If you're a fan of David Lynch's Dune, then I'd strongly encourage everyone to check out the documentary -- The Sleeper Must Awaken -- as it's available now for streaming exclusively on Arrow's very own streaming platform.
I wrote about the service previously on SciFiHistory.Net's MainPage right here; or if you're interested in heading directly to the source, then feel free to check it out directly right here.
Frankly, I say this as one who always has a lot of respect for filmmakers and their various visions. Additionally, readers in this space will know that I have nothing but love for the talents of writer/director David Lynch, so much so that it pains me at times to consider what his definitive vision of Frank Herbert’s singular novel could’ve looked like had he been given the chance to legitimately complete it. Alas, that ship has sailed … and I hope we can all agree that it wasn’t fueled by spice in the slightest.
Because of my love/hate relationship with the 1984 film, I approached Arrow Video’s documentary on the making-of it – The Sleeper Must Awaken – with some trepidation, but I’m glad I endured it. Though I’ve read much about Lynch’s efforts to adapt the story to celluloid, I’ve avoided the usual documentary efforts to chronicle its rise and fall (and rise again?) mostly because there’s little benefit to them because the master himself – David Lynch – never speaks of his time on it. What can truly be learned if the man who called most of the shots isn’t involved?
However, last year – when the prospect of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation was suddenly all the rage in the entertainment industry – Lynch was quoted as having called his attempt “a huge sadness” in his life. I suspect much of this relates to the film’s performance at the box office – it did no studio any favors – as well as the fact that he’s never been allowed to produce his director’s cut of the material. Since he’s kinda/sorta made peace with Dune, I figured, “Why can’t I?”
In that spirit, I waded into The Sleeper Must Awaken, the title referring to a quotation from the Herbert novel. Dune is a book I’ve tried to read – several times, in fact – and I’ve always given it up in frustration. As a reader, I need to feel some personal connection with a tale or else I find it exceedingly difficult to follow the prose. When I sense I’m wandering away from a particular yarn, I’m prone to put it down and start something else. I figure I’ll eventually make the way through Dune; it’s just going to take me serious effort.
But what I do take away from my handful of encounters with it is that there’s something ‘grand’ missing from its mythological universe, and perhaps that’s what Herbert was saying when he penned that line.
Tapping into that construct, the Arrow documentary attempts to re-examine the film from its earliest, failed attempts (there were several), through its construction, and all the way until its critical drubbing. (FYI: it took a beating.) In doing so, the Sleeper drops a helluva lot of high-profile names who were involved at some stage of the adaptation’s development (Roger Corman, Ridley Scott, etc.) and admirably tries to peel back some of the confusion about how something so compellingly put together failed to resonate with a wider audience. I’ve always argued that filmed Dune stories are best discussed by folks who’ve read the Herbert books, and I’d strongly encourage those same aficionados to watch this curious biopic as I think it’s a quality distillation that pays tribute to the work performed by Lynch and his veritable army of artisans.
Also, Sleeper is great in producing some interesting anecdotes regarding how some of the cast and crew were drawn to the project in the beginning. Because the project experienced so many failed starts, there are an incredible number of professionals who may’ve touched it in ways big and small, and still other names that wanted to be a part of it but for whatever reason weren’t selected. (Hello, H.R. Giger! Hello, Val Kilmer! Hello, Rob Lowe!) These anecdotes are fleshed out, in some cases they’re even further investigation about why so-and-so was turned down or passed over. It would appear the folks behind this wanted to provide as concise an explanation for these side stories as was possible, and I think they succeeded more than I expected.
What Sleeper doesn’t do all that well – in this reviewer’s humble opinion – is point fingers specifically at why Dune failed as epically as it did.
I don’t want to belabor that point, but I do think – based entirely on my own research into the flick – that the lion’s share of that blame must and should rest on Dino De Laurentiis’ shoulders. Naturally, I understand anyone’s compulsion to avoid assigning blame; De Laurentiis enjoyed a solid and long-lasting career in an industry that isn’t exactly well-known for eating its own alive (tip: it does), so I think all of that goodwill has served him well. But his efforts inevitably crippled Lynch’s ability to realize a vision that could be remembered much differently than the one lingering today, and I’ve not yet figured out how to forgive the guy for it nearly four decades later.
Recommended ... but you know who is going to enjoy this the most? Fans of Dune, both the film and the book, as Herbert's archival comments are well represented.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Video provided me with a complimentary streaming link for The Sleeper Must Awaken (2022) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.