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FRANK HERBERT'S DUNE

Reviewed by Alex Haberstroh

Stars:  William Hurt, Alec Newman, Saskia Reeves, Jan Vlasak, Ian McNeice, P.H. Moriarity, Julie Cox, Matt Keeslar, Giancarlo Giannini
Director:  John Harrison
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  1.77:1 Non-Anamorphic Widescreen
Studio:  Artisan
Features:  See Review
Length:  265 Minutes (For Disc 1 & 2)
Release Date:  March 20, 2001

Film ****

My first exposure to Dune was through the much-panned movie directed by David Lynch.  Curious to see the “cult classic” that so many people swore by, I had eagerly rented the film.  Unfortunately, the movie is very muddled and confusing unless you’ve read the book, and I could see why many fans of the science fiction masterpiece complained so vehemently.  The directors should have either tried to make a really long movie that would appeal to fans of the novel, or make something more mainstream that would attract those with a shorter attention span.  Instead, it tries to do both, with an almost a three-hour running time that left many fans irate at the lack of depth, and average moviegoers wondering just how long the torture would go on.

Thankfully, Director/Writer John Harrison decided that the Dune saga would be better as a mini-series.  Divided among three nights on the Sci-Fi channel, the four and a half hour show not only provides a terrific story with fleshed-out characters, but does so in a more easily digestible format, breaking up the story nicely into three “hour and a half or so” segments (similar to what Lucas did with Star Wars episodes IV-VI). 

The story of Dune is a rich canvas, spanning from the satanic-looking cubistic design of the planet Harkonnen to the sweeping deserts of Arrakis.  Like a carnival barker, Harrison lures the viewer easily into his world of beautiful cinematography and special effects, and once there, shows them an incredible tale of love, life, betrayal, survival, revenge, and spirituality. 

I’ve always believed that the most successful and timeless science fiction tales were not the ones that spent the majority of their time on special effects and cool inventions, but rather told a gripping story that is a mirror for the human condition.  For example, Star Wars was notable for its terrific special effects twenty-five years ago, but is that why people clamor daily for it on DVD and put up with buying the tenth “last definitive VHS collection,” when films like ID4 or better exist?  Obviously not.   

Dune portrays the human struggle rather well, and this is what made it a surprising success for me.  It’s a smart film, with a great understanding of the human thirst for love, power, spirituality and the motivations of betrayal.  Machiavellian struggles for power hang over the worlds of Dune the same way they do ours today. 

But just as the story of Dune is well told, without being able to empathize with the characters there would be diminishment.  The incredible ensemble of actors in Dune (with surprisingly only two Americans) carries the four and half hour story effortlessly.  William Hurt plays Duke Leto Atriedes with unquestioned grace and regality.  Similarly, Ian McNeice seems well restrained and dangerous as the haughty and villainous Baron Harkonnen, a role that could have easily become over the top as a WWF character if played by the wrong actor.  Finally, I was glad that Harrison made the wise decision of choosing relative unknown Scottish actor Alec Newman for the main role of Paul Atriedes.  This is truly his story and Newman plays the tortured prince masterfully, allowing the viewer to see the slow metamorphosis between not just spoiled royalty to wizened messiah, but also from boy to man.  I look forward to the rumored next two installments of Dune with great pleasure.

I’m glad Dune was finally redone to better reflect Frank Herbert’s masterpiece.  

Video: ***1/2 (with strong reservations)

Here’s where the real controversy begins.  As many might know by now from visiting sites like DVD File or the Bits, the promised Anamorphic treatment advertised on the back of the box is not included, offering rather a typical widescreen release, but not an Anamorphic one.

Why did this happen?  I’ve seen countless speculation occur throughout the weeks since Dune was in our hot little hands.  But I’m most disposed to believe the comments of the Bits, who, quite passionate at finding out why the consumers have not gotten something they were promised, posted responses from both Artisan (the company responsible for releasing the disc in the United States), and the producers of the film.  What came out of this discussion was basically a finger pointing exercise, commonplace whenever a product comes out.  We buy it, and we find out we’ve gotten, well, the “Disney treatment,” i.e.- screwed.  Artisan basically claimed (gosh, I feel like I’m playing whisper down the lane) that Harrison had wanted extra money in the six-digit range, to add a couple of scenes to the edition.  Artisan thankfully declined, and what happened then was that Artisan claimed that they were denied access to the Anamorphic version of the film, as well as to a wide array of supplements, and finally, to Dolby Digital and DTS tracks.  Of course, the producers strenuously denied such claims, but either way, for whatever reason, we, the consumers, have suffered.        

So one might ask, why are you giving the transfer such a good rating?  Well, as I’ve explained my reservations (which are pretty much the same for both the supplements and the sound), I think even without the Anamorphic treatment, the transfer is very well done.

Besides those incredibly annoying gray bars that those of us that have widescreen televisions must endure, the colors of Harrison’s vision of the novel are picked up with incredible fidelity and clarity.  Whether it’s the sandy earth tones of the planet Arrakis, or the beautiful blues, golds, and purples of the Emperor’s palace, the video is strong throughout.  Which makes it all the more frustrating that, with the Anamorphic treatment, this disc could have been reference quality.    

Audio **1/2

Again, this is another tough category to evaluate.  While really annoyed whenever I hear the rumor that region 2 might be getting a DTS track on their copy, the pro-logic track is what I’d normally expect from something that debuted on television. 

The sound effects, namely flying spacecraft, gigantic sandworms, and some great battle scenes fill the speakers as best they can on a surround track.  The dialogue is generally crisp and clear through the center channel, and there are a few directionality moments where dialogue can be heard from the left or right speakers. 

Again, the potential for this disc would have been much better if the little petty tyrants that made it weren’t so childish.

Supplements **

First included is the 25-minute featurette “In Lure of Spice.”  This is actually better than the average featurette, where the actors say what a genius the director is and just how much fun everyone is.  Thankfully, we are spared of most of that promo fluff, as the featurette actually concentrates on what went into choosing the actors, locations, etc. 

Included also was the “Dune Gallery,” which contained a costume design exhibit as well as a production design one, and “Frank Herbert’s Dune: A Cinematic Treatment by Vittorio Storaro.  I enjoyed the detailed and colorful drawings in both the costume and production design features, noticing certain sketches that actually made the film.  “The Cinematic Treatment” by Vittorio Storaro is rather long, and it took me quite a long time to read all of it.  If you’re interested though, it has some thought provoking ideas on color schemes, symbolism, and anything else you’d want to know if an English professor analyzed a book in detail and put it on a DVD for you to read.  Finally, rounding out the disc, were the typical detailed Cast and Crew mentions as well as Production notes.  Where are the trailers?  Supposedly the Sci-Fi channel wouldn’t let Artisan have them.  All in all, an “okay,” but certainly uninspired, set of supplements.   

Summary:

In conclusion, even though I’ve put emphasis on the audio, video, and supplemental problems that face this disc, I wouldn’t let that dissuade you unless you’re determined to make a statement.  This is an amazing sci-fi epic with a fabulous cast, direction, production values and well worth the $19.99 price tag.  Buy it just for the film and pray someday they correct it.  Recommended.