So someone in the Sci-Fi Channel marketing department thought that they'd be able to create the definitive version of the novel, making much ballyhoo over it in the press. "This is the way Frank Herbert intended it!" Yes, yes, I'm sure he was precisely thinking of static, made-for-television sets lifted from Star Trek: The Next Generation, bathed in nauseating greens, oranges, and fire engine reds.
Instead of Lynchian puppets and latex gore, we're treated to phony bluescreens, computer generated B-movie effects, and a series of unrealistic matte paintings (at least, they looked like matte paintings -- the press kit says they filmed in Prague and Tunisia!) And what's up with those gauche costumes, a cross between Japanese kimonos and Ronald McDonald. Something is clearly wrong here.
An attempt to summarize Herbert's richly layered plot would prove confounding, what with his fastidious attention to detail. We'll stick with the Cliff's Notes version: Spice is the key to time travel, so ruthless barons and emperors across the galaxy negotiate to get their greedy stinking hands on as much of it as possible. He who controls the spice controls the universe.
With his eye on the prize, stalwart Duke Leto Atreities (William Hurt, given top billing but whacked pretty quick) picks up stakes from his homeland and moves to the desert planet known as Dune. Comfortably settled into his new digs, he proceeds to mine for the spice and teach his brash young son Paul (Alec Newman) about the birds and the bees. Bizarre omens forebode that Duke Leto will be slain, and that young Paul will be groomed as the prophesied Messiah to lead the Fremen (rogue desert warriors) to salvation and freedom?
Slobbering Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Ian McNeice), sleek Emperor Shaddam IV (Giancarlo Giannini, Hannibal) and other diabolical forces work intricate plots against the good guys. A traitor, an assassination attempt, and an ambush all figure into play before Paul and his pouting cosmopolitan mother (Saskia Reeves) are cast out into the wild. Will Paul be groomed by the Fremen tribes to fight in a ritualized kung-fu fight with Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (Matt Keeslar, The Last Days of Disco)? He damned well better, lads, because this is a six-hour epic!
All of the shoddy production elements would be forgiven if there was a halfway decent cast holding this house of cards together. Hurt wanders through early scenes mumbling his lines, coasting on what I hope was a fat paycheck. He at least exudes regal presence, whereas Newman's Paul Atreities (played with authority by Kyle MacLachlan in Lynch's version) is less a boy prince than a refugee from a boy band.
The women are a gaggle of weak-willed geese, with Julie Cox especially bratty as the emperor's daughter. Her "flirting" scenes with Paul will not only disgust fans of Herbert's book (for which their relationship is purely a matter of social convenience and political tact), but will also turn off anyone who happened to be taking this malarkey seriously. When did the sci-fi space opera turn into Teen Beat?
I hate to keep returning to the Lynch version, but it was really so much better. Even if you didn't catch all the new language or rituals originated by Frank Herbert (for he is the Kwizatz Haderach!), you accepted it as dream logic. Better to be entertained and confused than casually dismissive, which is as much as this new Dune deserves.
But wait, there's more! If you really want to know how they did all those cheesy effects, the two-disc DVD release has a 25 minute documentary about the film tacked on as an extra. Apparently all those explosions are done with propane. Heavy.
Contactmusic.com: 1 / 5
Director: John Harrison
Producer: David R. Kappes
Screenwriter: John Harrison