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Dune Special Edition Director's Cut

Artisan // Unrated // June 11, 2002
List Price: $26.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted June 11, 2002 | E-mail the Author
Arrakis... Dune... desert planet. Frank Herbert's novel Dune presents one of the most famous fictional settings in science fiction, along with a complicated, epic story that has proven quite a challenge for filmmakers. The Special Edition Director's Cut version of Frank Herbert's Dune is the second attempt to convey the magic of the award-winning novel onto film, and while it's not without its flaws, it has quite a lot going for it.

The novel Dune is an epic indeed, with its substantial length packed with characters, plots, counter-plots, and a rich setting and history that's integral to the motivations of the characters. The miniseries Dune takes almost five hours to unfold the story, and what a story it is! Under orders from the Emperor, the House Atreides is taking control of Arrakis, a barren desert planet that happens to be the only source of the potent drug known as "the spice." The Atreides family of the Duke Leto, his concubine Jessica, and their son Paul know, however, that what appears to be a token of imperial favor is in reality a very dangerous gift... another step in the generations-long feud between their house and that of the Harkonnens. But young Paul is more than just the son of a duke, and as events unfold on Arrakis, he encounters the Fremen, the desert people, and discovers his destiny.

Dune was originally planned as a feature film, but ended up being produced by the Science Fiction Channel as a miniseries. Those who have seen the series on television in the United States will be pleased to know that the DVD version restores scenes that were censored for television broadcast: mostly some scenes of nudity.

The complexity of the plot means that there will be a sharp divide in viewers between those who have read the book beforehand and those who have not. Fans of the original novel will find much to like in this rendition; it's extremely faithful to the content and pacing of Herbert's novel. The main differences come in omissions of scenes and some sub-plots, and the simplification of a few motives; in a plot that's intricately convoluted as it is, these deletions were extremely wise. In fact, I would have preferred if the script had pared down the novel even more; the film is much more accessible to viewers who have read Dune previously than to those who haven't.

The sheer number of characters makes it difficult to get a grip on what's going on. There's a complex social system, and various clans and organizations as well as individuals to keep track of. On top of that, each character is referred to by either the first or last name at times... so if you've gotten a handle on who "Duncan" is, you'll still be puzzled by references to "Idaho" until you figure out that it's really "Duncan Idaho." This is a fault that the film shares with the original novel, but it would have been nice to have seen it handled better in the film.

Visually, the film is a treat, though production values are somewhat erratic. The sets and costuming are lush and beautifully done, and some of the computer-generated footage is spectacular. On the other hand, other scenes have images that look like poorly-done matte paintings. On the whole, the balance tips to the positive, as the good elements are very good indeed.

Tone is another element that's handled somewhat unevenly. The Arrakis sequences, with Paul and Jessica and the Fremen, are presented in a serious dramatic manner that generally does justice to the epic material. The scenes with the Harkonnens, however, are over the top: the Baron Harkonnen (Ian McNeice), instead of being the malicious and malevolent figure of the novel, is a cartoonish caricature of a villain, a one-dimensional figure who doesn't convey the threat that the character is supposed to present.

The best parts of the film come from its setting and background, all drawn from the world created by Herbert in the original novel, and given life in some very apt visual renditions in the film. The world of Dune is one that is balanced between science and superstition; the mix of science fiction and mysticism gives the film a rich and distinctive personality. Computer graphics are used to excellent effect to convey some key elements of the setting and story, such as the giant sandworms that prowl the desert, the star-traveling ships of the Spacing Guild, or Paul's prophetic dreams.


Artisan's production of Frank Herbert's Dune is more than respectable: it's excellent. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.77:1, and is anamorphically enhanced. Running on three discs, the film could most likely have been compressed more heavily to fit onto only two... but the choice to provide additional space has paid off in an clean image that's free of any compression artifacts.

All in all, the video quality of the film is quite high. The print is clean and free of noise, and the colors are vibrant and rich, adding a great deal to the visual attractiveness of a film that makes liberal use of vivid colors in clothing, sets, and lighting. The only fault I'd find with the transfer is that while close-up shots are nice and sharp, farther-out shots tend to be a bit blurry.


The Dune DVD gets full credit for providing viewers with a choice of soundtracks: DTS, Dolby 5.1, and Dolby 2.0 are all offered. The DTS track, not surprisingly, is the best of the three, but it's not nearly as good as it might be. Sound effects and general immersiveness are good, but dialogue is more problematic, with it often coming across slightly muffled. This is compounded by the strong accents of many of the actors and the fact that they often speak quietly, but a good soundtrack should overcome this better than the Dune track does.


Frank Herbert's Dune comes in a snazzy three-disc set that's constructed much like a book, with heavy-duty cardboard covers front and back, and the discs each held securely in hard plastic "pages." It gives a distinctive look to the set without going to the extremes of fancy tins or slipcovers, and with the bonus that the set will fit nicely on a shelf alongside other DVDs.

The menus, however, seem designed specifically to drive viewers crazy. They're very artistic-looking... and a pain in the neck to navigate with, since the labels are provided only as cryptic initials.

As far as special features go, the Dune set is heavily loaded, with many features of interest especially to science fiction fans. Of main interest to viewers will be the audio commentary track with director/screenwriter John Harrison and other members of the production team. Harrison also provides an interview featurette. Other material on the film itself includes a behind-the-scenes featurette titled "The Lure of Spice"; "The Color Wheel," a featurette with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro; an essay from Vittorio Storaro titled "The Cinematographic Ideation of Frank Herbert's Dune"; a photo gallery; and cast and crew information.

Other special features that explore the world of Dune and related themes in science fiction, rather than exploring the production of Harrison's film specifically, include an interview with Wills McNelly, the author of the Dune Encyclopedia; a featurette titled "Defining the Messiah" which talks with religious scholars and a Jungian psychologist; and a "Science Future/Science Fiction Roundtable" with noted authors Harlan Ellison and Octavia Butler along with director John Harrison and inventor Ray Kurzweil discussing technology and moral issues.

Final thoughts

In many ways, Dune is a bit of a sensory overload; it's a bit hard to take in on the first watching, even with having read the book (twice) already. The main problem is the complexity of the story and the length of the cast list, the combination of which will likely knock out someone who hasn't read the book. Fans of the novel should consider this "recommended," while science fiction fans in general should consider renting it first.
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