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Frank Herbert's Dune (2000)
Director: John Harrison

review by Octavio Ramos Jr

Originally aired on cable television's the Science Fiction Channel, John Harrison's visual presentation of Frank Herbert's Dune is a stunning, four-hour epic that captures much of the novel intact, bringing to life Herbert�s cultures, ideas, and even ideologies. Although lacking the immediacy and star-powered virtuosity of David Lynch�s cinematic adaptation, John Harrison�s version is a feast for those who have never read the book or who read it long ago and only remember a 'Cliff Notes' version of it.
   The film stars Alec Newman as Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto and perhaps the universe�s superbeing. Plagued by dreams of his father�s death and of other strange snippets of the future, Paul must face a Bene Gesserit test involving a box and a poisonous ring known as a gom jobar. Although Paul passes the test, he is powerless to stop his father�s death and the fall of House Atreides to House Harkonnen, led by Baron Harkonnen (Ian McNeice) and his two nephews, Raban and Feyd. Hiding in the desert with his mother Jessica (Saskia Reeves), Paul soon forges an alliance with the Freman, a desert people who hold the key to unraveling the mystery of the spice Melange, which various cultures in the universe use as a source of power.
   As Paul becomes a force to be reckoned with, alliances are forged among the Great Houses (who use Melange for commerce), the Bene Gesserit sisterhood (who use it to manipulate bloodlines and to develop supernatural abilities), and the Spacing Guild (who use it to 'fold' space and thus travel vast distances in little time). While these forces gather, Paul learns about Dune�s fragile ecosystem: giant sandworms create the spice; without these creatures, spice production would end. With this knowledge, and with the spice changing him mentally, Paul soon becomes the leader of the Freman, calling forth a Jihad against all who would stand against them.
   The multitextured plot levels, intricate characterisation, complex relationships, and at time overwhelming ideologies of the novel all survive in this adaptation, and for this alone writer-director John Harrison deserves great praise. In the horribly tainted world of modern science fiction, with even George Lucas failing fans, Harrison stands virtually alone as a visionary of science fiction. Not since Ursula LeGuin�s The Lathe of Heaven has there been such as carefully constructed adaptation. Harrison has an uncanny ability to mine Herbert�s source material, and the end result is a motion picture that captures individual motivations, creates tension and intrigue, and brings about the religious fervor and mythic qualities of Herbert�s written words. Frank Herbert�s Dune is meant to be savoured again and again.
   Working from a modest television budget, Harrison and his creative team pushed the limits by creating lavish exteriors and interiors, credible CGI effects, and opulent costumes. Although some of the sets appear stagebound (note the crash scene with Jessica and Paul - it looks straight out of a stage play), cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now and The Last Emperor) frames these shots with such precision that almost every scene is a feast for the eyes. Ernest Farino�s CGI work is excellent, particularly the vehicles and Dune�s sandworms.
   Despite the success of the film overall, Harrison�s version upon closer inspection has a number of flaws that make more of an impression after repeated viewings (you will be awed and impressed the first time around). Many of these flaws are easy to forgive, given Harrison�s budgetary constraints, but there are a few details that should have been addressed.
   The TV budget limited the fighting sequences dramatically, and as a result these appear stagebound and ineffective. However, moving beyond the budgetary concerns, Harrison misinterprets the Wierding Way as a martial art, at one point having the Freman execute hard Karate and Tae Kwon Do punches and kicks against firearms and explosions. Although the Wierding Way and Freman knife tactics are effective, they are ceremonial and for personal defense and have no place on a battlefield filled with advanced weaponry. A knife in the dark is one thing; a knife against a full-auto rifle is quite another.
   The costumes are impressive for the most part, particularly those of the Middle Eastern inspired Freman. However, the emperor�s 'terror troops' seem out of character in Japanese Samurai inspired garb. This type of detail may be minor, but such use of historical cultures (and science fiction fans will notice this) that are not in keeping with the source material is jarring and thus can be detrimental to key scenes.
   As stated earlier, Harrison�s command of characterisation is incredible; I personally hope that this talented writer-director will delve deeper into science fiction, for it is his kind of work science fiction fans crave. However, Harrison could still improve in further developing minor characters. In Frank Herbert�s Dune, characters such as Thufir Hawat, Shadout Mapes, and Duncan Idaho fail to come alive, as they did in David Lynch�s version. This type of misstep hurts the film the most when Harrison unravels the 'traitor' sequence in which we learn that Dr Yueh has sacrificed House Atreides in an attempt to rescue his wife from Baron Harkonnen. Dean Stockwell�s interpretation of Yueh in David Lynch�s adaptation, is much more effective.
   Despite these minor reservations, Harrison�s version of Dune is a cinematic masterpiece. If you are a fan of science fiction aching for a film that stays true to the elements of the source material and brings about a sense of wonder, then you must experience Frank Herbert�s Dune.
Dune TV show
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