In 2000, the Sci-Fi Channel released a miniseries based on Dune to widespread popular and critical acclaim. It was a ratings record-setter for the network and managed to win two Primetime Emmy Awards. Over the years, Frank Herbert's Dune has maintained a far better reputation than David Lynch's 1984 film adaptation, and fans treat it as the superior version. I must admit I'd never seen it before setting out to write this review, and I went in with appropriately lofty expectations. I am genuinely baffled, therefore, after having sat through the four hours of Frank Herbert's Dune, which did not, to put it mildly, meet those expectations. I have double-checked that the miniseries I watched is the same one everybody seems to gush over, but for the life of me, I cannot understand why it is so beloved.
But before I talk about why I find this miniseries borderline unwatchable, let's discuss the most positive thing about it, namely the writing done by director John Harrison. With the extra time it has to tell Herbert's story, the series manages to stick to the novel very closely, giving time and appropriate weight to every subplot while managing to get across some of Herbert's deep nuance. It also doesn't hold the audience's hand too much, though it is easy enough to follow for those who haven't read the novel. The dialogue is also superb, a perfect mix of Herbert's best lines with a more naturally flowing language that rarely ever feels stilted or overly clever (aside from the occasional rhyming bits from the Baron, which stand out in a bad way).
There are a few minor plot changes, some of which work and some of which don't. Rabban's death, for example, is more satisfying here than it is in either the book or the Lynch film, and the general order of events is tweaked to make a bit more sense. There are a lot of extra scenes with Princess Irulan, who is made a more prominent character as a result, and though they seem largely in-line with Herbert's story and work as a set up for future events, they never feel necessary or even terribly interesting. On the whole, though, this is an excellent script that does almost everything right, walking several tricky tightropes simultaneously without slipping.
The Irulan scene additions aren't terrible, but they are boring
The music by Graeme Revell is also pretty good, and that's about it for the positives. Everything else about this miniseries is terrible, and I take no joy in saying that. I tried desperately to like it, to see what it is that fans love so much. I wanted to enjoy it, wanted to be able to agree with the general consensus that it is, in objective fact, better than David Lynch's film (which I must stress again I consider to be a very flawed film, even though I enjoy it). Hell, I even purchased a copy of Frank Herbert's Dune in order to do this review rather than finding it for free. Seriously, I'm stunned that it's as bad as it is, and I tend to be a pretty forgiving reviewer, as my regular readers should know by now.
The lowest hanging fruit are the effects, but I'm not going to spend too much time on them. Frank Herbert's Dune was made in 2000 on the Sci-Fi Channel, a couple of years before Battlestar Galactica, and the effects were given a very low budget. As a result, they are absolutely awful, especially the low-rent CGI that could be done fairly quickly nowadays by an amateur using freeware. The compositing is also miserable, giving every effects-heavy shot the impression of a mid-nineties FMV game. There are some decent practical effects during action scenes where people are fighting and things are exploding, but the best of these get recycled a few times to remind you that they didn't have enough money for multiple takes and angles.
This gives me Sewer Shark flashbacks
That honestly doesn't bother me as much, though, as the sets and the acting, which are the miniseries' fatal flaws. Most of the sets look incredibly cheap and shoddily constructed out of spray-painted styrofoam and fiberglass. The biggest offender is the open desert, where it is impossible to not see how the actors are standing in a small room with the desert painted on the wall and a bucket of sand spilled on the ground. They try several lighting tricks and focus pulls to hide it, but these pathetic attempts do the exact opposite by highlighting just how embarrassing the sets really are. (I'll give a modicum of credit to the sietch sets, which are actually pretty good, especially the garden areas.)
And then there's the acting. Ho-boy, is it bad. Even from the handful of proven actors you know can do better like William Hurt and Giancarlo Giannini, lines feel unrehearsed and frequently flubbed, intonations are all wrong, and it seems like sometimes the actors don't even know what's supposed to be happening. Hurt, who is a known fan of the novel, seems bored and disengaged as Duke Leto, and even though Ian McNeice is clearly having a good time hamming it up as the Baron Harkonnen, his character never feels like a real person, much less an imposing villain. Alec Newman as Paul is probably giving the best performance of the whole miniseries, but even he has a few unfortunate moments (not to mention the fact that he is, like MacLachlan before him, much too old).
It's hard to say which is more distracting: the bad actors or the obvious wall right behind them
Ultimately, the cheap sets and poor acting (along with cloyingly garish costume design) come across like a filmed theater performance, one in which the actors haven't fully memorized their lines and the set builders had to stay up for the last twenty-four hours in order to finish doing the bare minimum for opening night. Nothing about it feels real or tangible--aside from the matte wall a few feet away from the actors that is supposed to be the distant horizon--and there isn't a single second at which I, as the audience, maintain any kind of suture with the characters on the screen. At best, it feels unfinished, like watching an extended test reel or no-budget proof of concept pitch.
I can't help but wonder how great it could be if someone took this exact same script and filmed it today, for HBO, Netflix, or even Hulu. Maybe I've been spoiled by the superior production standards of modern television programming, but even when I think back to the kind of television I was watching back in 2000, I know it was better than this. To fans, I must ask: have you actually watched this miniseries since it aired? If so, how did you sit through it and not cringe every few minutes? My opinion, I suspect, is going to be unpopular, but I can't lie to you. I'd rather watch Sharknado than this.
-e. magill 12/12/2019
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: