Main cast: Alec Newman (Paul Atreides), Julie Cox (Irulan Corrino-Atreides), Edward Atterton (Duncan Idaho), Barbora Kodetová (Chani), Steven Berkoff (Stilgar), Daniela Amavia (Alia Atreides), PH Moriarty (Gurney Halleck), James McAvoy (Leto Atreides II), Jessica Brooks (Ghanima Atreides), Jonathan Bruun (Farad’n Corrino), Alice Krige (Lady Jessica Atreides), and Susan Sarandon (Wensicia Corrino)
Director: Greg Yaitanes
If anything, props have to be given for the good people that try to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, books two and three respectively in the author’s Dune series, for the Sci-fi Channel. The two books are condensed into a miniseries of three 95-minute episodes. It’s a tough job, especially as unlike the first book Dune, they are dealing with a book that’s more of a Byzantine morality tale on human folly, the futility of prophecy, and anything else you choose to see in Frank Herbert’s often too-consciously self important prose.
Anyway, the miniseries. It’s now twelve years after Paul Atreides has become the Emperor of the planet of Arrakis. Instead of a having happy reign, he is becoming more and more disillusioned with his role. He feels helpless at preventing his people from starting bloody jihads under his name. He hates playing the role of a godly sentient being when he feels that he is far from not. A “pre-birth”, which for the sake of this review we’ll just keep it simple and say that he has the ability to scry into the future, he feels trapped by the role he sees himself playing in the future as well as his current position in the present. Is there no happiness to be found for Paul and his concubine Chani?
The first episode of the miniseries condenses the entire 329 pages of the political intrigues of Dune Messiah into 95 minutes. Nonetheless, the first episode is easily the best of the three. Alec Newman does a magnificent task playing the tragic Paul Atreides while Daniela Amavia’s portrayal of Alia is impressive, the latter often rising above the flat way Alia is written in the novel to make her a complex character that has to assume responsibilities she is not fully capable to shoulder, not with her emotionally vulnerable psyche. The gripping final reel of Episode 1 have me in tears, thanks to the brilliant use of ironic juxtaposition of several crucial scenes that will bring about the further disintegration of the House of Atreides in Episodes 2 and 3.
I am not sure why Paul has visions of his yet-unborn son Leto shirtless though. And sometimes Alia and Paul seem too close for siblings. But that’s just because I haven’t met the unnerving Atreides twins Leto and Ghanima. These two stare so deep into each other’s eyes that I am half convinced that they will start kissing and having creepy incestuous boinking. They should have switched the actors playing Leto and Duncan Idaho because James McAvoy and Jessica Brooks prove that there is such a thing as too much chemistry. Besides, I’d rather see that Edward Atterton shirtless than James McAvoy anytime any day.
Episodes 2 and 3 are the twins’ story, or more specifically, Leto’s. The troubles brewing in Episode 1 result in Alia taking over the throne as Regent, ruling in the names of the twins until they come of age, and bloodshed and rebellion continue unchecked as Alia becomes possessed by the spectres that haunt her. I must point out to the few Dune purists that haven’t watched this miniseries that the script makes many changes to Alia, from her torments to her final fate. This movie tries to make her a more sympathetic character, which I feel is appropriate, but the inadvertent result from this is Leto, Jessica Atreides, and everyone else coming off really badly.
I mean, come on, Alia is basically the underdog in this story. She performed an important deed in Dune, but Frank Herbert believes that women that act outside the guidance of their men are evil and should be punished (see also the villain Wensicia Corrino – and don’t get me started on Susan Sarandon’s overly campy “acting”), so Alia is humiliated to shreds. Meanwhile, obedient and subservient women like Irulan and Chani are applauded, and even Ghanima acts only because she feels the need to avenge the good old holy patriarchy of the system. Jessica Atreides, by the way, wins my Cold-Hearted Bitch Mother of the Year award. Will it kill her to be more compassionate to Alia and Paul? But because these women conform to the guidances of their male authority figures or they act only to further the interests of their menfolk, they are loved while everyone is happy to condemn and kill Alia when they could be helping her instead.
But that’s just one of my problems with this miniseries. Another is the portrayal of Leto. I don’t know whose idea it is to hire that pretty boy James McAvoy to play Leto, but they make things worse for him by having him prance around mostly shirtless, as if his quest for the True Path is the path straight to a David DeCoteau video. Mr McAvoy lacks the charisma and he looks too ineffectually boyish to pull off the role of Leto, the most important character in the Dune saga. Mr Herbert doesn’t make clear what the True Path is and the movie doesn’t try either. So what I get is disjointed and incoherent scenes of Leto prancing around shirtless and barefooted in the desert, where apparently the sun and sand don’t scorch your skin, muttering about facing his fear and how he is now the power of the desert, or something. While Leto’s coming to power is well-written in the book, here Leto seems to be spending a week in some new-agey holiday spa set in some mild desert.
The biggest problem in Episodes 2 and 3 is that the script stops telling a story and just regurgitate scenes from the book Children of Dune. Anyone that haven’t read the book ten times to memorize every detail (like yours truly) will be lost as to the reasonings behind almost every action and speech of Leto. Because of this, Leto comes off as some snotty metrosexual pansy too full of himself and too glib, he and his hanger-on Ghanima treating Alia really badly when Alia needs some compassion, and to top it off, Leto asks her to help herself in a truly insulting scene that irks me. Alia should have helped herself by pushing a pillow over that brat’s face when he was a baby.
Still, despite the problems with an increasingly incoherent script and a Leto that fails to be the anchor of the story, Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune is still a very watchable miniseries. Episode 1 is especially very good. The costumes are fantastic, by the way, especially those adorable ladies’ hats. I want one. Some CGI effects are iffy though – the sabretooth tigers in Episode 3 are especially embarrassing.
So maybe, with a novice director and a thankless job at trying to make a movie out of two books that are very heavy with internal monologues and philosophical ramblings rather than straightforward action scenes, and with the modus operandi being a near-faithful adaptation instead of trying to offer an unique take on the Dune series, this one is as good as it can get. Not that I am making excuses for the faults of this miniseries, I just can’t help thinking that without the people behind this miniseries trying to rock the boat even a little by filling in the gaps in the story with its own interpretation of the Dune canon, they have hit a brick wall and can’t go any farther.
So while I enjoy watching the miniseries despite having some serious problems with it (which is exactly my reaction to the Dune saga, so no surprises there), I don’t know whether I can recommend this to anyone out there. The best I can say is: do watch Episode 1 and get the soundtrack. If you find James McAvoy’s too-skinny bare torso appealing, then just sit back and enjoy the view in Episodes 2 and 3 as well. Because that’s what Episodes 2 and 3 can be best summed up as for the casual viewer unfamiliar with the Dune saga: James McAvoy’s Priscilla, Shirtless Queen of the Desert adventures, with Daniela Amavia’s Skimpy Clothings Bonanza being the subplot for equal fanservice opportunity. Plot? Coherence? Like they always say, go read the books instead.