Children of Dune Review

Anthony Nield has reviewed the Region 2 release of Children of Dune, the follow-up to 2000’s Dune miniseries.

Set twelve years after the events of Dune which saw Paul Atreides (Alec Newman) avenge his father’s death and become emperor of the planet Arrakis (aka Dune), Children of Dune sees his revolution turn into a bloody holy war and his role as emperor become more akin to a dictatorship. Moreover, there are a number of conspiracies abounding from the likes of Princess Wensicia and the return of his original nemesis Baron Harkonnen (Ian McNeice), who is controlling the mind of his sister Alia (Daniela Amavia).

It is understandable as to why John Harrison has returned to Frank Herbert’s Dune novels to produce this follow-up miniseries. The first was a huge success, resulting in two Emmy awards and gained America’s sci-fi channel (who financed the venture) their highest ever ratings. However, that series was flawed in a number of areas and never quite escaped its made for television origins (despite some fine photography from Vittorio Storaro, famed for his work on Apocalypse Now and numerous Bernardo Bertolucci pictures). Most damagingly, it couldn’t help but invite comparisons with David Lynch’s equally flawed but far more rewarding 1984 interpretation.

As Children of Dune is the first screen adaptation of the Herbert novels Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, it escapes the shadow of David Lynch and as such can only be compared to its predecessor, and in a number of cases proves to be a marked improvement. Indeed, bigger seems to be the operative word, as it has a bigger budget, bigger special effects and a bigger cast of well-known actors.

The budget and effects are, of course, inseparably tied, and the most notable product of this is that Children of Dune goes the way of those other recent sequels, Attack of the Clones and Spy Kids 2, by being shot digitally. The effect of this is immediate as that the special effects work seems far less obvious and more of a piece with the miniseries, and as such far more impressive. Moreover, it allows the look of the piece to seem far more cinematic than its predecessor, thereby escaping the made for television origins that hounded the original.

Sadly, there is little chance of this happening with regards to the script. As before, John Harrison is scrupulously faithful to the novels, seemingly afraid to leave anything out, and yet more often than not ends up with scenes that frequently outstay their welcome. Indeed, it during one of these many longeurs that one is reminded of Harrison’s hand in Disney’s Dinosaur, a film which similarly impressed on a visual level, yet failed to engage elsewhere.

There is a slight respite in the presence of director Greg Yaitanes, who admits that his knowledge of the Dune novels is purely the result of reading Harrison’s teleplays. Certainly this prevents Children of Dune from being that little bit too in awe of its source, though I suspect that Harrison’s input as producer has still ensured that it is to his liking. Disappointingly, however, Yaitanes doesn’t prove to be a skilled enough director to provide the numerous dialogue driven scenes with the energy and pace they require, though, as said, Children of Dune does have a number of notable names in its cast list who, one would hope, would rectify this situation somewhat.

Sadly this doesn’t prove to be the case. Admittedly, there is a certain fascination in seeing Susan Sarandon playing a villain for the first time in her career (if one disregards her voice work on Rugrats in Paris), yet even an actress as versatile as she is can do little with her lumbering dialogue. Moreover, there’s a definite frustration in seeing someone as talented as Sarandon wasted in such a role; in the original miniseries, the role of the key villain was taken by Ian McNeice, whose poor performance was, frankly, expected. (Though to be honest I’ve never much liked the actor – his fat man campery reminds me too much of Christopher Biggins.)

The other major female lead, Alice Krige, fairs much better. The actress seems far more at home with the sci-fi setting (perhaps a by-product of having worked on Star Trek : First Contact) than Sarandon, or indeed Saskia Reeves who played the role in the original miniseries, and as such manages to provide her dialogue with the required authority, and therefore interest.

The male actors are a similar mixed bag. James McAvoy, who has turned in some fine performances in the recent BBC productions State of Play and Early Doors, and Steven Berkoff are as unable as Sarandon to do anything with their roles, often looking lost with the burdensome dialogue (and one would have thought that given the experience of numerous performances in awful films, including his own Decadence, Berkoff would have produced a scene-stealing turn). Surprisingly, the finest piece of acting in Children of Dune comes from Alec Newman. Never better than adequate in the original, Newman here turns in a balanced and mature performance, all the more surprising given his lacklustre turns in such stodgy Brit flicks as Greenwich Mean Time and Long Time Dead. Indeed, one often wishes during the seemingly endless hours than Children of Dune goes on for, that the rest of the cast and crew remaining from the initial Dune would have similarly improved on their original contributions.

The Disc

As Children of Dune was shot digitally, the transfer here is understandably excellent and remains clear throughout. The sound is offered in either DD2.0 or DD5.1, both of which are acceptable owing to the piece being, for the most part, dialogue driven. Unsurprisingly, the 5.1 mix has the upper hand as it adds that extra ambience.

What is surprising, however, is the relatively small scale nature of the special features. One would expect, owing the epic nature of Children of Dune, that Warner Bros would offer something similar in the way of extras, yet these are limited to a brief featurette, some storyboard comparisons and a photo gallery consisting of 50 stills.

That said, the featurette, entitled ‘Making Dune’s Children : VFX Revealed’, provides ample information during its brief 13 minute duration. Concentrating, of course, on the visual effects, this piece utilises a number of fuzzy video-shot interviews with the principle crew members, including John Harrison and Greg Yaitanes. For the most part, what they have to say is reasonably interesting, and, owing to the short running time, all the key information is revealed with little time for digressions.

The storyboard comparisons (totalling 6 minutes) serve to back up the featurette by spending a little more time on the visual effects scenes discussed therein. No interviews or commentary accompany these four scenes, though they are fairly self-explanatory.

The other extra, the photo gallery, is less interesting, and works mainly as a showcase for the production designs and art direction.

This title is released on September the 22nd.

Anthony Nield

Updated: Sep 14, 2003

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