Frank Herbert's Dune Review

The Movie
Frank Herbert’s Dune novel was first published way back in 1965, after serialization as Dune World and Prophet of Dune in Analog magazine. It was an epic story set in the far future, involving feuding houses, religious sects and an inhospitable planet that is the source of spice, which is the controlling substance of the known universe. Herbert went on to write five sequels – and indeed his son has carried on the stories after his death – but in many ways the saga of bringing Dune to the screen is just as complex. Many versions were planned without actually getting made. Roger Corman at one time had the rights which could have been interesting to say the least. However, the most bizarre version would probably have been if Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky had managed to get his film made. This would have included H R Giger designs, a Pink Floyd soundtrack, and stars such as Orson Welles and Salvador Dali as the Emperor. Jodorowsky’s screenplay took only the characters from the book and created a completely different (and very bizarre) story that apparently would have made a 12-hour film. Further reading about what is probably one of the weirdest movies never made can be found here.

After Jodorowsky’s attempt unsurprisingly broke down in 1976, the rights ended up with Dino De Laurentiis who initially tried to make a film version with Ridley Scott. This failed to happen, but instead director David Lynch was brought onboard instead. So we therefore come to the first version of the book that was actually filmed. Made for a big budget in 1984 it was critically derided and did fairly poor box office. It is always difficult to film complex “cult” novels, as it has to be accessible enough for those unfamiliar with the story, yet accurate enough for those who know every punctuation mark of the book. Lynch’s version unfortunately fell between the two stools. Many complained of its incomprehensibility and yet in turn it fails to follow the book in many places. Key complaints were the lack of depth of explanation about the Fremen desert people, and the ridiculous idea to have it rain at the end of the film. But Lynch’s wonderful visual style is clearly there, and he had a big budget to produce a visually stunning film. In his defence, the film that was put on the screen is not what he made, as it was heavily meddled with by the De Laurentiis’s. In 1988 a different version appeared on TV; it featured 35 minutes of extra material but was not a director’s cut, rather a “TV execs” cut. This attempted to “fix” the film by adding some (unfinished) scenes regarding the Fremen into the second half of the film. But the worst offence was to replace the introduction of the film that originally featured Virginia Madsen’s Princess Irulan with a dreadful, much longer version that was illustrated with some truly appalling cheap science fiction art. The same voice pops up throughout the film to provide an “idiot’s guide” that supposedly makes the film easier to understand, instead it ruins many scenes and insults the viewer’s intelligence. Lynch understandably disowned this version; hence the Alan Smithee director credit, and hilariously he had his screenplay credit replaced with the name Judas Booth.

It was therefore felt that a definitive version of Dune had yet to be filmed; hence in 2000 the Sci-Fi Channel aired this new mini-series version. For the uninitiated, the gist of the story is thus (skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t want too much story revealed):

Far in the future (the year 10191 to be exact) the known universe is controlled and ruled by noble groups. The Emperor Shaddam IV (Giancarlo Giannini) rules the house Corrino and is in overall control of all planetary systems. However, there are other major houses, namely the House Harkonnen from planet Giedi Prime, ruled by the deeply unpleasant Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Ian McNeice), and the House Atreides from planet Caladan, led by the noble Duke Leto Atreides (William Hurt). Also into the mix are the Space Navigators Guild who control space travel, and the Bene Gesserit, a female-only religious sect who employ various elements of mind control. There is one resource that rules over all these people however, and that is the spice Melange. Melange allows the guild navigators to perform long-distance space travel, allows the Bene Gesserit to perform mind control and have visions, and humans to significantly extend their lifespan. Unfortunately, the spice is found on Arrakis – or Dune – a barren practically water-less desert planet inhabited only by the mysterious Fremen.

The Emperor has sent the Atreides to rule over Arrakis, after the Harkonnen’s have been removed. However, this move by the Emperor proves to be deception as he plans simply to weaken the popular Duke, allowing him to be attacked and destroyed by Harkonnen whilst on Arrakis. The Duke’s son Paul (Alec Newman), along with Paul’s mother - the Bene Gesserit Jessica (Saskia Reeves) – escape the attack and join the Fremen. There Paul becomes known as Muad’Dib and leads the Fremen in a battle to retake control of Arrakis, and beyond.

It is inevitable that when watching this new version you will compare it with the Lynch version, and this is where it both succeeds and fails. It succeeds because director John Harrison stuck very close to the book, and its running time allows for many aspects of the plot that were skimmed over in the Lynch film to be shown in much more detail here. Principally we learn much more about the Fremen, understanding their way of life much better. Those who complained of the Lynch movie’s deviations from the plot should have less to complain about here.

The failures unfortunately, are many. Despite its shortcomings, Lynch’s version is stunning to look at, but then he his one of the great directors of recent years. John Harrison comes from a background of largely television shows and doesn’t have the flair and style to match. Largely however, it’s the budget that restricts him; this version had $20 million to play with. It sounds a lot but even ignoring inflation it’s less than half than was spent on the Lynch version, and current day effects-free rom-coms often have bigger budgets. Because of this, the look and feel of the production suffers. The computer generated effects of such things as the ‘thopters, the city of Arrakeen and the Emperor’s palace look very good. Similarly, interior sets are generally impressive. But in other places things look decidedly 1970’s British sit-com cheap. The conservatory – which is supposed to be impressive – looks like the remnants corner of your local garden centre. For the “outside” desert scenes clearly the same garden centre was used to collect a truckload of sand and dump it in a studio with a picture of sand dunes stuck on the back wall. It looks so cheap and nasty that it is extremely distracting and makes concentrating on what is happening in these scenes difficult. The film should have an epic feel, but for instance the Harkonnen’s attack of Arrakeen looks like a minor skirmish here, in the Lynch film it looked the battle that it should be.

Lack of budget also meant that European “unknowns” largely populate the cast – as opposed to Lynch’s star-studded version. William Hurt is the only major star here. Now there is certainly nothing wrong with this at all, unfortunately however a fair bit of the acting here is quite ropey. Even quality actors like Saskia Reeves often appear uncomfortable delivering their lines. Again this may be put down to budgetary constraints and the lack of time and money to do enough takes to get it completely right. Like the cheap sets it becomes very distracting to notice bad acting over the actual dialogue.

Finally, despite delving further into the book, many things are not mentioned at all. Spice is never referred to as Melange, the Choam mining company is never mentioned, and the city of Arrakeen is never called that by name. These things are not necessarily important to the film but will probably be picked up by fans of the book.

This was a worthy attempt to refilm a difficult and complex novel. Although it sticks closer to the book, my version of choice is still the Lynch version, despite its many flaws. Still, this version drew the biggest ever audience to the Sci-Fi Channel – and was indeed one of the most popular mini-series ever on any channel. A sequel is being produced, titled Children of Dune (pedants note: the second book is actually Dune Messiah, whereas “Children” is the third, but as “Messiah” is a short volume it will apparently be incorporated into the beginning).

The region 1 version of this title presented only a non-anamorphic image so the picture quality here is obviously better. The image framing is actually 1.77:1 so a small amount of information is actually cropped from the top and bottom on a widescreen television. In reality the only people who will complain are those whose names are cut off the upper and lower edges of some of the busier credits screens.

In terms of the picture itself it is mostly good quality. The cinematography involves a lot of primary colours – the Harkonnen’s are bathed in deep red, the Emperor in strong shades of blue - and these hold up pretty well. The only thing that lets the image down is an occasional amount of artifacting that annoyingly appears from time to time.

As this is a “made for television” feature then like many (but not all) others it is only in Dolby Surround rather than digital. This is however, one of the better Dolby Surround tracks I have heard for a while. It obviously lacks the punch of a digital track, but the rear channels are used to good effect for ambient sounds. Surprisingly effective.

Video Extras
There are a few extras here, spread across all three discs. These are:

Disc two contains the main bulk of the material, being two documentaries on the making of the film, both clocking in around the thirty-minute mark. The first of these is The Filmmakers’ Vision. This unsurprisingly features a lot of interview time with director John Harrison, where he largely talks about his adaptation of the story and how it differs from the Lynch version (without actually mentioning the Lynch version by name). There are also interviews with some of the stars, and some behind the scenes looks at production design and casting.

The second featurette is The Production Story which concentrates more on the actual filming process. The filming was apparently all done at sound stages in Prague; they had intended to shoot the desert sequences on location but technical difficulties and cost problems led them to rethink and go with the studio sequences instead. It’s clear from this that a lot of work went into building the desert backdrops but sorry, they still look naff I’m afraid. Alec “Paul Atreides” Newman amuses in an interview here by almost claiming as much when he says that you have to “use your imagination” at times. The sets of building interiors were very impressive however, and this is all shown here, along with the computer-generated effects. There are also looks at costume design, fight choreographing and stunts.

Disc three contains a Stills Gallery. This comprises a selection of images from both the feature itself and behind the scenes. Good quality, but somewhat limited in quantity.

Finally, disc one contains the trailer, in non-anamorphic widescreen.

DVD-ROM Extras
There is no ROM material on these discs.

Final Thoughts
A worthy attempt to film a more book-correct version of Frank Herbert’s story ultimately disappoints due to its low-budget production look and inevitable comparisons with the visually stunning David Lynch version. It’s still well worth a look for fans of the book, and this three-disc set is of better quality than the two-disc region 1 version.

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Last updated: 26/06/2018 07:51:30

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