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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 3/5/01

Frank Herbert's Dune
2000 (2001) - SciFi Channel (Artisan)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Frank Herbert's Dune

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B-/C-

Specs and Features:

Disc One: Parts I & II
177 mins (Part I - 89 mins, Part II - 88 mins), NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.77:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), dual Amaray keep case packaging, animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (Part I - 19 chapters, Part II - 23 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0 surround), subtitles: none, Closed Captioned

Disc Two: Part III & Supplemental Materials
89 mins (Part III), NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.77:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), dual Amaray keep case packaging, Frank Herbert's Dune: The Lure of Spice "behind-the-scenes" featurette (26 mins), galleries of costume and production design art, Frank Herbert's Dune: A Cinematic Treatment by Vittorio Stararo (text supplement), cast & crew bios, production notes, animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (Part III - 24 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0 surround), subtitles: none, Closed Captioned

"A terrible purpose awaits us, Mother. This vast organism we call humanity is about to reinvent itself from the ashes of its own complacency. The sleeper has awakened. Anything that tries to stop it will be crushed."

In the history of science fiction literature, there have been few truly great works - works of high concept that cut through the trappings of pulp "sci-fi" (robots, laser guns, funny looking aliens) to describe timeless stories of the human condition. Among the best works of the genre are Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy and Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. As good as any of these, however, is Frank Herbert's Dune. It's 500+ pages tell one the best "science fiction" stories I've ever read. Set many thousands of years in the future, it's a simple tale of two great royal houses engaged in a massive struggle to control the most valuable planet in the Universe - Dune (also known as Arakkis). But the rightful heir to the planet, young Paul Atreides, is more than he seems. He's the product of a genetic breeding program that's gone on for thousands of years, and his battle is more than just a political struggle. Before the story is fully told, Paul Atreides will become Muad'Dib - a prophet who will help the native people of Arakkis to reclaim their world... and who will help the human race to reclaim its very identity. Rich in political, cultural and ecological detail, Dune won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for science fiction and remains one of the most highly-regarded novels of all time.

For many years, filmmakers struggled to bring Frank Herbert's novel to the big screen. At one point in the 1980s, even Ridley Scott was involved in such an effort (without success). Finally, in 1984, David Lynch delivered his own vision of the story to theaters (available as a movie-only DVD from Universal) with very mixed results. There are many fans of the Lynch version, but I'm not one of them. While I really liked his production design - the look and feel of the world of Dune - the film's special effects were decidedly awful. Worse, in order to jam as much of the story into the film's 137 minutes as possible, important concepts in the novel were drastically altered or omitted entirely. An expanded, 190-minute, "TV version" of the film was later done (available on DVD in Region 2), but Lynch hated it so much that he asked to have his name removed from it entirely (the infamous "Allen Smithee" is credited).

With the film rights tightly controlled by Dino De Laurentiis, a better film version seemed unlikely. But a few years ago, a TV producer named Richard Rubinstein discovered that the TV miniseries rights to the Herbert novel were still available. He interested a TV director friend (John Harrison) in the project, and the two acquired the rights with the help of the SciFi Channel. Harrison set out to adapt the novel as a miniseries and to recreate the novel's 3-act structure - each act would be told in a separate night of the miniseries. Once the ball got rolling, the production attracted a terrific pool of talent, including actors William Hurt (The Big Chill) and Giancarlo Giannini (Hannibal), and cinematographer Vittorio Stararo (Apocalypse Now). The result is an epic, lavish, 266-minute production of Dune, that finally does justice to Frank Herbert's original vision. When shown on the SciFi Channel last year, it was generally well received and garnered the network's highest ratings ever.

Fans of the David Lynch film will probably not warm to Frank Herbert's Dune. For one thing, it has completely abandoned the earlier work's dark, atmospheric look. Instead, this production is vibrant and colorful. To save money, and to create a unique look to the final project, the entire film was shot on soundstages. So-called "exteriors" were done against massive, colorful "translight" backgrounds. The result is a production with a decidedly theatrical feel. But, in my opinion, that stylized look actually lends itself to this story. It feels large and important, like a great and massive staged production of a Shakespeare play, if you will. The effects are done CGI, and while they aren't quite feature-film quality, they're fine for TV. The production design is a marvel - everywhere you look on screen, there's something worth looking at. Frank Herbert's Dune is definitely a feast for the eyes. Very few story changes have been made in the adaptation of the novel for television (the major ones are that the character of Princess Irulan, who is the "narrator" of the novel, is a more important figure in the miniseries, and that Paul's internal monologue has been largely abandoned in favor of a more traditional narrative approach). And the performances by the cast are absolutely first-rate. They have a more theatrical flavor, but these characters seem far more rounded and human than those that populate the Lynch film. Standouts include Hurt (Duke Leto) and Giannini (The Padishah-Emperor), as well as relative unknowns like Alec Newman (as Paul), Saskia Reeves (Lady Jessica) and Uwe Ochsenknecht (Stilgar). Ian McNeice is wonderfully over the top as the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. And stage actress Barbora Kodetova simply IS Chani, in my humble opinion. Bottom line - if you're a fan of the original novel, and you can put the Lynch film out of your mind, I think you'll really enjoy SciFi's miniseries version. It's great entertainment. And while it isn't perfect, it is (by far) the most detailed and accurate retelling of Frank Herbert's novel ever produced.

When Artisan announced that they'd be releasing Frank Herbert's Dune on DVD, I was really excited. But now, I'm just disappointed. The quality of Artisan's DVD is... well, let's start with the video, shall we? The video is presented in letterboxed widescreen (framed at a ratio of approximately 1.77:1 - more on THAT in a minute). The production's lavish color scheme is well preserved here. The colors present in the costumes, lighting and production design are both bold and subtle at once - accurate, lush and stunning to look at. The contrast here is also excellent, with deep, detailed blacks. Unfortunately, excessive edge-enhancement is present throughout. There's also a strange digital shimmering seen on occasional CGI shots - the sandworms and Guild spaceships most noticably. It almost looks as if there was a problem with the compression from whatever resolution they were produced in to NTSC. That's the only explanation I can think of. I suppose it's also possible that the effect results from excessive MPEG-2 compression for DVD. Disc One contains both Parts I & II of the miniseries, each almost 90 minutes in length. Each part is included on one layer of the dual-layered disc, with an average video bit rate of about 3.5 mpbs. But the disc still looks great. If compression were the problem, you'd think the effect would be visible on all shots. It isn't - just some of the CGI work. Very strange.

Now... about that aspect ratio. Artisan promoted this DVD release in press releases by saying that the title would feature anamorphic widescreen video. Advance retailer information confirmed this. And indeed, the actual packaging indicates anamorphic widescreen. But mysteriously, the video on these discs is only letterboxed widescreen, and is NOT enhanced for 16x9 displays. After their recent non-anamorphic special edition of The Doors (which should have been anamorphic but wasn't), and their Inside the Space Station disc (which also claimed to be anamorphic but wasn't), I'm beginning to wonder if the folks at Artisan even understand the difference between letterboxed widescreen and anamorphic widescreen.

The graphic on the left (below) indicates how Artisan identifies a non-anamorphic disc on their DVD packaging. It's taken from their recent special edition of The Doors. The graphic on the right is scanned from the Dune DVD packaging. Don't be fooled by the words "16:9 Television" on both - look at how the widescreen image is represented on the 16x9 side of both graphics. On The Doors, you see the widescreen image shown with gray bars on the left and right parts of the screen - that's how a non-anamorphic disc looks on an anamorphic display. On the Dune labeling, the graphic correctly shows how an anamorphic disc should look on an anamorphic display - no gray bars are visible. Unfortunately, the disc itself doesn't look that way. The labeling is inaccurate. If only it weren't so...

Artisan non-anamoprhic labeling from The Doors.Artisan anamoprhic labeling from Dune (incorrect).

The audio on Dune's two discs is generally good. English-only audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround. It's full and somewhat atmospheric, and supports the video adequately. Dialogue is mostly clear, but there's some odd distortion in the mix. There's occasional play in the rear channels, but I wanted more. I also wanted more low end in this mix. Given how new this miniseries is, I would really have liked a DVD remix for Dolby Digital 5.1. Maybe I'm nitpicking. Unfortunately, I'm not done.

Disc Two of this set includes Part III of the miniseries on one layer. The supplemental materials are included on the other layer. But the supplements are frustrating. It's not that they aren't good - they're fine for what they are. But they could have been SO much better. Let me explain what I mean. The major extra is a 25-minute featurette, called Frank Herbert's Dune: The Lure of Spice. It features good interview clips with the director, producers and various members of the cast & production crew. We see "behind-the-scenes" video shot during the making of the miniseries, and get a look at the amazing work of cinematographer Vittorio Stararo and production designer Miljen Kljakovic. The video and audio quality is very good. It's a nice piece. BUT... if you purchase iBooks' paperback, The Secrets of Frank Herbert's Dune, you get a bonus DVD disc. It features a terrific "behind-the-scenes" documentary (also called The Secrets of Frank Herbert's Dune), which is edited together using the exact same interview and behind-the-scenes footage... except that it's MUCH longer. The documentary is actually a series of 11 featurettes, which can be played individually or all at once. In all, they total almost 80 minutes! There are featurettes on the cast & characters, production design, costume design, special effects and cinematography. And for each subject covered, there's also a video "gallery" of dozens of production photos and pieces of design artwork edited together. Better still, the video galleries each feature a different piece of composer Graeme Revell's amazing score for the miniseries (which deserves a CD release of its own). Why in the hell isn't any of this on Artisan's DVD? Okay, sure... you might say that because the miniseries is 266 minutes long, there probably isn't a lot of room left, even on 2 discs. But while Disc One contains 177 minutes of video, Disc Two only contains 115 minutes of video (including Part III & the featurette). By my count, they could have included Part III's 89 minutes, plus the ENTIRE 80-minute piece from the iBooks disc, and STILL had room to throw in a few trailers. Point is, there was room.

Artisan's Disc Two DOES include galleries of costume and production design art... but you get FAR fewer images here than you do on the iBooks disc. What's up with that? The only original extra on the Artisan DVD is Vittorio Stararo's text piece, Frank Herbert's Dune: A Cinematic Treatment, which he wrote to help design and describe how the miniseries would look and feel visually. It's well worth reading and is the sole saving grace of Artisan's supplements. But there's still more reason to be disappointed. The SciFi Channel created 4 or 5 really great "theatrical trailers" to promote the miniseries... but NONE of them are on Artisan's DVD (even though they were supposed to be included according to early information from the studio). Naturally, if you buy the iBooks disc, it has a trailer - only one, but at least it's there. We had also heard rumors that Artisan's DVD would include the "full" version of the miniseries, meaning that footage that was deleted from the U.S. broadcast to make room for commercials would be added back in - as much as 10 minutes per episode. Maybe that was just a rumor. Maybe nothing was cut for American commerical broadcast. But come on - this thing is 266 minutes long! You're telling me there were no deleted scenes at all?

Is there blood coming out of my ears? I really enjoyed this miniseries and I was really hoping Artisan's DVD version of it would be a home run. It easily could have been. But it isn't - not by a long shot. Hell... forget all my complaints but one. I wanted Frank Herbert's Dune on DVD in anamorphic widescreen, and I'm pissed that it isn't. I'm especially pissed because Artisan claims it IS on the package. I'm really, really disappointed by this and I'm not the only one, believe me. What a missed opportunity. Just imagine how this vibrant and colorful miniseries could have looked on anamorphic-capable displays! This could have been the kind of disc that EVERYONE had to buy just to show off their home theater to friends, whether they liked the miniseries or not. But, oops... someone dropped the ball.

Anyway... I suppose Artisan's 2-disc DVD is worth having if you're as much a fan of the miniseries as I am. Just expect to live with significant disappointment. And if you really want the special edition materials you should have gotten here, definitely get yourself a copy of the book I mentioned, The Secrets of Frank Herbert's Dune. I took the disc that comes with the book, slipped it into an envelope and dropped it into Artisan's keep case to create a makeshift, 3-disc special edition. It's not quite what I had hoped for when Artisan's Frank Herbert's Dune was announced on DVD, but I'm afraid it'll have to do. At least the menu screens are cool...

Bill Hunt
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