Our review of Frank Herbert's Dune: Director's Cut, published July 17th, 2002, is also available.
Arrakis. Dune. Wasteland of the Empire…and the most valuable planet in the universe, because it is here, and only here, where spice is found. The spice—without it there is no commerce in the Empire, there is no civilization. Arrakis. Dune. Home of the spice. Greatest treasure in the universe. And he who controls it controls our destiny.—The Princess Irulan
First published in 1965, Frank Herbert's Dune is one of the undisputed classics of science fiction literature. Over the years the novel and its five sequels have sold millions of copies around the world. It is an epic tale, sprawling over about half a dozen planets and a variety of cultures, running to some 540 pages in my well-worn paperback edition. It is infused with a wealth of minute details about customs, religions, technology, science, and galactic commerce. It contains layer upon layer of ecology, myth and mysticism, prophecy, and political intrigue.
The problems in adapting such a massive, intricate literary work for the screen are obvious. In 1984 David Lynch made a theatrical version of Dune, which stands to this day as a sort of benchmark of noble failure, the textbook example of everything that can possibly go wrong when adapting a novel for the screen. It illustrates with painful clarity the inherent difficulties in transferring a story of this magnitude to film. It also shows that some material is just too complex to cook down into the time constraints placed on a theatrical film. Lynch did his best to try to cram as much of Herbert's vision into his movie as he possibly could, but there was simply too much information to work with and the movie was a bloated, incomprehensible mess as a result.
However, writer/director John Harrison and the good people over at the Sci-Fi Channel have given Dune another chance. Believing that the television mini-series with its looser time constraints was the perfect medium for Herbert's story, they created an adaptation of the story that runs over four and a half hours in total length. Frank Herbert's Dune appeared on Sci-Fi late in 2000, and now comes to us on DVD from Artisan Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
In a universe filled with a mixture of the feudal and the futuristic, the most valuable commodity is melange, a spice that makes space travel and commerce possible. It is produced on only one planet in the entire universe: Arrakis, or Dune as it is also known.
Power in the galaxy is divided among several great dynastic houses. As our story begins, Emperor Shaddam IV (Giancarlo Gianinni) has given control over Arrakis to House Atreides, ruled by Duke Leto (William Hurt). Together with the Lady Jessica (Saskia Reeves), their son Paul (Alec Newman), and their loyal retainers, Leto moves House Atreides to Arrakis from their traditional homeworld of Caladan.
This catapults House Atreides into a tangle of interstellar intrigues, primarily guided by their chief rivals for control of Arrakis, House Harkonnen. Led by the corpulent Baron Vladimir (Ian McNeice) and his nephews Feyd-Rautha (Matt Keeslar) and "Beast" Rabban (László Kish), House Harkonnen is the sworn enemy of House Atreides. The Harkonnens ruled Dune previously, and will stop at nothing to reclaim it and enhance their power in the galaxy. Their web of deception and trickery extends from the sands of Dune to the Emperor himself.
As events unfold, young Paul Atreides finds himself an exile in the wastes of Arrakis, living among the Fremen. The Fremen are a desert-dwelling, semi-nomadic people who live in the deep deserts of Dune where water is the most valuable commodity of all. Their entire culture and beliefs are based around the value of water. They are easily identified by their characteristic blue-in-blue eyes, a sign of constant exposure to melange. As Paul joins them and learns their ways, he realizes that he has a purpose and destiny foretold in the most ancient Fremen prophecies. As the spice permeates his body and frees his mind, he discovers truths about himself and the future of humanity that defy the imagination.
The miniseries format is probably the only visual/cinematic medium that can provide a large enough canvas for the story of Dune. Writer/director John Harrison has created a film that labors mightily to be faithful to Frank Herbert's work, and succeeds to a great extent.
Frank Herbert's Dune is divided into three episodes, loosely following the structure of the novel. The episodes, like the "books" of the novel, are entitled "Dune," "Muad'Dib," and "Prophet." They trace the deepening plots and schemes for control of the vital spice, but more importantly they trace Paul's development from naïve young aristocrat to desert chieftain to prophet and beyond. Within this structure, the screenplay stays quite faithful to the original. There are certainly bits of information that are lost, even in four and a half hours of screen time, but I was pleased with Harrison's adaptation of the material. He includes enough essential information that newcomers to the Dune universe should be able to grasp what is going on, but not so much as to get bogged down in minutiae. He is able, both through his writing and his direction, to strike a good balance between exposition and action scenes. He throws a lot of information at the audience, but mostly manages to keep it from getting dull.
Harrison makes one notable change to the original that I think is quite an improvement. Those who have read the novel will know that Princess Irulan is invisible until the very end of the book, appearing only as a narrator, relating the events of the story through "historical" materials inserted as chapter headings. In Harrison's version Irulan takes a much more active role, at least as observer if not an actual participant in the plots and counter-plots surrounding the Atreides/Harkonnen rivalry. While perhaps not entirely necessary, I thought this was a clever touch. Of course it is successful largely due to the talents of Julie Cox, the young British actress chosen to play Irulan. Cox is able to play Irulan as an interesting parallel to the role of Paul Atreides, a combination of naïvete and cunning, coming of age in the midst of an interstellar crisis.
There are a number of fine acting performances throughout the miniseries. Saskia Reeves was very good as Lady Jessica, bringing a good combination of dignity, beauty, and fire to the role. Barbora Kodetova, a theater actress from Prague, was perfectly cast as Chani, Paul's Fremen love. Kodetova was exactly as I had pictured Chani when reading the book, an exotic beauty with dark hair and complexion, and a wild spirit. Kodetova was only one of many European actors brought aboard the project, and the diverse cast with their variety of accents and appearances really added a layer of believability to the production. Uwe Ochsenknecht, an excellent German actor, was also very good as Stilgar, leader of the Fremen community that adopts Paul and his mother.
The actor required to do the heaviest lifting was Alec Newman, the young British actor cast as Paul. Without a solid actor in this role, the whole effort would be pointless. Happily, Newman is up to the challenge, and manages to portray the complex emotions and contradictions within this character.
A movie such as Frank Herbert's Dune of course involves a lot of special effects work, recreating various planetary environments as well as scenes that take place in space. The special effects sequences incorporate a lot of CGI, most of which looks good and is fairly convincing. I was particularly impressed by scenes in space, showing huge Spacing Guild freighters and other ships moving gracefully—and silently. I was amazed at how effective silence was in these scenes. We have become so accustomed to hearing spaceships in other movies roaring about through space that when a movie like this one shows us a scientifically accurate, silent scene, it is incredibly effective.
A lot of attention was paid to the more mundane aspects of the production as well. From gorgeous sets to intriguing costumes, the makers of this miniseries did their best to create a look and feel that brought Dune to life. The results are mostly dazzling, with distinctive designs and color schemes for each of the main locations featured. There are times where the production values suffer from a certain lack of budget, but overall it is clear that a lot of work went into the design and construction of these environments.
Artisan's transfer of Frank Herbert's Dune to DVD is a thing of beauty to behold. The transfer is anamorphic, presented in a 1.77:1 aspect ratio. I never saw the miniseries when it originally aired, so I don't know if it was shown in this letterbox version, or if it has been slightly cropped on top and bottom for this DVD release. In any case, the picture quality is simply amazing, possibly the best of any DVD in my collection. Every second of film is sharp and clear. Colors are bright and vibrant, and even the most problematic bright reds are dead on. Flesh tones for characters of a variety of backgrounds are accurately reproduced. Blacks are deep and solid. Shadowy scenes are sharp and clear, with no hint of graininess or muddiness. The only problems I could find with the transfer were a few isolated incidents of edge over-enhancement, but even these were brief and unobtrusive. It is as close to perfection as I have seen yet.
The audio is presented in Dolby Surround. It is adequate to the job, although not up to the impressive standards set by the video transfer. It is sharp and clear, although dialogue often sounded a bit hollow or muffled. The sound effects seemed to lack punch through much of the miniseries. On the other hand some scenes, notably the final battle scenes in Episode 3, had great sound effects including directional effects that moved from left to right or from front to back through the various surround channels.
Extra content for this two disc set is included on Disc Two, along with the third installment in the series. The main extra is a making-of featurette entitled "The Lure of Spice." It runs a generous 25 minutes. It is mostly standard fare, including brief soundbites from the director and various actors and some behind the scenes footage, but it is a good effort and fairly informative. I was thankful for the chance to see and hear a bit more from some of the lesser-known actors in the cast, such as Newman, Kodetova, and Cox. Writer/Director Harrison's insights were interesting as well, and I appreciated the fact that he had a lot of love and respect for the material and wanted to be as faithful to it as he possibly could.
Next on the list of extra content is the "Dune Gallery." It is divided into three sections: Costume Design, Production Design, and a Cinematic Treatment by D.P. Vittorio Storaro. This last doesn't include a lot of images from the film, but rather is a treatise by Storaro on the philosophical and mythical underpinnings of Dune, and how he used colors and images to reflect them on the screen.
Cast and crew biographical information and a section of production notes round out the extra content. Both sections are fairly detailed and yield some interesting information about the people and the process behind this miniseries.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With a budget of around $20 million for four and a half hours of screen time, not everything is going to be perfect. While much of the special effects work is passable, there are a number of scenes, usually in the deserts of Arrakis, where it is painfully obvious that the characters are on a soundstage in front of a large matte photograph. Several of the action scenes are kept deliberately short and with as few characters as possible. There are also some instances of pretty bad CGI; the worst example is the small desert mouse from which Paul takes his Fremen name, Muad'Dib. Overall these are minor glitches in the production, and probably not enough to detract from one's enjoyment, but they are noticeable flaws.
More problematic are some of the acting performances. I noted earlier that I liked the diversity brought by casting a number of non-American actors, many of them central or eastern Europeans. On the other hand, some of them were simply not good, and to compound the situation had accents that I found impenetrable. The most glaring example was Zuzana Geislerová in the role of Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, the Emperor's Truthsayer. She was stilted and wooden, and simply not effective in her role. Of course, American actors are not immune to criticism either. William Hurt was the highest-profile actor attached to the project; he even has above-the-title billing. However, his perfomance as Duke Leto is completely flat and unengaging.
Other problems came from the depiction of the Harkonnen villains in general. Ian McNeice was good as Baron Harkonnen, in an outrageous, over-the-top kind of way, complete with lots of evil laughter. His performance was good, but I was disappointed that the Harkonnens were reduced to such cartoonish stature overall.
Finally, there were some parts of the book that had to be left out due to limitations of time or the flow of the plot. I would have liked to see the Fremen water discipline better explained and adhered to. I would have liked to see the significance of Paul's tears as "water for the dead" explained, as I find this to be one of the most emotionally significant moments of the novel. There are several concepts in the novel that got short shrift in the movie, from mentats to the Bene Gesserit. There are also several of the more interesting characters in the novel that are only passing figures here, such as Thufir Hawat, Duncan Idaho, and even Gurney Halleck, who all get much less screen time than one might expect. Part of the problem in adapting the novel for the screen is the huge number of characters Herbert included in his work; when transferred to the screen they become a blur of entrances and exits with very little explanation in between. Of course, this is nitpicking. Harrison had to make a lot of choices regarding what to include and what to leave out, and for the most part he made good ones.
Frank Herbert's Dune is as good an adaptation of this material as we are likely to see, but it is not without its flaws. This material will always be at its best in its original printed format. However, I enjoyed this effort and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys Herbert's work, science fiction in general, or a good fantasy/adventure with lots of intrigue and trickery. There are some slow parts that might tax the patience of the casual viewer, but the richness of the story makes it all worthwhile.
The movie and disc are both fully acquitted.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Lure of Spice" Featurette
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