Back when I was seventeen, I binge-read Frank Herbert’s “Dune” within the space of a weekend. Over the next year or two, I read the five sequels and watched the first half-hour of the 1984 film adaptation (but stopped watching because I thought it was more of a parody than an adaptation). But, the TV mini series adaptation of the novel was one of those things that I’d been meaning to see for years, but never got round to for one reason or another.
Still, a few days before I wrote this review, I was given a DVD boxset of it (and it’s sequel, “Children Of Dune”) as an early Christmas present – and I binge-watched it over the space of about two or three days (what is it with “Dune” and this length of time?). So, it seemed like the perfect thing to review today.
Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
“Dune” is a TV mini series from 2000, consisting of three 90-100 minute episodes. This mini series can best be summed up as “Game Of Thrones in space“. And, yes, this is as awesome as it sounds 🙂
The story of “Dune” revolves around three noble houses (Atreides, Harkonnen and Corrino) in the distant future. Following a decree from the emperor of the galaxy, control of the resource-rich desert planet Arrakis has passed from the brutal rule of House Harkonnen to the more benevolent rule of House Atreides. As such, Duke Leto Atreides’ son, Paul Atreides and his mother Jessica are travelling from their water-rich homeworld of Caladan to Arrakis in order to join the Duke.
Well, it wouldn’t be a very interesting film if they’d stayed on Caladan (still, at least we’d get to see what Caladan actually looked like…)
On the journey, Paul has strange dreams before he faces a dangerous test from the leader of the mysterious Bene-Gesserit faction to determine if he is indeed worthy of the visions that the Bene-Gesserit mystics have had about him. After passing the test, the leader has a somewhat cryptic discussion with Jessica about how she had been ordained to have a daughter instead.
When Paul and Jessica arrive on Arrakis, House Atreides is ushering in their new regime. They are winning the favour of the people and everything seems to be going well. But, of course, the cruel baron of House Harkonnen has other ideas….
Again, it’d be a pretty dull film if he just accepted the emperor’s judgment and didn’t try to overthrow the new regime…
And this is just the earlier parts of the first episode. As you may have gathered, this is a somewhat complex story. Whilst it’s probably possible to enjoy the mini series if you haven’t read the book that it is based on, I would strongly recommend that you read the first “Dune” novel before you watch it. Even if, like me, you’ve read it ages ago and can only vaguely remember the story, you’ll get a lot more out of this mini series if you read the book first.
However, the series does to try to introduce a lot of things to the audience within the first episode. This is probably why, after watching the first episode, I initially thought that the series was a bit clunky, badly-written and simplistic. In the first episode, there’s a lot of exposition and not that much in the way of moral ambiguity, character complexity etc… Although this episode is still compelling and worth watching, the rest of the mini series is thankfully a bit more complex.
In other words, the first episode is really good, but the other two are slightly better.
Visually, this mini series is absolutely sumptuous. Not only are there lots of futuristic set designs that look a little bit like something from “Blade Runner” or something like that, but this mini series is atmospheric. Thanks to the compelling story, the detailed fictional world of the series and some absolutely beautiful lighting, it’s very easy to overlook the shortcomings of the series’ special effects (eg: Painted backdrops, clunky CGI etc..).
One cool visual theme is how the series uses red, green and blue lighting to signify the different houses.
Seriously, I LOVE the lighting in the dream scenes in this film 🙂
Not to mention that the set design, in the first episode especially, is exquisite too 🙂
Thematically, this mini series is a lot more complex than it might initially appear to be. The themes here include things like the morality of empires, the nature of power, determinism and free will, dependence on fossil fuels, religion, terrorism etc…
Yes, this is intelligent sci-fi where the characters and dialogue are more important than the action/adventure-based scenes.
This mini series is also really interesting in terms of how it is simultaneously a liberal and a conservative series. For example, the series is set in a very traditionalist feudal society run by emperors, barons and dukes. Yet, everything is run behind the scenes by the wise women of the Bene-Gesserit. Plus, many of the series’ most well-developed and/or complex characters (eg: Jessica, Irulan and Chani) are powerful women.
Likewise, although the mini series also takes a refreshingly equal attitude towards male and female beauty, nudity etc…, the only LGBT character in the entire show (Baron Harkonnen) is presented as a sleazy and decadent Nero-like villain. Likewise, the show criticises brutal colonialism, yet praises more benevolent colonialism.
So, yes, the mini series is a really weird mixture of liberal and conservative, which is probably a reflection of the fact that it’s based on a book from the 1960s and was first broadcast in 2000. This probably also explains why the show takes a disturbing (to modern post-9/11 audiences) attitude towards the subject of terrorism – since the “rebel” characters we’re supposed to be cheering for regularly use terrorist tactics later in the mini series.
Yes, if the series had been released even a year later, these characters would be anti-heroes/villains rather than just heroes.
The characters in this mini series are all reasonably good. Apart from Baron Harkonnen, many of the characters are intelligent, mature people who have well-defined motivations and personalities. Likewise, although the mini series is about kings and empires, it also realistically shows that a ruler is nothing without a large number of people to support them. So, there’s a really good supporting cast of characters here too.
Plus, if you’re a “Game Of Thrones” fan, Jessica is a brilliant example of a “good” Cersei Lannister-style character.
In terms of pacing and plotting, this mini series has a well-defined three-act structure that follows Paul’s journey from a young prince to a respected ruler. The first episode is a futuristic political drama, that is filled with backstory etc.. The second episode is more of a thriller/horror/fantasy-style episode. The third episode is a political/military drama. It’s an epic tale in three parts.
Although my memories of the novel it is based on are somewhat vague, the mini series seemed reasonably faithful to what I remembered of the book. Of course, the story has probably been simplified slightly. But, if you’ve read “Dune”, then you’ll feel at home here.
Woo hoo! Dune, Arrakis, desert planet… actually looks like how you would imagine 🙂
And, yes, despite the “12 certificate” this mini series is actually more mature than “Game Of Thrones”. It knows what to leave to the imagination and what to show – this lends the story more of a “serious” and mythical quality than the world of “Game Of Thrones” has. It is also able to conjure up a ruthless world of feudal politics, but without the overwhelmingly depressing feeling of nihilism, tragedy and brutality that can sometimes appear in “Game Of Thrones”.
All in all, this mini series is the definitive adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. Yes, it gets off to a bit of a clunky start and it’ll make much more sense if you’ve read the books, but this mini series is a brilliant example of intelligent, mature old-school science fiction. If you haven’t read the book and you like things like “Game Of Thrones”, “Star Wars” etc… then you might enjoy this mini series too.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four.