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Dune (HD DVD)

Universal // PG-13 // November 28, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Joshua Zyber | posted December 21, 2006 | E-mail the Author

"A person needs new experiences. They jar something deep inside, allowing him to grow. Without change, something sleeps inside us and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken."

The Movie:
Certain movies have the peculiar ability to drive a person to obsession. For those who grew up watching them during their most impressionable years, specific films can inspire a lifetime of fixation, a compulsion to watch them over and over, to know everything about their development and production that can be researched and learned, and to acquire extensive collections of memorabilia and merchandise related to them. For many, Star Wars and its sequels are such movies. In fact, devotion to that film series has become so mainstream and commonplace that pretty much everyone knows at least one Star Wars freak in their life.

For me, the movie that drives my greatest personal obsession is David Lynch's 1984 adaptation of Dune. A tremendous box office flop in its time, the movie was hated by general moviegoers who wanted an action-packed Star Wars clone, hated by fans of the original Frank Herbert novel who wanted a word-for-word perfect illustration of the book, and even hated by fans of the director who wanted something... well, something not at all like what they got. Needless to say, it's a little harder to explain to people how Dune could be your favorite movie.

I don't give a damn. I love Dune. No, I adore Dune. Of the thousands of movies that I've seen in my life, I know that objectively Dune is not the best I've ever seen, but it is my favorite.

Dune is a subject very close to my heart, and I've written a lengthy defense of the film that you can find on my personal Dune movie merchandise web page. Rather than repeat any more of what I've written there, I'll just direct interested parties to the original article. The rest of this review will focus specifically on the HD DVD edition.

Dune debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The disc includes only the original 137-minute theatrical cut of the film, David Lynch's one and only Director's Cut. It does not contain the longer and wretchedly unwatchable "Extended Edition" also available on DVD.

Lynch's film adaptation of Dune should also not be confused with the later Sci-Fi Channel TV miniseries remake/re-adaptation titled Frank Herbert's Dune, directed by John Harrison. A gaudy, cheap-jack production in which all the characters wear silly hats and stand around in front of fakey green-screen backdrops, some fans are under the deluded impression that the remake is more faithful to Frank Herbert's text, even though it eviscerates the entire first 1/3 of the book and misinterprets all of the major characters. Say what you will about the failings of Lynch's film, but at least it stays true to the intentions and characters of Herbert's novel, which is something the miniseries cannot truthfully claim.

Menus and Navigation:
The Dune HD DVD continues Universal's trend of using generic interactive menus with a bland studio logo as the only decoration, over which is played inappropriate music from a different movie. Selections are accompanied by annoying beeping sound effects that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).

The disc is the first I've encountered from Universal where a timeline meter will appear on screen during any pause, fast forward, or skipping command. Buried in the Bonus Features menu on the disc are instructions for using a "My Scenes" favorites list, where you can store bookmarks for your favorite scenes and jump directly to them through this menu rather than the regular Scenes Selection menu.

HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.

The Dune HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.

Not to sound too pompous about it, but I'd like to think that I can speak with some authority on this subject. I own a lot of copies of Dune. A lot. At current count, this disc brings my total up to 26 unique editions of the film across 9 video formats. Ever heard of VHD, an obscure and short-lived videodisc format released in Japan during the mid-1980s? No? Well, rest assured that I own a copy of Dune on it anyway. When it comes to this movie, I don't mess around.

To date, the high water mark for best Standard Definition presentation of the movie is the French "Ultimate Edition" PAL DVD from G.C.T.H.V. released in June of 2005, which boasts a bright, sharp, and vibrantly colorful video transfer that puts all other DVD editions to shame. Unfortunately, the audio suffers the typical effects of PAL speedup, but otherwise that disc is the standard bearer for the DVD format. When Universal announced their own NTSC DVD remaster for release in January of 2006, I had high hopes that it would match the quality of the French disc with the benefit of audio playback at the proper speed. Disappointingly, Universal completely dropped the ball, delivering a substandard transfer marred by excessive dirt and speckles, faded colors, and heavily filtered video lacking in detail. That disc was a huge letdown, and I was left assuming that their subsequent HD DVD would be sourced from the same master. Even with a higher-resolution encoding, a bad transfer is still a bad transfer.

Kull wahad! Never before have I been so glad to be wrong! I am pleased to confirm that Universal has struck an all-new High-Def master that is clearly superior to any previous home video edition of the movie. Some minor speckling on the source elements remains, but the problem is much reduced from their DVD and hardly distracting at all. Comparing the opening prologue scene, the speckles fall in a different pattern here than those on the DVD, and the credits sequence is free of dirt or grime, proving that different source elements were used for the transfer (or at least that they underwent a good scrubbing). Better yet, the HD DVD has a very sharp picture with an outstanding sense of detail and depth.

For examples of the improvement in detail, look to the "Secret Report Within the Guild" narration and Paul's later Filmbook. Both should have vertical striations down the screen to indicate that the images are being viewed on some sort of computer monitor. Those lines were totally filtered away from Universal's Extended Edition DVD, leaving the shots smooth and fuzzy. The French DVD is better, but here they are perfectly visible in clarity I'd only previously seen in 35mm screenings. Another good test is the doorway through which the Guild Navigator enters and exits the Emperor's throne room. A sign above the threshold reads "LAW IS THE ULTIMATE SCIENCE" in small text. It's illegible on the DVD but easily read here. I'm ashamed to admit that it took me a good number of viewings of the movie before I noticed a dwarf sitting next to the Emperor's throne; now not only is he clearly seen but you can even make out his facial expression.

The colors are also terrific, a vast improvement over that lousy Extended Edition disc. In fact, they appear even more accurate than the French DVD, which though great on its own looks slightly duller and oversaturated in comparison to this copy. I watched the movie in full and saw no edge enhancement or compression artifacts. Considering the age of the picture and the number of dated optical effects, there's also surprisingly little grain. Those minor speckles are my only disappointment in what is in all other respects the best video edition of Dune I've yet seen. Thank you, Universal. You've made this Dune fan very happy.

The Dune HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.

The photo images used in this article were taken from the French DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.

The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. As with the video, I spent some time comparing the audio on the HD DVD to my previous reference, in this case the letterboxed laserdisc edition released in 1997, carefully volume matching the two discs with a sound level meter. I was surprised to find that the DD 5.1 mix on the laserdisc is noticeably bassier. The rumble when the Guild Navigator entered the throne room had my chair shaking. However, it's not particularly refined low end, often coming across boomy. The DD+ track on the HD DVD isn't as powerful, but it's cleaner and better defined. And don't get me wrong, the new disc still has plenty of satisfying bass. The first time Paul fires his Weirding Module hits with a nice thump.

Other elements of the soundtrack are also delivered with better fidelity on the HD DVD, including heartier dialogue and a general feeling of spaciousness in the front soundstage. David Lynch has always paid keen attention to the audio in his movies, and the Dune soundtrack (designed by his Eraserhead collaborator Alan Splet) is filled with all sorts of wonderfully strange effects and ambient sounds to create a convincing otherworldly atmosphere. The Guild Navigator's mechanical breathing/pumping noises are a personal favorite. In one of the few bits of respect that the film received during its original release, it garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound. That's quite an achievement for a movie that everybody hated.

With all that said, this is still a soundtrack from 1984 and has some inherent limitations due to its age. The Toto score sounds a little thin and strident, especially the opening theme. Surround usage is mainly reserved for ambient envelopment with just a few directional effects. Those expecting a modern whiz-bang 5.1 soundtrack may come out disappointed, but this is a fine representation of the way Dune should sound (and it should go without saying that the disc runs at the proper frame rate playback speed without any PAL speedup effects).

Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French DD+ 2.0.

All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression, except the photo gallery which has been re-encoded in VC-1. Aside from the miserable "Extended Edition" of the movie itself (which I'm sure Universal is saving for a future re-release), all of the video supplements from the DVD have carried over.

  • Deleted Scenes with Introduction by Raffaella De Laurentiis (17 min.) - The movie's producer (Dino's daughter) introduces the deleted footage by attempting to debunk the "4-hour rough cut" myth once and for all. 11 scenes are presented in rough workprint condition. All of this is new, previously unseen footage not found in the extended TV cut of the film:
    • Extended prologue by Princess Irulan. This version of the intro runs way too long and contains a lot of confusing information extraneous to the movie's story.
    • Reverend Mother Ramallo's speech. This scene falters mainly due to Silvana Mangano's performance. The actress seems unsure of her English, and I doubt she had any idea what the strange terminology she spoke meant.
    • Thufir and Duke Leto discuss the Fremen prophecy.
    • Lady Jessica encounters the Shadout Mapes. This was a crucial scene in the book, but as played out here comes across as too freaky to work. The Mapes character was reduced to a mere cameo in the movie.
    • Paul and Jessica in the desert argue about his fate.
    • Paul cries after killing Jamis. The duel between Paul and Jamis was cut entirely from the film and can be seen only in the extended TV version. This is an addendum to that scene, showing the Fremen awed that Paul would shed precious water over the death of another, but is rendered unusable by technical problems with the footage.
    • Brief extension to the death of Kynes.
    • Jessica and Alia discuss the Spacing Guild plot.
    • Paul has a nightmare about his future. This is a talking-in-his-sleep scene, not a dream sequence.
    • Death of Thufir Hawat. The character's storyline is left unsatisfyingly open in the movie. This footage is the first time the character has been given any resolution.
    • Extension to Paul's final speech. Here Paul announces his plans to marry Princess Irulan and claim the throne, capped by Jessica's consolation to Chani about their status as concubines.
  • Designing Dune (9 min.) - Many craftsmen who worked on the film discuss with some pride the picture's elaborate art design. Concept drawings and detailed photos of props are also shown.
  • Special Effects (6 min.) - Priceless behind-the-scenes footage is provided of explosions, wire work, and the fighting robot in operation.
  • Models & Miniatures (7 min.) - Discussed here are the usage of foreground miniatures in wide shots (a still amazingly seamless effect in the film), motion control, and of course the worms.
  • Wardrobe Design (9 min.) - The movie's costume designers reveal that the Guild uniforms were made from bodybags!. Also mentioned are the stillsuits and a number of designs that were produced but never used.
  • Photography Gallery - A good selection of behind-the-scenes photos and production art.
Missing from the DVD are some text production notes. Normally I'm not bothered by such omissions, and indeed the notes on the DVD don't contain any information that I wasn't already familiar with, but they do provide a decent overview of the movie's production.

Neither the "Extended Edition" DVD nor the HD DVD contain the movie's trailer, which I find odd considering that it has accompanied almost every other DVD edition of the movie the world over, including Universal's previous non-anamorphic letterbox disc.

Region-free Dune fans are advised that the PAL DVD edition of the movie from Sanctuary Visual Entertainment in the UK contains an excellent hour-long documentary titled Impressions of Dune and an interesting 6-minute vintage featurette called Destination Dune that I wish Universal had spent the money to license. Sadly, Sanctuary's video transfer is not particularly good, so the disc should be purchased for its bonus content only.

Final Thoughts:
I fully realize that I hold a minority opinion in my love of Dune. Though the movie has gained some small measure of respect in the 20 years since its release, it's still widely considered a failure and mainly remembered for its status as a notorious bomb. I don't care. Dune is a great movie no matter what the naysayers argue. The splendid HD DVD finally provides redemption for Universal after their last crummy DVD release. It has a terrific High-Def transfer that's the best the film has ever looked on home video. The bonus features aren't significant in volume, and foreign DVD editions have included excellent supplements that I wish could have made the transition here, but what we do get is packed with worthwhile content (love those deleted scenes!). I expect some controversy over it, but this is my review and I get to pick the rating. I'm a Dune collector and this disc is an essential part of my collection, therefore I can rate it no less than the highest DVDTalk Collector Series score. Deal with it.

"The sleeper has awakened!"

Related Articles:
DuneStuff - Dune Movie Merchandise & Collectibles
The Elephant Man (HD DVD) - David Lynch
HD Review Index
High-Def Revolution - DVDTalk's HD Column
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player

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