Our review of Frank Herbert's Dune, published June 7th, 2001, is also available.
Spice must flow.
After receiving tons of rejection letters, Frank Herbert managed to see the publication of his landmark science fiction novel "Dune" in 1965. Set in a distant galaxy, "Dune" involved the political maneuverings of various Houses to gain control of the planet Arrakis, a barren wasteland that primarily contained sand. Arrakis was also the only planet in a galactic empire where a special kind of spice grew, and the commerce and travel of the entire empire revolved around the spice. He who controlled the spice, controlled the galaxy. "Dune" was more than a science fiction novel, however, as it was filled with modern allegory to our world's political landscape as well as containing philosophical and spiritual elements. "Dune" was as much a thought-provoking modern myth as it was a solid piece of science fiction.
"Dune" managed to spawn plenty of sequels, many of which were produced after Herbert's death in 1986. In 1984, David Lynch took a hearty stab at bringing "Dune" to the big screen and ended up with mixed results. Relying on the narration of inner dialogue to tell the story, Dune became a bit of a weighty mess that never managed to capture the heart of the story. While the design was unique (not to mention extravagant) and the script was faithful to the novel, the movie collapsed under the weight of trying to tell an enormously dense story in just over two hours. A director's cut that was later put together and clocked in with a run time of just over three hours still failed. Audience members who weren't die hard disciples of the printed work left confused and the film ultimately became yet another box office flop and perhaps one of the greatest missed opportunities in sci-fi cinema.
[Editor's Note: Technically, the extended cut of Lynch's Dune isn't a "director's cut," since Lynch disowned and had his named removed from it (at least as a writer; I can't verify that his name was removed as director). Thanks to an astute Usenet reader for pointing this out.]
Flash forward to the year 2000 when another director, John Harrison (known mostly for television work), decided it was time to recreate the story of "Dune," this time for the small screen. Great strides in special effects technology made some of the more fantastic elements of Herbert's vision much more economical to portray, and television would allow for the vast run time an adaptation like "Dune" would require. Artisan previously released the miniseries as it aired in America (on the Sci-Fi Network) on DVD, but broadcast standards in the United States are much different than they are in other parts of the world. Artisan has now restored 30 minutes of footage previously unseen on the Sci-Fi broadcast and released a mammoth five-hour director's cut of Dune.
Facts of the Case
Arrakis is in a state of flux, as the House Atreides has ousted the brutal House Harkonnen to take over the spice production. Duke Leto Atreides (William Hurt, Dark City) has brought a form of benevolent dictatorship to the barren world, as well as his wife, a Bene Gesserit "witch" Jessica (Saskia Reeves) and his only son Paul (Alec Newman). Jessica quickly establishes that House Atreides is not like the Harkonnen, and they will respect the native peoples of Arrakis, the Fremen, humans who quickly become mutated by the abundant spice in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the Harkonnen did not take the news of their ouster very well, leaving behind a traitor with the hopes that they can destroy their rivals and take Arrakis back, killing two birds with one stone. Fortunately, they're able to strike with the help of the Emperor's own elite troops, the Sardaukar. Duke Leto is murdered while Jessica and Paul are left to the fate of the desert. After escaping the maw of one of the giant worms that inhabit Arrakis, they encounter a tribe of Fremen. According to Fremen legend, an offworlder born of a Bene Gesserit will come to Arrakis to become their messiah and bring water to the barren planet's surface, while Bene Gesserit fable speaks of the Kwisatz Haderach, a person so evolved that he can be in more than one place at the same time.
Of course, that plot summary is well beyond the simplicity of the Cliff Notes' version of Dune. There's no realistic way for me to sum up this film without taking another 2,000 words to do so. Dune is greatly complex not necessarily because of the plot itself, but because of the rich tapestry woven by Herbert for the setting of intergalactic intrigue. Each of the various houses has its own sense of history, ethics, and social structure, and Herbert's novel takes great care in detailing the daily lives of the various clans. While some aspects of life in the various houses are only touched upon in the miniseries, others are given great amounts of screen time. Since Paul (the son of a Bene Gesserit and the only male trained in their ways) originates from House Atreides and later takes shelter amongst the nomadic Fremen, Harrison pays closer attention to the details surrounding these houses. Don't get me wrong, however, in thinking that the other houses are ignored. House Harkonnen's decadent and scheming military-based lifestyle is still properly represented (think Roman Empire sensibilities in tight fetishistic leather) in building architecture and musical themes. The same goes for the oddly-behaving Space Guild and the Emperor's House Corrino. Details set into Lynch's film as simple, clunky exposition are brought out through subtle cinematography and dialogue in Harrison's version, making the newer adaptation superior by this facet alone.
Harrison's rendition of Dune benefits greatly from advances in special effects technology. In 1984 Lynch spent about $40 million to make Dune (that would be about $100 million by today's standards), while Harrison produced a five hour long movie for about $20 million. Every penny spent shows on the production values of Harrison's Dune. Granted that some of the CGI effects still look like a bunch of 1s and 0s (this is unavoidable), but the change in technology certainly allowed more bang for the buck.
The thirty minutes of footage that was restored to comprise the Director's Cut of Dune involves a number of moments of violence that were deemed too distasteful for American audiences (though I couldn't imagine why, considering what we have on television here in the States) as well as plenty of tasteful nudity. If you want something that's good and wholesome for the family, I'd recommend picking up the previously-released broadcast version. The Director's Cut, were it to be rated by the dreaded MPAA, would definitely be given an "R" rating. I'm certainly not complaining, but I understand that there are parents or those who are easily offended who might object to these aspects of Dune.
I wish I could say that the video transfer of Dune is pristine, but that would not be true. Most of the time the anamorphic transfer looks terrific, but there are other times where obvious and distracting flaws seep through. Pixelization occurs during a number of the scenes featuring sand dunes (which, on a planet made up of sand dunes, are numerous), and there is occasionally noticeable edge enhancement that might be made more obvious due to the unique lighting and cinematography. On top of this, there are many scenes featuring Baron Harkonnen (Ian McNeice, From Hell) where the various shades of red dramatically bleed out and ghost into the surrounding colors. This most notably happens around McNeice's exposed skin, especially around his face. This is not a deliberate effect in any way, and it made me wonder if the DVD was faulty. Needless to say, this is a vast disappointment considering the care that was taken in the filming of Dune. At the very least kudos go out for a widescreen presentation. Fortunately the sound mix fares much better as a lively 5.1 mix (as well as a DTS track which I am unable to utilize) was created for Dune. Ambient noise as well as Graeme Revell's (The Crow) multi-faceted musical score grants Dune a sense of depth that surprised me considering it was made for television.
Do you want special features? I got your special features right here. We begin with a mammoth five-hour-long filmmaker's commentary. John Harrison appears during all five hours, but the remainder of the crew involved is split up amongst the three DVDs in this set. While I haven't listened to the entire commentary, I did manage to sample all three tracks. I can tell you that the commentary presented is very engaging and hits all of the topics the audience would want. Banter runs from decisions made in the adaptation (what was included and why) to the technical and design aspects to the various discussions and interpretations of Herbert's source material. I will eventually finish this commentary track since I can readily admit I was surprised at how engaging it was to listen to. (Five hours, though. Yipes. Just, yipes.)
"Willis McNelly on Dune"—McNelly is a long time friend of Frank Herbert and was the author of the "Dune Encyclopedia." McNelly weighs in on the modern world allegories of the various factions and politics of Herbert's work. This is one of the better features that was included, though I'll point out that McNelly isn't the most engaging of speakers.
"The Lure of Spice"—This is a behind the scenes featurette on the production of Dune and it features a number of short sound bytes of the cast, including a soft-spoken, nearly unintelligible William Hurt. This seemed to be more fluff than anything.
"Interview With Graeme Revell"—Revell briefly talks about the musical score of Dune, including the various themes and tones used for the different houses and settings. Trust me when I say that his film score beat the tar out of the score "rock" band Toto provided for Lynch's film.
"The Color Wheel"—This is a mercifully subtitled interview with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Storaro's varied color palette is as much a character in Dune as some of the actors, so you may find this interesting.
"Defining the Messiah"—this featurette was a strange item to include on a DVD presentation, but it fits here. Various religious scholars from around the world weigh in on what makes up a messiah in short, edited interviews. They also include a Jungian psychologist to give a non-spiritual take on the matter at hand. If you enjoy religious study this is certainly a feature worth watching.
"Science Future/Science Fiction"—A bunch of writers got together at a college and a roundtable discussion broke out. Somebody clumsily caught it on film. If, like me, you think Harlan Ellison is a pompous windbag, you may not like this feature. I will point out, however, that it is funny to watch Ellison feign interest and fidget uncomfortably while other people are talking. Keep an eye on his bottled water.
"The Cinematographic Ideation of Frank Herbert's Dune"—this is an essay by cinematographer Storaro that happens to be about as exciting as I just made it sound. I'm not sure that "Cinematographic" is a word, but I'm willing to give Artisan the benefit of the doubt here.
The special features are rounded out by a still gallery of design sketches that includes a sneak peek at the upcoming sequel Children of Dune. Artisan has also included the standard cast and crew biographies. I'm scratching my head here and wondering if I missed anything. This is about as comprehensive as a special features list will get, and the fact that the variety manages to fit in with the miniseries makes it even better.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Storywise, there is simply nothing to complain about, unless you hated reading "Dune," which I didn't. It is a bit too easy to determine the difference between the "bad guys" and the "good guys" too early in the film. The bad guys are clearly the comic-bookish Harkonnen, who dress in black and red, participate in blood sport and gleefully scheme like Dr. Evil might. Granted, the Harkonnen were caricatures of evil in the novel, so the adaptation is correct. A slight change might have been nice to introduce some updated storytelling sensibilities to the narrative. As it stands, the story manages to bog down with detail every so often, but the addition of the small details makes the scope of Dune richer. Despite slow downs in action, your attention will be held as the story unfolds.
Some of the acting is a bit wooden, but this is a problem with using unknown talents who typically don't speak English. Notably wooden, however, is veteran actor William Hurt, though I'd be remiss to point out that this is usually how he comes across. Considering that Hurt got above-the-title credit, is not a particularly good actor, and he only appears in the first third of the miniseries, I have to wonder what prompted Harrison to cast him. Alec Newman, who plays Paul Atreides, is a charismatic discovery who is brilliant at times, and at others delivers lines like he's reciting a pizza order. Despite Hurt's top billing, Newman is the star of Dune, though he doesn't seem to be introspective enough to evolve his character from the unwilling noble, to the survalist, to the eventual savior of an entire planet. Still, though, maybe this experience will serve him well for the upcoming adaptation of "Children of Dune."
This may be nitpicking, but I can't say that I like the packaging for Dune. The three DVDs are held in a non-sealing plastic case surround and bound together by a heavy stock cardboard. This would be fine if not for the fact that the cardboard corners seem to have a propensity to bend and then fray. I can only imagine what this case will look like after a couple of years of moderate use. Additionally, the two plastic moldings that hold the DVD are bound in as pages in a book. This causes a rather distracting (and potentially damaging—time will tell) crease to appear down the center of the packaging. It's rather unattractive and I couldn't say why better packaging wasn't used. Fox has managed to find better ways to hold similar content amounts in slipcases such as those used for their season collections of The Simpsons, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and The X-Files. Packaging that will last for more than two years is little to ask for.
If you like a solid story in a rich science fiction setting, you will like this TV adaptation of Dune. If you enjoyed reading the various "Dune" novels, you will enjoy Dune. The huge but unheralded cast and dense story create the epic scope worthy of Frank Herbert's original novel. Artisan has made great efforts (poor video transfer aside) to make a notable DVD release, and I have no problem in recommending it to fans.
While neither Lynch nor Harrison made perfect adaptations of Frank Herbert's "Dune," Harrison has done a much more faithful job and on these merits he is set free. Artisan, on the other hand, is free to go for providing a cornucopia of extra content for this director's cut of the miniseries at a cost friendly to consumers, but they are guilty of a flawed video transfer.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice
• Commentary by the Dune Production Team: John Harrison, Ernest Farino, Harry Miller, Greg Nicotero, and Tim McHugh
Review content copyright © 2002 Kevin Lee; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.