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review added: 5/22/02



Frank Herbert's Dune
Special Edition - Director's Cut - 2000 (2002) - SciFi Channel (Artisan)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsEncoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround


Frank Herbert's Dune: Special Edition - Director's Cut

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A-/B+

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): B+/A-

Specs and Features:

Disc One: Part I
98 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.77:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 53:51 in chapter 17), custom 3-disc cardboard/plastic packaging, audio commentary with writer/director John Harrison, second unit director/visual effects supervisor Ernest Farino, editor Harry Miller, visual effects designer Greg Nicotero and visual effects supervisor Tim McHugh), Frank Herbert's Dune: The Lure of Spice behind-the-scenes featurette (25 mins - 4x3), Graeme Revell Reveals interview featurette (5 mins - 16x9 - features optional 7:25 min. medley of soundtrack music at the end in DD 2.0), photo and sketch gallery (covering visual effects, storyboards and character and costume sketches), animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0, DTS 5.1), subtitles: none, Closed Captioned


Disc Two: Part II
95 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.77:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 57:18 in chapter 17), custom 3-disc cardboard/plastic packaging, audio commentary with writer/director John Harrison, second unit director/visual effects supervisor Ernest Farino, editor Harry Miller, visual effects designer Greg Nicotero and visual effects supervisor Tim McHugh), Science Future/Science Fiction roundtable discussion featurette (28 mins - 16x9 - with director John Harrison, sci-fi writers Harlan Ellison, Octavia Butler, Michael Cassutt and writer/inventor/futurist Ray Kurzweil - moderated by Arthur Cover), Willis McNelley on Frank Herbert and Dune featurette (12 mins - 16x9 - interview with author of the Dune Encyclopedia), cast & crew bios, production notes, animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0, DTS 5.1), subtitles: none, Closed Captioned

Disc Three: Part III
96 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.77:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 55:48 in chapter 18), custom 3-disc cardboard/plastic packaging, audio commentary with writer/director John Harrison, second unit director/visual effects supervisor Ernest Farino, editor Harry Miller, visual effects designer Greg Nicotero and visual effects supervisor Tim McHugh), The Color Wheel featurette (12 mins - 16x9 - interview with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro), Frank Herbert's Dune: A Cinematographic Treatment text essay by Vittorio Storaro, Defining the Messiah featurette (13 mins - 16x9 - interviews with religious scholars Elaine Pagels, Rabbi Mordachai Finely, Munir Shaikh and Jungian psychologist Gabrielle Bodo), Walking and Talking with John Harrison interview featurette (11 mins - 16x9), Children of Dune "sneak peek" preproduction gallery, preview trailers (for Rambo Trilogy and Van Wilder), animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0, DTS 5.1), 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. 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 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 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. Again, they have a 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.

And that was just the original broadcast version. The new director's cut found on this 3-disc DVD set has been expanded by some 30 minutes, with roughly 10 minutes added to each part of the series. This new, longer Frank Herbert's Dune is a richer, more layered experience. The character of Princess Irulan is much more active in the new cut - she's a scheming, savvy political operator, who uses guile, intrigue and even sex to learn what she wants to know and to manipulate people without their realizing it. The Fremen crusade against the Harkonnen is also fleshed out more - it's more intense and bloody now. We learn in greater depth who betrays Duke Leto and why he does it. A score of more adult scenes and themes have also been added to the story - including numerous (but brief) instances of violence and nudity - which give the overall story a more unapologetically mature, edgy feel. I wouldn't have thought this miniseries could get much better, but this new cut is truly outstanding.

Any of you who read my review of Artisan's original DVD release of Frank Herbert's Dune will recall that I wasn't pleased with that disc. In fact, it was a major disappointment. Thankfully, most of my complaints have been addressed with this new Special Edition - Director's Cut release. To start with, while the original 2-disc set's video was letterboxed widescreen only, this new set feature fully remastered anamorphic widescreen video. And it looks amazing. Now, this isn't quite reference quality video, but this is DEFINITELY the way to view this miniseries. Each episode has been mastered to its own disc in this set, which means that the video bit rates have been maxed out. Gone is all the compression artifacting that plagued the old discs. This video features rich fine detail (with only moderate edge-enhancement), incredibly vibrant color and satisfyingly deep (but detailed) contrast. Some of the effects shots - okay, most of the effects shots - have a very "digital" look to them, along with some aliasing and other artifacts resulting from budget-grade CGI work. And a few of the live action shots that mix CGI look unnaturally soft. Still, with these minor complaints, this video is very pleasing to watch. And the miniseries' extremely lavish and colorful production design really pops off the screen. A HUGE improvement over the original disc.

But the video isn't the only thing that's gotten an overhaul. Whereas the original DVD included only Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, this new release features your choice of remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1. Both tracks are excellent in their own right. The DTS track is my slightly preferred option, featuring a smoother, wider soundstage, greater clarity (particularly when conveying ambiance), very active surrounds and rich low frequency reinforcement. The Dolby Digital track sounds a little crisper and more directional in its use of surround effects. But again, both are excellent tracks and a vast improvement over the original release.

The extras on this new DVD release are also much improved, but they're still a bit of a mixed bag (more on that in a minute). The extras are split over the three discs in the set, but the best of them (and the one constant on all the discs) is the full-length audio commentary (for all three episodes of the miniseries) by writer/director John Harrison. I've had the pleasure of getting to know John a little bit over the last few months, and I have a lot of respect for him. His commentary is thoughtful and considered, covering everything from the adaptation of the story, the character development and themes, the production itself, the special effects and even some of his thoughts on filmmaking and science fiction in general. Harrison is joined on the track by second unit director/visual effects supervisor Ernest Farino, editor Harry Miller, visual effects designer Greg Nicotero and visual effects supervisor Tim McHugh (different combinations of the group are present on different episodes). This is a bunch of guys who, in some cases, have known each other for years and who clearly love what they do, talking together about the making of this film. The commentary is a very easy listen and is well worth your time.

The animated menu design on the new DVDs is elegant and minimal, yet very stylish - a very nice touch. I'm also happy to see that the behind-the-scenes documentary that was on the original disc, The Lure of Spice, has been included on the new DVD. In addition, the production notes, cast & crew bios, some (but not all) of the gallery artwork and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's Frank Herbert's Dune: A Cinematographic Treatment text essay have also survived from the original DVD release. The gallery artwork has actually been expanded to cover visual effects, storyboards and character and costume sketches. You even get a sneak peek at design art for the sequel miniseries, Children of Dune, which is now in preproduction (note that the sequel was written by Harrison, combining the books Children of Dune and Dune Messiah, but sadly won't be directed by him due to a schedule conflict).

Back to that mixed bag - these three DVDs include a number of featurettes. Among them are an interview with Harrison (on the film and his work), an interview with composer Graeme Revell (on the score), an interview with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (on his philosophy/visual approach), an interview with Dune Encyclopedia author Willis McNelley (on Frank Herbert and Dune), a roundtable discussion with Harrison, Harlan Ellison and Ray Kurzweil (among others, talking about science fiction) and interviews with religious scholars (on the meaning of "messiah"). All of that sounds really great, doesn't it? And it is. Once you get into each of these video featurettes, there's VERY real substance to be found. Unfortunately, these featurettes look... well, not good. Surprisingly, they're all 16x9, but it's still like watching ultra low budget cable access programming. This footage is rife with problems. You'll see people out of focus (while the background is crisp), white balance problems, flat or unflattering lighting (sometimes people are in shadow while the background is blown out, sometimes they're photographed with bright windows behind them), shaky hand-held camerawork - you name it. During the interview with Vittorio Storaro, you can hear other people talking in the next room through Storaro's narrative and the background music! The real shame is that what was attempted here shows tremendous vision. I just wish the budget had been there to back it up with better production quality.

There are a couple of other complaints with this DVD, but they're more minor. I would really have liked to see a series of the SciFi Channel trailers and TV spots for this miniseries included here, rather than promo trailers for other Artisan DVDs. And the packaging for this 3-disc set is a fragile plastic and cardboard affair that looks like an ultra-cheap version of a Digipack. The problem is that it's terribly flimsy and is easily dinged, scuffed and otherwise damaged. It doesn't stay closed by itself, unlike a Snapper or a keep case. And the plastic pieces don't hold the discs tightly - 2 of the 3 discs were lose in my set and one had been so badly damaged it couldn't be played until I went to work on it with CD PlayRight's Trio for DVD repair kit. Why not just a classy Digipack like Fight Club or even a 3-disc Amaray case?

Those small complaints aside, if this DVD isn't quite a home run, it DEFINITELY satisfied me as the version of the miniseries on disc I've been waiting for. You absolutely get the all-important superior picture and sound quality you're looking for here. And if the featurettes are so-so in terms of production quality, you have to give them an "A" for ambition (if say, a "D" for execution). So let's say those average out to a "C+". Add a thoughtful commentary, the documentary, the art galleries and other goodies, and you've got enough to bump the extras score up to a "B+". The full-length audio commentary alone is enough to make me happy, so the rest is just icing anyway. Bottom line, THIS version of Frank Herbert's Dune on DVD is, at long last, worth both your time and money. The new cut of the miniseries is absolutely outstanding. And given the nice price you can find this set for online, I'd say it's not to be missed.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com




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