The type of novel that has always held my interest are those where the author take the time and effort to create an entire world. Usually maps and a glossary are required to assist the reader in understanding what is going on. One such novel that has been a long time favorite of mine has been Frank Herberts Dune. Currently, there are two film adaptations of this epic; the David Lynch version and the one being reviewed here, the John Harrison version. With a novel that has the scope of Dune the regular movie format is insufficient to do justice to the work. What is really needed is a mini series. This usually means making some concessions to the standards and practices censors of the networks but here the un-cut directors version is presented. Basically the story takes place in the far future. A substance spice is the most coveted item in the universe. It prolongs life and permits the Spacing Guide to navigate between planets. There is only one place in the universe where this substance is found, Arakkis, Dune, the desert planet. This world is all deserts. Water is a rare and expensive commodity. The noble house that controls this planet has wealth and power beyond imagination. The planet was under the control of the brutal House Harkonnen but was recently reassigned to a rival household, House Atreides. There has been a blood feud between these houses for many generations, a feud that is soon to come to a boil. At the head of Atreides is Duke Leto the Just (William Hurt) who along with his son Paul (Alec Newman) and his bound concubine Jessica (Saskia Reeves) moves to Dune to take over the mining of the spice. Part of the appeal of this film is the complex plot lines and the interplay of religion, politics and trade and how each faction conspires and plots against each other. Every side has their own agenda and will stop at nothing to succeed. The wild card in the mix is the natives that live in the deep desert, the Freemen. These are a people toughened by the brutal conditions on Dune and under Pauls leadership becomes a force that is unstoppable. It would be impossible to consider all the subtle nuances of the plots here but it is a wonderful tapestry that will take several viewings to fully appreciate. For those that are familiar with the novel you will notice that some things were changed. Characters that were fully developed in the book are lessened here, others enhanced, but overall I found the treatment worthy of the original.
With the exception of William Hurt as Duke Leto most American audiences will not recognize most of the cast. This is a shame since the cast is as near to perfect as possible. Alec Newman as Paul is excellent. He presents Paul as a driven young man, powerful and talented with extremely strong emotions just under the façade of control. His Paul is equally at home holding court in the swank palaces of his birth or the desert caves of his new home. Hurts performance is in his usual controlled style. Even during the more intimate scenes with his concubine he shows a man weighed down by his responsibility. Barbora Kodetova plays the concubine of Paul, Chani. She is a freeman, born to the desert ways and daughter of a powerful planetologist under the employ of the emperor. She is exceptional in the manner that she balances the tough fighter with the tender lover. Reeves has a strength to her character. She is a woman so completely in love with her duke that she disobeys her religious order to bare daughters so that she can give her duke the son he wanted. The rest of the cast, far too numerous to mention here, is also the best possible choices. Their acting never tries to overshadow the principles but instead they add to the overall effect of a beautiful tapestry that is this film.
John Harrison not only directed this epic he also penned the screenplay. Considering the formidable size of the novel and complex web of plots he had to be selective in what he could present yet preserve the impact of the original. There is no other way to put it he nailed it. Harrison presents a story that is completely fleshed out and far easier to comprehend than the Lynch version. He manages to maintain a pace that moves along even during the expository dialogue. Usually such dialogue is dry but here the characters themselves make such explanations interesting. The sets he uses in this film run from ornate palaces to the deep desert. The attention to detail is incredible. The costumes are elaborate, a mixture of futuristic gowns to practical outfits for the desert folk. I have to admit that the use of hats is at times pushed to an almost laughable degree. Some reminded me of the hats my sisters in law wore when I married my wife. The use of lighting brings the science to a new level. Shadows and light, so important on a desert world, create a mood that the actors play off of with great professionalism.
There are several versions of this film out there. One was shown on the Sci-Fi channel. Another was show in Europe. What is presented on this disc represents the best of the lot. It is billed as the special edition directors cut. This provides about 30 minutes of film not seen on American TV. This does include a bit more in the way of violence and nudity but goes beyond this. There are new subplots presented that help show the web that these people live. The Dolby 5.1 sound mix brings this brutal environment right into your living room. The extras are spread between this three-disc set. They include discussions of the Messiah, a round table chat with some of the best minds in science fiction and even a featurette about the use of color and light in the production. This is a must have in any collection. Even if you dont normally watch science fiction you will enjoy this film because of the human drama it presents.