Saturday, April 19, 2014

Children of Dune


It has definitely been a whirlwind week here at Chateau Maine. Not only have I been busy promoting my new line of Lesterene brand nutritional supplements, I've also been busy filming a new public service announcement for the American Osteoporosis League (AOL), a lovely little tap routine where I do my famous stair dance with fedora and cane up and down a set designed to look like a spinal column. To show the dangers of osteoporosis, at certain key intervals, the vertebral platforms collapse in compression fracture until a bevy of chorus boys, dressed as calcium ions and vitamin D, come in to shore them back up.

Joseph, my manager, called this morning. He thinks he's found the perfect vehicle for my return to episodic television. He has a script for a new pilot, a musical sequel to The Music Man in which Harold Hill and Marian, the librarian, move from Iowa back to Gary, Indiana in order to raise their children. It's entitled Hoosier Daddy and would guarantee me a chance to strut my stuff as a World War I era domestic goddess, not to mention at least one production number per episode. I think it has distinct potential, although I am a bit unsure as to why Harold has left music sales for fancy leather goods. Negotiations are beginning with Lorimar television.

Mothering, children, and the vast wasteland of Gary, Indiana being on my mind, I realized that I had not yet seen Children of Dune, the Sci-Fi channel's 2003 sequel to its 2000 mini-series production of Dune. Being a Frank Herbert fan from way back (and having played Irulan in an abortive workshop musicalization some years ago), I found an uninterrupted stretch of time and settled in for a five hour return visit to the planet Arrakis and House Atreides where battles were again erupting over spice, the most valuable substance in the universe.

Children of Dune covers the material in Herbert's second and third novels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. The original novel, Dune is a science fiction classic and, when it became a best seller, Herbert found it remunerative to continue the story. He eventually published a total of six novels and the series has been continued by his son. Herbert was a biologist by training, and his interest in the original novel was creating an alien ecology and society that would depend on such an ecology. This made the book deep and rich in its descriptions of nature and the impact of a harsh environment on the human characters; his plotting was secondary. In the sequels, plot became more of the essence but, his palace intrigues are far removed from the desert world and the novels suffered for it, having little to recommend them other than satisfying 'what happened next' curiosity.

The first of the three episodes of Children of Dune covers the plot of Dune Messiah, picking up where Dune left off. Paul Atreides (Alec Newman reprising his role), has deposed the evil emperor Shaddam, solidified his claim to the throne by marrying the emperor's daughter, Irulan (Julie Cox), and has unleashed his army of Fremen against the galaxy. A religious cult has grown up around him and his younger sister, Alia (Daniela Amavia) and in their names, world after world falls to the control of Paul and the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. Paul may be married to Irulan, but he still loves his Fremen mistress, Chani (Barbora Kordetova) who is having difficulty conceiving. Meanwhile, Irulan's older sister, Wensicia (Susan Sarandon) is plotting her revenge on Paul and his family for their having stolen the throne from house Corrino. Paul is blinded in an attack on Arrakeen, the capital, but, as his brain has been so changed by spice, he is still able to 'see' using other senses, and foils his enemies. He ultimately begets twins, a son and daughter on Chani and, feeling that he has fulfilled his mission and that his revolution will continue to spin out of control as long as he remains a symbol,  he heads out into the desert to die, after securing the secession and Alia as regent. Alia, meanwhile, falls in love with a reconstituted Duncan Idaho (Edward Atterton), the faithful family retainer killed in the previous film who is brought back as a mentat-zombie as part of the plot against the Atreides. He regains his former memories at a convenient moment and he and Alia appear to be headed for happy ever after.

Parts 2 and 3 cover the novel, Children of Dune. It's now seventeen years later and Paul and Chani's children, Leto (James McAvoy) and Ghanima (Jessica Brooks), are about to attain their majority. Irulan, together with the Fremen Stilgar (Steven Berkoff) has dedicated her life to raising them in safety from the various palace intrigues that swirl around them. Alia, as regent, rules in their name, but she is descending into madness as she has been possessed by the spirit of her evil grandfather, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Ian McNeice) who, together with Wensicia and her son, Farad'n (Jonathan Bruun), are out to destroy the Atreides clan through any means at hand. Leto and Ghanima have a number of narrow escapes and Leto, by understanding and combining himself with the ecology and essence of Dune, fulfills the promise of his father (who turns out not to be as dead as earlier believed).

The script, by John Harrison, does the best it can with the source material and the series moves. Anytime things start to get too bogged down, there's another plot or a gratuitous murder or they bring in the sandworms. People unsteeped in Dune lore may find much of it confusing and don't even try to make heads or tails of this without having seen either the previous series or the earlier David Lynch film based on the first novel. I had absolutely no idea what was going on a few times, but we'd always cut back to someone recognizable after a minute or two. The socio-religious trappings of the saga are minimized, which makes the series less rich than it might otherwise be, but it does keep things from getting too dull.

The production has a bit of a cheap look to it. It was done on a shoestring budget on sound stages in Eastern Europe in order to be affordable. Fabrics are thin in the costumes, interiors look a lot like sets, exteriors look a lot like models but there's still some good visual imagination at work, especially from production designer Ondrej Nakvasil. They make the most of what they have and there's less reliance on obvious process shots than in the first series. There's also an over reliance on fantastical, and highly impractical millinery and hairstyles. Some of the get ups Susan Sarandon wears are silly to the extreme, but she's obviously getting a kick out of them. I'll have to remember to send her a complimentary GlamourPuss gown as she could make a flour sack look good if she tried.

In the central role of Paul, Alec Newman remains adequate, but uninspired. He really doesn't have the charisma or gravitas to project messiah figure. Petulance is about as close as he comes. The truly tragic casting, however, comes from the use of Greek Actress Daniela Amavia in the complex role of Alia. Not only is her accent at times unintelligible, but she also seems to have no conception as to what or who her character is, but traipses around the set like a third grader in the county historical pageant. The majority of the cast remain unknown European actors, who presumably work for minimum wage plus the exposure. The mélange of accents is a bit off putting, but works for a political drama set in a capital city where many races would be comingling. Susan Sarandon, the only name in the cast, relishes the part of the villainess and is missing only the Snidely Whiplash cape. Julie Cox, as Irulan, also has some good moments. The youngsters in the cast are relatively forgettable, although James McAvoy spends much of the third installment shirtless, and has a lovely torso.

The DVD is two discs, with Parts I and II on the first and Part III on the second. There is a documentary on making the visual effects that's fairly standard stuff. The picture transfer and sound mix are fine.

I would recommend those that saw and enjoyed the first series pick this one up for a pleasant wet weekend, but I wouldn't make this your introduction to the world of Dune.

Royal palace. Thopter flying. Forced contraceptives. Accelerated pregnancy. Multiple betrayals. Gratuitous knife dodging. Sand trout under the skin. Blind prophet from the desert. Explosions. Invasions. Two deaths for one character. Gratuitous Alice Krige.

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