"The time of plots and revenge is coming to an end"—Muad'Dib
Frank Herbert's Children of Dune—a follow-up to the highly successful Sci-Fi Channel mini-series, Frank Herbert's Dune—is an adaptation of two of Herbert's novels in the Dune series: Dune Messiah and Children of Dune.
Facts of the Case
It has been twelve years since Muad'Dib (Alec Newman) defeated House Harkonnen heir Feyd-Rautha in hand-to-hand combat and deposed Padishah-Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV. The intervening years have seen a series of crusades in which the prophet-emperor's armies have conquered and subjugated all who resist his total control over the galaxy. The ecological reformation of the planet Arrakis—Dune—is in full swing, and water now flows on the once arid planet. The alteration of the planet threatens the giant worms who produce the most valuable commodity in the galaxy: spice, a substance that makes intergalactic space travel possible. Also threatened is the age-old way of life of the Fremen, Arrakis' indigenous people. Splinter groups of Fremen have risen to challenge Muad'Dib and restore the planet to its natural state.
The prophet is plagued with visions of a "golden path," a course through history in which politics can be dislodged from the cult of personality and Arrakis can be restored to its former self. It's a path closed to himself, available only to his unborn children. However, Muad'Dib's wife of political convenience, Princess Irulan Corrino (Julie Cox), has been poisoning his concubine and true love, the Fremen woman Chani (Barbora Kodetová), in order to prevent her from conceiving an heir. And his sister, Alia (Daniela Amavia), high-priestess of the cult that has grown around the worship of Muad'Dib, is threatened by the prophet's growing disillusionment with the actions taken in his name.
Meanwhile, on the House Corrino exile world of Saluca Secundus, Irulan's sister, Princess Wensicia (Susan Sarandon), constructs elaborate schemes for the overthrow of Muad'Dib and installation of her young son Farad'N as Padashah-Emperor.
Chani, having consumed large amounts of spice in order to counteract Irulan's poison, gives birth to twins, a son named Leto II (James McAvoy, Band of Brothers) and a daughter named Ghanima (Jessica Brooks). The tangled plots grow more urgent as Muad'Dib disappears into Arrakis' desert and the twins come of age, seeking the golden path their father prophesied and bringing an end to the current social order.
Beneath its thin patina of Machiavellian politics and grandiose dissection of the conflict between spiritual transcendence and religious dogma, Children of Dune is a tried-and-true soap opera. The Houses Atreides, Corrino, and Harkonnen are all related either by blood or marriage so the political deceptions and religious overtones are merely a staging ground for the sort of familial backstabbing, secret alliances, and sex-with-ulterior-motives one would find on Days of Our Lives or All My Children. Is this a bad thing? Only if you expect or demand that it be more. Otherwise, it's an enjoyable blend of thoughtful, melancholy science fiction and trashy excess.
Children of Dune isn't nearly as smart as its predecessor, which explored the problematic intersection of politics, religion, spirituality, and technology through its messianic hero, Paul Atreides, later Muad'Dib. Still, its jumping-off point is unexpected and engaging. Resisting the urge to lionize its hero, this sequel sets out to explore the potential dangers of religious and political fervor, the fallibility of human leaders, and their inability to control the trajectory of the movements they spawn. It's high-minded stuff, but far more satisfying is the infighting, backstabbing, shifting alliances, and realpolitik among the characters. The philosophical musings make fine fuel for the melodrama, but they begin murky and don't become much more concrete by the end. The melodrama, however, culminates in exactly the formulas of vengeance and comeuppance one expects, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that.
Writer-director John Harrison deserves credit for his success in adapting Dune to the medium of film (something believed impossible after David Lynch's atrocious 1984 feature film version). For the sequel, Harrison moved into the writer-producer role, handing directorial chores to Greg Yaitanes (Nash Bridges). Also gone is cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now), whose presence on the crew of the original mini-series was instrumental in making it stylistically artful in the face of a made-for-television budget. For the most part, the effects of these personnel changes are negligible and Children of Dune looks and feels like the progeny of its parent series. Storaro's presence is most missed, his beautiful desertscape backdrops—which dared you to accept a visual conceit instead of trying to create a hyper-detailed reality—replaced with computer-generated cities and terrain, the modern standard of science fiction on film. Still, the computer effects and environments are the most detailed and realistic I've ever seen on television, even if they're a far cry from the work in big-budget cinema fare like The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.
Performances throughout the series are strong, with many of the original actors returning. Alec Newman is probably the least interesting this time out, but not by fault of his own: Paul Atreides largely gone, replaced by the enigma Muad'Dib, Newman is relegated to cold pontification and sinister prophesying. His brief scenes with Barbora Kodetová are the best, the ones in which he is most able to stretch out emotionally. James McAvoy and Jessica Brooks are excellent as the pre-born (for those unfamiliar, this means that they were conscious and self-aware in the womb as a result of their mother's consumption of spice during her pregnancy) and powerful Atreides children. They're particularly good together, expressing a connection so deep (and sort of creepy) they exist in a closed system, knowing and understanding each other in a way no one else possibly could.
Daniela Amavia's performance as Alia Atreides is the most entertaining in large part because she's given the most range, playing sweet aunt, angry daughter, conniving, railing villainess, and tormented soul—the role begs for over-the-top, and she happily obliges. Least interesting, unfortunately, is Susan Sarandon, who does well with what she's given, but spends long stretches of the film off-camera and never materializes into a villain as wickedly fun as Ian McNeice's Baron Harkonnen in the first series. She's there to bring the movie star cachet that William Hurt brought to the original, but unlike Hurt (whose role was also small), her character arc is sloppy and her talent is largely wasted.
A couple major roles were recast for this second outing. Most notably, Saskia Reeves (Butterfly Kiss) has been replaced by Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact) in the role of Muad'Dib's mother, Lady Jessica. Good as Reeves was in the original, they traded up with Krige—she's good in every role she takes. Also gone is German actor Uwe Ochsenknecht in the role of Stilgar, Muad'Dib's desert-hardened Fremen advisor. British actor Steven Berkhoff brings to the character not only age but also a heightened sense of calculating intelligence and fierce loyalty to House Atreides and the planet Arrakis. Again, the series' producers traded up in the switch.
As far as the DVD itself goes, Artisan offers up a two-disc package that presents episodes 1 and 2 on the first disc, and the final episode as well as a couple extras on disc two. While Arthur Reinhart is nowhere near as celebrated as Vittorio Storaro, his cinematography is still beautiful, his use of color, light, and shadow a revelation of the cinematic potential of television productions. The disc presents his work at the 1.78:1 aspect ratio at which it was originally broadcast, in an anamorphic transfer that renders blacks solidly and colors as cool or warm as the various environments demand. Aside from a bit of haloing, the transfer is gorgeous. Sound options are Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Stereo Surround. The 5.1 track rumbles with bass and surrounds are used dynamically as when thopters seem to fly from over your head or the deep wrenching howls of the giant sandworms engulf you.
The only extras are a 13-minute documentary called Making Dune's Children: VFX Revealed, which gives a very general overview of the series' production, focusing mainly on the computer-generated effects work, and Storyboard Comparisons, a six-minute featurette that places storyboards of four different scenes side-by-side with the finished work. It's not a multi-angle feature, but it does have a "Play All" option and is presented in 1.78:1 with stereo surround audio.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
After two separate DVD releases of Frank Herbert's Dune—the first a disappointment and the second exactly what consumers had wanted in the first place—a question weighs on the mind of every fan of the sequel mini-series: Is this the final and ultimate release of Children of Dune on DVD, or are we going to be treated to a Director's Cut down the road? In other words, is it safe to plunk down my money for this thing?
I wish I had a definitive answer for you, but I don't. Consider these items, though:
The dual releases of Dune were a result of rights issues stemming from the project's tangled international financing and not, it appears, greed or deception on the part of Artisan.
While Children of Dune most resembles the initial DVD release of Dune in terms of its light offering of supplemental materials, it resembles the director's cut of the original in terms of its transfer and audio options. The original release of Dune was non-anamorphic widescreen with stereo audio (how pathetic is that?). Granted, Children of Dune doesn't offer a DTS soundtrack like its predecessor's director's cut, but it does offer an aggressive Dolby Digital 5.1 track as well as an anamorphic widescreen transfer. In other words, there's less room for improvement in this case.
Children of Dune pulled in a 2.4 share in the Nielsen ratings. While this is strong enough to make it the third most watched piece of original programming in the Sci-Fi Channel's history, Dune pulled in a 4.4 share. More modest ratings may have translated into a more modest DVD package.
Based on all this, it seems unlikely Children of Dune will be receiving a deluxe three-disc treatment…but stranger things have been known to happen in the world of DVD. If Artisan does release a second, better version of the epic six months down the road, direct your hate mail to them, not me.
I found Children of Dune both fast-paced and generally entertaining. Despite the fact its story is neither as smart nor as tightly-written as the original, it still manages to carve a place for itself near the top of the heap of television mini-series.
Here's hoping—as Princess Irulan's voice-over narration dramatically intones at the conclusion of each of the series' episodes—"the saga of Dune is far from over."
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