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The monster epic science fiction saga Dune was one of those projects that wait decades to reach the screen. Alejandro Jodorosky was said to have given it a major attempt in the '70s, and David Lynch succeeded in doing an expensive bigscreen version in 1984 that wasn't well received. But last year the Science Fiction Cable Channel put together an international production to give it another try. The result is a fairly satisfying attempt with some very prominent strengths and a few weaknesses. The consensus from literary Dune fans is mixed but basically positive - if nothing else, the 265 minute running time allows for a fuller reading of the text.
Travel in a galactic society of rival clans is controlled by an elite guild with the space-warping ability to span the great distances between planets. This requires a spice found only on Arrakis, a desert planet which is the focus of schemes and intrigues between the Atreides and Harkonnen clans, themselves manipulated by an equally duplicitous Emperor. Young Paul Atreides (Alec Newman) relocates with his family to Arrakis, only find his destiny lies with an indigenous, blue-eyed race of desert dwellers called the Fremen. They live in a symbiotic relationship with a species of colossal worms that 'swim' through the sands like segmented ocean liners ...
The impulse to compare this miniseries directly with the Lynch version of the film is difficult to resist. Savant still prefers the feature, even while admitting that it plays like a trailer for a ten hour movie. This television epic has its strong points, and some drawbacks.
The main asset here is the unifying vision of cameraman Vittorio Storaro. Don't let his indigestible essay (an extra on the disc) on the cinematic theory behind his artistic decisions fool you - Dune is very nicely photographed, and a number of scenes (the climactic confrontation in the throne room) rival anything Storaro has photographed for clarity of image. There is a constant use of washes of color (blue figures against golden sand, for example) that has a definite stylized organization about it. The lack of production values in many scenes is forgotten while enjoying the visual surface of the show. While being simply lavish in comparison with any other miniseries (the only ones that come close are the Hallmark Odyssey and Gulliver's Travels) the story does suffer. For every stunning effect there is another that looks like it needed more time and resources to refine. Most of the film is an effect, with dialogue scenes routinely played before 3D CGI artwork (or Translit transparency backings?), and the cost of four hours of this must have been staggering. Although the execution of some scenes is compromised, there are many effects shots of great beauty and interest.
The script, while able to encompass much more of the story than the movie version, repeats the same mistakes and is simply not as well written. The first half of the film requires every character to disgorge reams of bald exposition every bit as obtrusive as in Lynch's film. It's also difficult to call the screenplay an improvement, when many of the scenes are written and even staged almost identically. A lot of the music, particularly themes around Paul's spiritual reawakening, also sounds like music from the Lynch film. Princess Irulan (whose role is agreeably much expanded) delivers an opening expository narration similar to that so criticized in Lynch's movie. A paraphrased example of the bad writing: Lady Jessica to Paul: "You have responsibilities and duties.' Paul: 'Every day I have to eat responsibility for breakfast and duty for dinner."
Things really pick up in the second half, after the dozens of characters, worlds and cultures have been established. Interesting new dramatic turns, such as Irulan defying her Emperor father, and the fate of Paul's son, keep us on our toes.
Some of the casting has merit but mostly it serves to remind how great the film cast was.1 Alec Newman gives Paul Atreides very little charisma. He's always impatient, to people trying to help him. Simple exchanges sound like accusations or threats. This Paul is not much fun. He's also not much of a dreamer type, definitely not worthy. William Hurt is a professional Duke Leto, and his star presence is missed after he's gone. Saskia Reeves is excellent as Lady Jessica, but almost everyone else is something of a letdown. Ian McNiece is a pouting, un-threatening Baron Harkonnen, Matt Keeslar's Feyd and Laszlo I. Kish's Rabban also have no bite. Giancarlo Giannini makes a weak Emperor, but it may just be the writing. Julie Cox has a reasonably strong role to assay and fares better than most. The accents come in from all over Europe, and it's distracting to hear Duncan Idaho's brogue and not think of Scotland.
Design-wise, the Dune miniseries is a very mixed bag. Planet Caladan is generic Buck Rogers, but the palace on Arrakis looks very interesting. Some costumes are ludicrous, like the blue Conehead (or Marge Simpson hairdo) getups for the Spacing guild. But Princess Irulan's entrance in a dress bespotted with butterflies is terrific-looking. The head Beni-Jezerit (sp.) witch looks silly in her nun-like habit with the flowing headdress. Dr Kynes inhabits his costume as if he lives in it off the set, while the Baron Harkonnen comes off as a bozo, forced to wear what looks like a crimson diaper, or sumo sash.
One very-well done detail are the spice-tinted blue eyes of the Fremen, which in some scenes glow creepily in the dark. Little Alia (Laura Burton) has closeups as chilling as those of the children from the Village of the Damned. Not well done are the action scenes, which seem too small-scale for such an epic story. We see thousands of (CGI) Fremen and soldiers on screen in some scenes, but when they fight there never seem to be more than a handful in any given shot. There are a couple of reasonable hand to hand combat fights but it's a little depressing to see that the present vogue for kickboxing is so well-known in this 'alien' society. Compensation is had in a few really nifty 'feints' that Paul performs in his fight with Feyd, tricks aided by some good special effects.
The four hour, twenty-five minute running time of this epic is content enough for a special edition DVD, yet those looking for a gallery of extras will find some goodies, mostly in the still and artwork sections. The docu is a marketing promo with the producers making selfcongratulatory speeches. A 'behind the scenes' choice turns out to be one measly production still. There's always Storaro's visuals essay, which is almost impossible to read. And that's about it. There's an aspect ratio diagram on the packaging that's more misleading than the MGM graphic, if such a thing is possible. The graphic makes it look as if there are two formats of the film on the discs, and that one of them is 16:9 enhanced, but all there is is a letterboxed 4:3. It would have obviously looked a lot better anamorphic, but Savant is guessing that since the film was probably posted on video, 16:9 was too much to tag onto the already complicated effects. Just the same, the stunning Storaro images hold up well with a big enlargement on a projection television.
Savant likes both versions of Dune but prefers the Lynch movie for it's superior design, cast, music and imagery. However, it's obvious that the unabbreviated plot of the miniseries is going to appeal to fans of the original book. With that proviso, the Artisan DVD is recommended.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, title rates:
1. Savant puts the movie Dune in the Popeye category - an almost perfect cast of stars in unique and unforgettable character roles, costumed and directed to equal perfection - all dressed up and nowhere to go.Return
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