Spice is distinctly missing from the Sci Fi Channel’s six-hour miniseries adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” The classic 1965 novel, which has sold 12 million copies, has stood well the sands of time — the basic material’s as fresh as it was in 1984, when David Lynch made his feature adaptation. But the mini’s bland, on-the-cheap approach to this necessarily epic story and the script’s superficiality will disappoint “Dune” purists, fans of the Lynch film and science-fiction aficionados hoping for more from the Sci Fi Channel’s first original miniseries.
To be sure, Sci Fi and writer-director John Harrison set themselves a nearly impossible task given the resources apparently available to them. Herbert’s novel is an oh-so-complex weave of spirituality and mythology, political intrigue, ecology and grand-scale adventure set against the backdrop of the mysterious desert planet Arrakis.
On this planet is mined the most important substance in the world: the spice Melange, a narcotic that enables all interstellar space travel through the mental folding of space — an activity monopolized by the concomitantly powerful Spacing Guild. The Emperor (Giancarlo Giannini) has taken mining rights away from the evil Baron Harkonnen (Ian McNeice) and granted them to Duke Leto Atreides (William Hurt). The latter’s son, Paul (Alec Newman), trained in the ways of his mother, the Bene Gesserit witch Jessica (Saskia Reeves), senses a momentous future awaiting him on Arrakis, aka Dune. An enormous betrayal nearly destroys House Atreides, and Paul and Jessica must flee into the desert — then fulfill the prophecies of the fierce natives of Arrakis, the Fremen. Spiritual awakenings, some rides on the planet’s legendary giant worms and guerrilla warfare ensue.
Lynch’s film was judged a failure by many, with auds laughing at some of the dialogue and exasperated by a hard-to-follow plot. But the director was unafraid to put his own stamp on the flawed pic, which warms the memory as an exotic, richly realized work in its own right compared to the effort here. What seemed enigmatic or pompous in the film — primarily Lynch’s attempt to replicate the distinctive internal dialogue of the novel and to capture Paul’s spiritual visions — is almost completely missing in the miniseries, which feels substantially hollowed out as a consequence.
Fans of the novel who were outraged by the liberties Lynch took will be no more gratified here. While there is room in the miniseries’ expansive running time for more detail from Herbert’s book, Harrison has tampered with the plot in inexplicable ways — most notably promoting Princess Irulan from mere observer to potential romantic interest for Paul early on and a wily diplomat promoting a benign agenda.
Alas, the cast does not help much either. The handsome but eminently generic Newman can summon only a couple of expressions in his role as the spiritual young noble and ultimately charismatic leader Paul; Reeves is merely earnest and competent as Jessica; and Hurt and Giannini, fine actors who deserve far better, phone in their perfs from another planet. Only McNeice, as the evil Baron Harkonnen, really generates some energy here. What’s more, a supporting cast of largely Czech actors (including Kodetova as Paul’s Fremen love) often struggle with the English dialogue as they deliver wooden performances.
While visual effects were only 85% finalized on the review tape provided, this Prague-shot desert epic clearly suffers from sandbox-with-a-backdrop scenes that are supposed to take place deep among the dunes, very underpopulated and underenergized battle scenes and bargain basement f/x.
Sci Fi has simply bitten off more than it can chew, taking on a project of this scope. Even the efforts of a crack production team come to naught. Academy Award winner Theodor Pistek (“Amadeus”) did the interesting but cheaply rendered costumes; production designer Miljen Klijakovic comes up with a somewhat Egyptian-influenced palace that conjures the interior of a Vegas theme hotel; and the work of triple Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now,” “The Last Emperor”) is undistinguished. All are helpless without the coin to make this miniseries what it should be.