Sci Fi Channel’s long-awaited sequel to 2000’s “Dune” turns everything up a notch: the special effects, the star power and the melodrama. It’s everything a miniseries should be — unless you’re a diehard Frank Herbert fan.
“Children of Dune,” written by John Harrison and based on the second and third novels of Herbert’s Dune Chronicles, will provide plenty of Internet chatroom fodder for those who prefer a letter-perfect adaptation. But give exec producer Richard P. Rubinstein credit for recognizing the shortcomings of David Lynch’s 1984 movie and the confounding mythology of the books: He has made “Children of Dune” decidedly more accessible — even if that means more soaplike.
Several actors from the first venture reprise their roles here, but it’s Susan Sarandon and Alice Krige who steal the thunder as opposing matriarchs of the great royal houses. Although the two never catfight, their ongoing struggle to rule the Dune dynasty gives this mini a real kick. That, and all those steamy sex scenes.
A sequel in theory, “Children of Dune” works as a standalone, picking up the story at a convenient place for newcomers. It’s been 12 years since the bloody jihad of Paul Atreides (Alec Newman) to become emperor of Arrakis, the Dune planet. Spice, still a precious commodity that prolongs life and facilitates interstellar space travel, is monopolized by Arrakis — much to the dismay of Princess Wensicia (Sarandon), whose father was killed in Paul’s bloody revolt.
Paul’s ascension to power and his precognitive skills have earned him the title of Muad’Dib, the messiah of the desert people, a legendary hero whose coming was foretold for thousands of years. But instead of bringing peace to the planet, his followers wage a holy war across the universe in his name.
With his life constantly at risk and stuck in a loveless marriage to Princess Irulan (Julie Cox), Paul can no longer live with the burden of his legacy.
Paul’s sister, Alia (Daniela Amavia), is forced to carry on in her brother’s name and is fiercely protective of Muad’Dib’s legacy, but, after a spice overdose, becomes haunted by the ghosts of her family’s enemies. Paul’s children, twins Leto (James McAvoy) and Ghanima (Jessica Brooks), are groomed for future rule with the help of Lady Jessica (Krige), their grandmother. But Alia’s misguided leadership has thrown Arrakis into anarchy and to save the planet, Leto and Ghanima must first destroy their father’s legacy.
It doesn’t take a big leap to draw analogies to current world monopolies and religious wars. Still, it’s eerie how accurately Herbert depicted a jihad before it was commonplace on network news. Harrison doesn’t really play on these modern similarities, but rather reinforces Herbert’s notions that “when religion and politics ride in the same cart, the whirlwind follows.”
To that end, director Greg Yaitanes has a tall order to fill, making a cohesive story out of such a complex tale. Among the concepts Yaitanes has to contend with, besides religious zealots, are ghosts, conspirators, supernatural visions, people who can move faster than time and, of course, giant sand worms. Shooting the mini in high-definition is a real boon to the look and feel.
Yaitanes and lenser Arthur Reinhart show incredible confidence in Ernest Farino’s special effects, lingering on landscapes real and imagined. Farino, not one to rest on his Emmy win from the first installment, went bigger and better, creating the fictional city of Arakeen with the same kind of detail as “Gladiator” used to re-create ancient Rome.
Theodor and Jan Pistek’s costumes are a unique blend of styles that evoke several different eras for a futuristic but not too far-out look. In fact, Sarandon’s biggest workout comes not from any action sequence — she terrorizes from afar — but rather from an elaborate array of headpieces.
Performances run the gamut, with Sarandon and Krige at the high end, clearly relishing their roles. Sarandon makes a formidable enemy, while Krige, traditionally cast as the villain, proves she can work both sides of the moral fence. Amavia and Cox as the tortured Alia and the put-upon Irulan offer layered performances, while Newman, as the sour Paul, sticks to just one note.
The mini picks up a great deal of charisma when McAvoy and Brooks come aboard as the next generation of the house of Atreides. Otherwise, secondary perfs are merely perfunctory.