Frank Herbert's Dune:
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Review by Alexandra DuPont
Second verse, better than the first
In keeping with one of the more tiresome peccadilloes of the "DVD lifestyle," a truncated first-edition DVD set that fans claimed was lacking in supplements and truncated in length (and willfully lacking and truncated, at that) has been upgraded into a "Special Edition."
This week's money-grubbing expansion goes to the acclaimed Sci-Fi Channel miniseries Frank Herbert's Dune; the previous two-DVD set containing the 265-minute American cut of the miniseries, a non-anamorphic transfer, plus a handful of occasionally eccentric extras has been upgraded into a 295-minute, unrated, anamorphically enhanced, DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 roof-rocking, three-disc "Special Edition." Which is, of course, what it should have been the first time around.
So you watched the whole thing again?
Yes. Well, mostly. In my sister's DTS-equipped home theater/rumpus room. Three nights and four bottles of Pinot later, I have now seen (again) more set-bound Dune than I care to, ever again. For a while.
What's the story again?
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.'"
But does it work?
Yes or at least let's 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. Eerily, because the "Special Edition" of this miniseries is a half-hour longer, it now feels like it should be viewed over a couple of days with occasional pauses to consult the glossary in the back of Herbert's original Dune and/or smoke breaks interspersed throughout.
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!"
Care to sing some praises, again?
But of course. It should be noted that the miniseries would be a heck of a lot less fun to watch were it not for 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) was slumming in TV miniseries-land. 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 giant backdrops are what polarized viewers of this miniseries when it first aired. 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 that 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 employed consistently throughout 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.
What else is good?
Shall we make yet another list? Let's do!
- 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 fetching concubine. BTW, it should be noted that, in this expanded cut, relationships are given even more room to breathe with the tribal Fremen and Princess Irulan [Julie Cox] benefiting the most;
- Graeme Revell's excellent, Eastern-tinged score (which also benefits from the revamped soundtrack);
- 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 surprisingly 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.
What's not so good?
The fact that the fleshing-out of characters and situations slows things down quite a bit, (even more so now). 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.
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, maybe not when he's wearing that leather diaper), Jose Ferrer as the Emperor, Sian Phillips as the Reverend 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;
- And the scene where Paul masters the Voice and busts himself and Jessica out of the Harkonnen ornithopter.
So what's new specifically to this "Special Edition"?
Well, there's that half-hour of extra footage (reportedly shown in Europe during the original broadcast) that pads the miniseries out to three discs and enhances the episodic feel of the piece. There's a bit more mayhem, some psychosexual menacing of Lady Jessica, and even a dash of nudity. It could be said that the missing minutes like those in the extended cut of Lynch's Dune tend to comprise material that was fine when it wasn't there, an addendum to an already longish piece.
What did your sister, who popped in to watch the Sci-Fi "Special Edition," think of Harrison's Dune?
And I quote: "I don't want to sound snotty, but I prefer the Lynch version. Though this includes more of the book, Lynch's film has some impressive highs and lows and it's the work of a poet who sometimes falters, but is always fascinating. Harrison's version is acceptable, but never as exciting because Harrison is more task-master than artist. Lynch's effort is something of a guilty pleasure. Here I remained ... nonplused."
Um, thanks, Shelley! So how's that new transfer?
Absolutely smashing. Where the first version presented the film in non-anamorphic widescreen and in 2.0 Surround, this disc presents the film in 5.1 Dolby digital and DTS in anamorphic widescreen (and also includes the 2.0 mix). The increased fidelity does add precious "oopmh," which keeps the "TV-movie-ness" a little more at bay. Closed Captioning is also included. Huzzah!
So how about those DVD extras?
Compared to the somewhat paltry supplements on the first disc, this is a bonanza and all the original supplements are carried over, to boot. (If it included the American TV cut, this would be a "definitive" release. I guess.)
On the first disc, we find "The Lure of the Spice" a 26-minute promotional documentary (from the original release) that's 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.
Also on Disc One (and new to the set) is a five-minute interview with composer Revell, followed by a seven-minute sampling of his work. There's also a running audio commentary for the series that runs across all three discs; on this disc, the participants are Harrison, editor Harry Miller, and 2nd unit director and visual effects supervisor Ernest Farino. To their credit, these principals keep their conversation lively throughout Disc One, with few breaks or long pauses.
Disc Two: MU'ADIB
On this disc, you'll find "Willis McNeely on Dune" a 12-minute interview with a "Dune scholar" and friend of Frank Hebert. He contextualizes the book in its time and its political ideology (which, he argues, is decidedly "pro-environment" though I'd argue that "pro-Machiavellian" and "pro-drug use" are running a close second and third).
Also on Disc Two: a 28-minute "Science Future/Science Fiction Roundtable" discussion featuring such scribes as Harlan Ellison, Octavia Butler, Michael Cassutt, Harrison, and inventor Ray Kurzwell, moderated by Arthur Cover. You'll also find a "Cast and Crew" section here, plus the production notes form the first release. On the commentary track, Harrison is joined by make-up designer Greg Nicotero.
Disc Three: THE PROPHET
Feeling cheated yet, early adopters? Well, Disc Three features "Walking and Talking with John Harrison" an 11-minute interview with Harrison, where he and the interviewer take a walk (surprise!) and talk about the production. There's also "Defining the Messiah" a 13-minute documentary that riffs on the nature of the Christ figure. Best of all is "The Color Wheel" a 12 minute interview with apparently brilliant and quite utterly batty (see below) cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, whose broken English is subtitled at the bottom of the screen as he talks about his color schema.
Storaro remains on-topic throughout "The Color Wheel," but if your tastes run toward pretentious yammerings, look no further than the next 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: Confucius 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...."
and"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.
Disc Three's feature audio commentary features director Harrison, visual effects supervisor Tim McHugh, Miller, and Farino. Also included is a still gallery for the upcoming sequel Children of Dune due out in 2003 plus, bafflingly, trailers for the Rambo Trilogy and the upcoming DVD of Van Wilder.
Is there any reason to hang on to the original release?
Depends on how much you like the truncated American cut. If you think you'll watch this film more than once a year or if you're one of those dimple-thighed "completist" types then perhaps possessing both versions is but one stop on your holy path.
Exhausted, and perhaps a bit hung over,
- Anamorphic widescreen (1.77:1)
- Three single-sided discs
- English (Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS)
- Audio Commentary by John Harrison, Ernest Farino, Harry Miller, Greg Nicotero and Tim McHugh
- Featurette: "The Lure of Spice"
- Featurette: "Willis McNelly on Dune"
- Featurette: "The Color Wheel"
- Featurette: "Walking and Talking with John Harrison"
- Featurette: "Defining the Messiah"
- Featurette: "Science Future/Science Fiction Roundtable"
- 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
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