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Dune (2000)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

DUNE (2000)

Starring: William Hurt, Alec Newman, Ian McNeice, Barbora Kodetova, Saskia Reeves, Julie Cox

Written and Directed By: John Harrison

The Short Version

The Sci Fi Channel tries its hand at Frank Herbert’s classic novel, at length.

Most of the novel’s farthest-reaching concepts are set aside or marginalized in favor of political drama.

Dune is proof that the term “epic” is not a function of running time.

This “give the most famous guy top billing” thing needs to stop.

Dune isn’t bad, and it isn’t great, and it’s no substitute for the book... or David Lynch's flck, at that.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

"CAMELBERT."

Cheese made from camel’s milk that looks similar to Camembert, except it’s tangier in taste.  In other words, desert cheese.


Pairs Well With...

JACK'S PUMPKIN SPICE ALE.

“Careful, lad.  That spice beer can go to your head before you know it.”  Except for the fact that it’s weaker than advertised.  Drinkable, but there’s better out there.

“May your knife chip and shatter.”


Back in 1984, David Lynch’s Dune was released, and his extremely ambitious if condensed take on Frank Herbert’s classic novel was met with considerable disdain, with “oversimplification of the original story” being one of the chief complaints being leveled against it.

In 2000, the Sci Fi Channel (back before some moron changed the station’s name for no comprehensible reason) broadcast its own take on Frank Herbert’s novel.  They called it a miniseries; in the world of home video, the more pragmatic amongst us call it a five hour movie.  This reasonably ambitious if condensed take on the classic novel was not met with disdain; indeed, it received the network’s highest ever ratings up to that time, despite its rather blatant oversimplification of the original story.

And now that we’ve had eleven years to think about it…

Sorry, folks.  Having just watched both of them again within days of each other, Lynch’s Dune is better.  This one’s not terrible, mind, but it’s so heavily sanitized and so incredibly non-epic that it just doesn’t do the novel justice at all, no matter how much more of its content ends up on the screen.

In essence, our story starts like so.  Some eight thousand years into the future (though this version never mentions the date), the universe is ruled politically by the Emperor Shaddam IV (Giancarlo Giannini, Casino Royale).  However, it is ruled economically by a substance called mélange, known colloquially as “the spice.”  Without this substance, interstellar commerce could not happen, the wealthy couldn’t have their lives extended, and the mysterious group of “witches” known as the Bene Gesserit would lose the source of their power.  It’s been said that “he who controls the spice controls the universe,” and the sentiment is a pretty accurate one.

As it so happens, the spice is only found on one planet, a desert world called Arrakis, though it is also known as “Dune.”  For the past 80 years, the noble house of Harkonnen – currently led by Baron Vladimir (Ian McNeice, White Noise) – has managed spice production on Arrakis on behalf of the Emperor.  Now, that duty and privilege is being turned over to the Harkonnens’ mortal enemies, the House Atriedes, currently led by Duke Leto (William Hurt, The Incredible Hulk). 

One can imagine that this doesn’t sit well with the Harkonnens, and that’s a fact that the Emperor is counting on.  He has indeed given Arrakis over to Atreides control with the understanding that the Harkonnens will after a reasonably short amount of time decide to take it back, thus eliminating the man that Shaddam considers his greatest rival for the throne, Duke Leto.

Of course, no one asked the natives of Arrakis – the Fremen – what they want, but they’ll make their wishes known soon enough, thanks to the timely arrival of a Messianic figure they call Maud’dib…

Frank Herbert’s “Dune” is one of the most complex novels in the history of the English language.  It is literally biblical in scope, and nothing other than “The Lord of the Rings” can truly be said to come even close.  Bringing something this dense and this complex to the screen in its full form is realistically impossible, and indeed, it can be easily argued that its concepts and storyline do transmit themselves best over the printed page.  For any filmmaker, regardless of ambition, the only hope of trying to translate this mammoth work into a motion picture is to take a stab at its core and hope they get enough of it.

When David Lynch did it, he went for the mystical essence and epic spirit of the book, relying on atmosphere to fill in the gaps for him.

When John Harrison did it for the Sci Fi Channel, he went for the political storyline that would be more accessible to the masses at large and spent a long time outlining its intrigues, glossing over mystical elements as much as possible and ignoring the gaps altogether.

Lynch’s film feels like Frank Herbert’s book.  John Harrison’s does not.  Instead, it feels like a common political thriller dropped into a science fiction setting with an unusually long runtime.  (Let’s face it, folks; at five hours, Dune isn’t a movie as much as it is a commitment.)  Yes, these are Frank Herbert’s intrigues, but they carry none of the flavor – ironically enough, none of the spice – that make them quintessentially “Dune.”  “More scenes” does not equal “more depth.”  My synopsis above actually tells you slightly more about what the spice does than all five hours of this movie will, despite the fact that the spice is the single most important plot moving device in the entire book.  Yes, this production will tell you that it’s important, but minus any real details.  Given such massive runtime, this is inexcusable.

And as for “epic,” forget about it.  The direction never provides an atmosphere of excitement or adventure, and always feels more appropriate to theatre than to film.  The alleged “battle” through which the Harkonnens take back Arrakis takes less than sixty seconds.  The CGI sandworms look more like CGI poo.  (That’s not a disdainful metaphor; it’s a visual description of exactly what they look like.  The disdainful metaphor is useful for much of the rest of the film’s CGI, however.)  The matte paintings are obvious and reduce the scope of any given scene to that of a stage.  The score is highly subdued, and while it sets a nice mood for thinking in the desert, it does nothing to create any sort of epic mood.  (It does, though, carry just enough cues at times to sound like a poor riff on Brian Eno’s old “Prophecy” theme from Lynch’s film, though at the same time not quite enough to spawn a lawsuit.)

Indeed, when all is said and done, Dune ends up looking like a low-end episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” with a script written by John LeCarre. 

In the end, it will never escape the fact that it’s a television program.

As for the cast…

Having William Hurt’s name above the title for Dune is simply ridiculous, and speaks to a generations-old tradition of putting the most famous guy’s name up top whether he’s actually playing the lead or not.  It’s a tradition that needs to end, and a slap in the face to performers who do play in leading roles.  In truth, William Hurt is gone after the first act, and doesn’t earn the billing.  As for what we do get from him, it’s not bad, and he plays an effective enough father, but if you’ve seen Hurt in some of his other (especially earlier) work, you know he’s just barely doing more than phoning it in.

The real lead is Alec Newman (The Principles of Lust) in the role of Paul, later known as Muad’dib.  All things considered, he does a fair job, however, he just doesn’t display the charisma that savvy audience expects from a proper Muad’dib.  He just doesn’t have the sort of presence that seems capable of inspiring religious fervor, and that’s what you need to really sell this part.  Yes, he reads his lines well and goes through the right motions, but when scores and hundreds of fanatic Fremen (be they Eastern European extras or CG creations) start following him, you just know that it’s only because the script told them to.

Faring better is Barbora Kodetova (Tristan + Isolde), who puts in a much more solid performance as Chani than I had remembered from my first encounter with Harrison’s Dune.  Also doing quite well is Julie Cox (Second in Command) in the role of Irulan.  Though fans of the book may scoff at how this adaptation gives her a bit more warmth with Paul than canon would have it, Cox’s performance gives life to the intrigue when it might otherwise threaten to send the audience off on a snack break without hitting “pause.”

Very few people will want to step away, however, when Ian McNeice shows up on the screen as Baron Harkonnen.  The one instance in which this film’s casting ends up completely trumping that of Lynch’s film, McNeice absolutely steals the picture, hands down.  His performances far outshines all others, and he takes a character who could easily be played as one-dimensionally evil and instead makes him multidimensional and even, dare I say it, somewhat likable even as you know you’re supposed to hate his guts.  This is a man with presence and charisma, and McNeice goes a long way toward making sure that people don’t just say “to hell with it” and press “stop.”

Others in the cast don’t do nearly so well.  The mentat roles which stole the show in 1984 are utterly forgettable.  Reverend Mother Mohaim (Zuzana Geislerova, Hostel: Part II), such a memorable character sixteen years before, is reduced to the level of a rather pathetic joke.  I truly hate to say this, but sometimes, you really do get only the talent you pay for.

Bottom line, Dune is just too low-end to ask casual viewers to make the five hour commitment to watching it.  (The original cut, by the way, was shorter, but the Director’s Cut contains some extra details that do actually make the story run smoother, along with a little bit of nudity, which, frankly, helps.)  For the dedicatedly curious, it’s certainly watchable; it may be television quality and it may cut some corners, but it isn’t bad.   Just remember that if you’ve already read the book, Dune is going to feel more like something from the political thriller section than it will the book you recall, and if you haven’t read the book yet, you’ll still need to after seeing this movie.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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