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Alexandra DuPont's DUNE 2K 2-Disc DVD Review

El Cosmico here, with fresh insight from the ever-excellent Alexandra DuPont, regarding a series we covered a bit here already, the Sci-Fi Channel's recent rendition of Frank Herbert's DUNE. Here's Alex:

Review by Alexandra DuPont                    

I. The subject of our review:

Frank Herbert's Dune. Two DVD platters containing the complete 265-minute Sci-Fi Channel miniseries, plus extras. In stores March 20.

II. The disclaimer:

Chances are that (a) you've already read Dune, and/or (b) you watched and/or taped the miniseries a few months ago, formed an opinion, and simply want to know if the DVD's worth owning. It is, I think. Skip to Section IX. for details on the extras.

III. For the rest of you: the story.

Noble-born Paul Atreides (Alec Newman) heads to sand planet with Dad and Mom (William Hurt, Saskia Reeves). Fat floating baron (Ian McNiece) kills Dad, takes over palace, drives son and mother into desert. In short order, son finds out he's (a) the end result of übermensch breeding program set up by creepy nuns and (b) prophesied messiah to a pack of water-worshipping nomads.

Son ingests scads of mind-expanding drugs. Son whips nomads into messianic frenzy. Son takes back the kingdom. There's Machiavellian intrigue, an entire glossary of made-up jargon, knife fights, and giant-worm riding along the way.

I'm being glib, of course, but that's Dune in a nutshell: a mind-bending mix of Machiavelli, the Apostle Paul and Ken Kesey — or, as a less-pretentious friend put it, "Shakespeare meets Battlestar Galactica."

IV. Does the miniseries capture the story, which I read in high school and (even in high school) knew would need about five or six hours to be told properly?

Yes. Well, let's just say it captures the story a heck of a lot more successfully than David Lynch's ambitious (but damn-near incomprehensible) 1984 adaptation, which was legendarily hacked within an inch of its life by producer Dino De Laurentis.

Writer/director John Harrison, making the most of a tight budget, exercises near-total control of the material — no easy feat, given that the material depends on (a) everybody scheming all the time, (b) some increasingly esoteric hallucination sequences, and (c) a protagonist who makes such non-protagonistic utterances as "My dear Emperor, I'm about to destroy your sanity" and "The vast expanse of humanity is about to awaken from its complacency.... There are no innocents!"

V. What's the best thing about Dune 2000?

Oh, that's easy: Vittorio Storaro's cinematography. That's right — the man who lensed Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor, Last Tango in Paris and Dick Tracy (which Dune 2000's aesthetic most resembles, truth be told) is slumming at the Sci-Fi Channel. Storaro — working closely with Harrison and production designer "Kreka" Kakovic — films Dune as set-bound Expressionist cinema, using giant backdrops in place of outdoor locales and dimmer boards to shift boldly-colored lighting mid-scene.

Of course, those same giant backdrops are what polarized viewers of this miniseries when it aired last December. Harrison et al defied viewer expectations by making the "world of the play" blatantly, sumptuously fake — about as convincing as Dune performed by the Max Fischer Players, truth be told. In the making-of documentary, Harrison explains away all the "Classic Trek"-level exteriors by saying he wanted to create a "completely fantastic world." It's more likely he simply couldn't afford to be at the mercy of the outdoors, but I'd still argue that it's a largely successful device — mostly because it's consistent and allowed the filmmaker to control his variables, and thus focus on story. Whether you'll enjoy it is, of course, a matter of personal taste.

VI. What else is good?

The epic number of subplots — the fleshing out of characters and situations that got scissored out of the Lynch version, including the relationship between Paul and his perfectly lovely concubine. Graeme Revell's excellent, Eastern-tinged score. Saskia Reeves as Lady Jessica — she comes off like Emma Thompson crossed with Michelle Yeoh. And of course some striking visuals: glowing eyes in blue shadows; a character standing in a hallucinatory sea of bodies; airships doing battle over a desert city. And finally, the fact that this ambitious piece of work comes from the same TV network that just a few years ago was bringing us such dreck as Assault on Dome 4.

VII. What's not so good?

The fact that the fleshing out of characters and situations slows things down quite a bit. The fact that most of Herbert's best character writing consists of interior monologues that can't really be captured onscreen (remember that "whispered-thoughts" narrative device that made Lynch's version so maddening?). The way more than one scene with Ian McNiece's Baron ends with him laughing like a mustache-twirling Scooby-Doo villain. The way the Marilyn-Manson-ish Guild envoy mimes with his hands. The fact that the set-bound nature of the piece (and the frequently mellow energy level) at times carries the whiff of "TV movie." The somewhat slow-moving fight sequences (which, that said, are still above average for TV). And, alas, P.H. Moriarty as Gurney Halleck — who mumbles as if he'd wandered onto the set from the local Renaissance faire's mead booth.

VIII. Elements I personally would pluck from Lynch's Dune and digitally insert into Harrison's Dune had I money and technology and copyrights to spare:

  • Selected costume design (Fremen, Harkonnen, Bene Gesserit)
  • Selected set design (Caladan, Imperial Throne Room)
  • From the cast: Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck, Sting as Feyd (well, except maybe when he's wearing that leather diaper), Jose Ferrer as the Emperor, Sian Phillips as the Revered Mother, Jurgen Prochnow as Duke Leto, young Alicia Witt (and whoever voiced her creepy overdub) as Alia, and most especially the palpably slimy Kenneth McMillan as the Baron
  • All scenes involving the Harkonnen clan (except that one involving cat-milking)
  • Lynch's let's-fly-into-people's-mouths hallucinatory sequences
  • The scene where Paul masters the Voice and busts himself and Jessica out of the Harkonnen ornithopter — a scene that's also in the book but inexplicably left out of the miniseries

IX. Um, okay. So how about those DVD extras?

They're relatively paltry: There aren't even language tracks or subtitles on my Region 1 discs (apparently, the deaf are stuck with the book or, good Lord, Lynch's version), and the sound mix is a mere Dolby 2.0. Still, what's included is damned interesting — often as not for its sheer pretension:

(1) First up, the whole shebang is presented in the mildest of widescreen formats, and it's simply lovely. DVD really brings out the color — though it also brings out the inherent video-game-cutscene cheesiness of most of the effects. But still.

(2) Then there's "The Lure of the Spice" — a 26-minute promotional documentary chock full of sound bites from executive producers Richard P. Rubenstein and Mitchell Galin, writer/director John Harrison, actors William Hurt, Alec Newman, Saskia Reeves, Julie Cox, Ian McNiece, Matt Kesslar and Barbora Kodetova, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, production designer Miljen "Kreka" Kakovic and effects supervisor Jim Healy. It's fairly run-of-the-mill fluff, but there are a few points of interest:

  • For one thing, I was delighted to discover that Harrison, with his owlish eyebrows, looks almost exactly like a Mentat from the Lynch version; I very nearly freeze-framed to look for stains on the director's lips.
  • For another, everyone goes ape over Vittorio Storaro like they know they were lucky to get him, and the rationale behind the miniseries' essential staginess is fleshed out.
  • But most amusing are the nonsensical pronouncements by exec. producers Rubenstein and Galin. Here's Rubenstein: "There are some movies that, basically, you have to lean into — sort of lean forward in your seat to engage them — the dialogue. Then there are other movies where you can sit back and let the movie wash over you. Well, I think this is both." Gosh, I hope there aren't any moments where I have to lean both directions simultaneously. Oh, and here's Galin: "The key to a great adaptation is creating what I call 'the illusion of fidelity.'" Um, that's infidelity, isn't it?

(3) That said, the pretentious yammerings of those two pale in comparison to what's found in an extra titled, I kid you not, "The Cinematographic Ideation of Frank Herbert's Dune." Billed as "An Interactive Written Treatise by Vittorio Storaro," this extra is 42 (42!) pages of New Age gobbledygook, laid out in an unreadable font, that's meant to clarify Storaro's approach to the cinematography but instead sounds like William Hurt when he goes off on tangents in interviews.

Now, I want to reiterate that Storaro's lighting design is by far the best thing about this miniseries. It would not be an exaggeration to call the man a genius, or at least a serious artist. But sometimes it's a shame when serious artists in one medium try to explain themselves in another — particularly when there's a language barrier. To wit, here's the first freakin' sentence of Storaro's "treatise":

"One of the highest periods of the philosophical thought of mankind was certainly the fourth century before Christ: Confucious in China; Buddha in India; Zarathustra in Persia; Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and the whole of the philosophical thought of ancient Greece, certainly laid the bases [sic] for a concept of life which for many centuries guided Man along his path of growth until the magic formula of Albert Einstein: E=m.c2 — placed our flesh and our spirit in close connection to the point of projecting us into a future which still today we only manage to perceive through that omnipresent hope of constant growth towards the Evolution of our species."

Silly me: I always thought General Relativity was about light, speed and time. Anyway, it gets worse, with clauses like

"It engenders in Man a reverential state through its protective mysterious potentiality...."


"The Asteroid, the IMAGO MATER with the mysterious face of a Goddess, is not only the daughter of the night sky but also the Mother of all our most hidden thoughts...."

Quick — someone give this man an Emmy. Storaro's thesis, as near as I can tell, is that Paul Atreides' journey is the journey of mankind, and that "green, ocre, red, blue = water, fire, earth, air = childhood, youth, growth, maturity." Or something like that.

(4) And finally, there are separate Costume Design and Production Design Exhibits (featuring some excellent renderings), plus Cast & Crew Notes and 20-odd pages of hagiographic Production Notes.

You have been warned. Give it a spin.

— Alexandra DuPont

Three Stars

  • Color
  • Widescreen (1.77:1)
  • Two single-sided discs
  • English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo)
  • 26-minute making-of featurette: "The Lure of Spice"
  • Costume design exhibit
  • Production design exhibit
  • "The Cinematographic Ideation of Frank Herbert's Dune" (an "interactive written treatise," ahem, by Vittorio Storaro)
  • Cast & crew notes
  • Production notes
  • Dual-DVD keep-case

Many thanks, Alex, and thanks, as always, to all of our friends at DVD Journal.

-El Cosmico

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