directed by John Harrison
(Lions Gate, 2000)
Frank Herbert, in my opinion, wrote one of the true masterpieces of science fiction-fantasy when he wrote Dune, and I think that no movie or miniseries can ever fully do it justice, given its amazingly complex plot ("a feint within a feint within a feint" is a phrase from the book), especially given that the book includes a large amount of internal dialogue for the main characters.
That said, let us talk about this attempt at adapting this huge story to the small screen, first aired on the Sci-Fi Channel and now available on VHS or DVD (original or "director's cut" versions).
Take mankind 9,000 years into the future (not 100 or even 300 years, like most authors, or even Arthur C. Clarke's somewhat weak attempt at going 1,000 years in 3001) and what do you have? It leaves the author pretty free to have anything be true. Herbert clearly and precisely and thoroughly creates a truly alien human society that is also strongly rooted in its past. The worlds and cultures of Dune are strongly influenced by Arabic and Islamic culture, along with a hearty dash of medieval European feudalism.
More specifically, Dune introduces us to members of several ruling Houses in a galactic empire. The Atreides are clearly the good guys, and the Harkonnens are clearly the bad guys. The emperor, who belongs to House Corrino, is a very political animal. That was not enough for Herbert. He added the Bene Gesserits, a quasi-religious order of women who take as their mission the perfection and control of humanity through a controlled breeding program covering thousands of years. And we cannot forget the Bene Tleilax, who seek the Word of Allah in human genetics and the manipulation thereof through cloning and genetic engineering. Meanwhile, the Spacing Guild features physically malformed humans who can see through space and, to a lesser degree, time, and are therefore the only beings who can guide ships at faster-than-light speeds.
What brings all the factions together? The spice, melange, that gives users longevity, prescience and power. Unfortunately for humanity (but fortunately for the story), melange is found on only one planet: Arrakis (called Dune by its nomadic population). The factions fight to control Dune. In the story, the Bene Gesserit millenia-long breeding program is reaching its culmination: a superhuman being who can see anywhere and even be more than one place at once, along with getting frequent glimpses of the future.
I think, for the magnitude and complexity of the story, this is a much better telling than David Lynch's 1984 rendering (which certainly left the story rendered). Lynch's version came off as a long, confusing series of nightmare images, with most of the story lost in the shuffle.
This made-for-television 2000 offering, instead, was able to take the time to introduce and develop the characters and actually tell the tale, to the extent it could be squeezed into 295 minutes. The acting is quite good, with Ian McNiece as the over-the-top megalomaniac Vladimir Harkonnen juxtaposed with the quiet integrity of William Hurt's Duke Leto Atreides, the semi-preppie portrayal of Paul Atreides by Alec Newman, and the powerful intelligent, passionate Lady Jessica, as portrayed by Saskia Reeves.
I had Dune on videotape from the Sci-Fi Channel and had watched it several times. There are probably about a dozen such "new" scenes sprinkled across the director's cut of the film, now available on DVD, and they certainly add depth and color.
For a made-for-television production, the effects are very, very good. The Guild ships are very unusual and give the impression of immensity. The Guild steersman is as alien a creature as any I have seen. The giant sandworms are portrayed faithfully to the story. The Royal planet of Kaitan and the capital of Arrakis, Arrakeen, are very detailed and complete opposites, as is fitting to the story.
As you might have gleaned, I like this rendition of Dune and I see it as being about as good as any could be, given the novel upon which it is based.
by Chris McCallister