, the other a telecommunications dispatch explaining the roles of the various kingdoms involved in interplanetary intrigue. Things move fast, sometimes too fast. Throughout the film we hear the thoughts of the characters on-screen, which fill in, sometimes too pointedly, exactly what's happening. One of the largest complaints from the critics of the time was that the movie was completely incomprehensible, particularly for those who hadn’t read the novels.
I’ve never read any of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. Perhaps it’s that I went into the movie knowing its reputation, or perhaps it's having a lot of experience with other David Lynch projects and knowing the unusual voice he's become, but I found the movie entirely comprehensible. I imagine it probably helps having taken in a fair amount of Lynch, as one feels freer to let go of the strict plotting and enjoy the feel of the movie, its rhythms and imagery. Although the editing of the film is in great contention, it is effective. The movie builds at a great pace, feeling at times both epic and intimate.
The film’s greatest achievement is its design. Lynch doesn’t just create one new world, he creates many, building their surroundings out of their natural habitats. The movie feels other-worldly in the best way possible, as though all of these massive societies have sprung up on their own after centuries of development. Everything has been imbued with a deep sense of history and tradition.
The film is gorgeous, even when it’s hideous. The world of the Caladan, the home of House Atreides, is austere and beautiful. The desert planet of Arrakis, where the famous spice is mined, is massive, imposing and stunning in its sparsity. The world of the villainous Harkonnen is truly revolting, filled with disease and bodily fluids and dripping with substances whose origins you probably don’t want to know. Some of the effects are absolutely stunning and surreal, like the shots of the emerging birth of Paul Atreides' sister. Others look absolutely cheesy even for the time, like old Ray Harryhausen effects. But Ray Harryhausen is beloved even today because his effects were charming and effective, as are the cheesier effects in Dune. Even if they don’t look like the most believable effects, what is happening behind them is engrossing, and so the lack of polish, at least for me, can be easily forgiven.