Let’s get it out of the way first: I have never read Frank Herbert’s “Dune” books. Not a single one. This was the case when I went into “Dune”, the original mini-series produced by the Sci-Fi Channel a few years back, and it’s the case now. The mini-series collects two of Herbert’s books, “Dune Messiah” and “Children of Dune” into a 6-hour, 3-day miniseries. Depending on what knowledge (or lack thereof) you bring with you into the mini-series, “Children of Dune” will either be your dream come true or a mini-series that is at least one whole day too long.
Going by assumption only, I concluded that the mini-series’ part one is dedicated to “Dune Messiah”, with Paul Atreides (aka Muad’dib) having risen to the status of Godhood. He’s the center of a whole new religion, and the people of Dune are selling crude pictures of him on the streets the way people go around wearing Jesus crosses. The opening informs us that it’s been over a decade since Paul defeated the Corrino Emperor (in the events of “Dune”) and Paul’s empire is now mired in imperialism. With Paul’s army slaughtering their way to total domination of the spice trade, enemies are springing up by the dozens, and it seems everyone and their mother has a plan to kill Paul.
The second and third part of the mini-series is devoted to the “Children of Dune” book, with Paul’s twin children, Leto and Ghanima growing up in the desert while their aunt, Paul’s sister Alia, take over as regent of the empire. But Alia, who was born with mysterious powers (and a lot of other problems), is becoming increasingly erratic. Before all is said and done, everyone and their mother is once again involved in a plot to kill Alia, kill Leto, kill both Leto and Ghanima, or kill a blind street prophet who may or may not be Muad’dib.
Consider this: If you’re a big fan of Herbert’s books and have been daydreaming about his prose coming to life for years upon years, then “Children of Dune” will be everything you wanted, because it’s probably everything you expected. But if you are like me and have never read the books or don’t particularly care to see large sections of prose “finally realized as a movie”, then you may find yourself a tad impatient with the pace of “Children of Dune”, not to mention its nearly complete lack of action in acts two and three.
As a standalone mini-series without all the excess baggage of Herbert’s history, “Children of Dune” starts off with a blast, but all of that de-evolves into a series of backroom dealings, a lot of people talking about conspiracies, and even more people talking about those people’s conspiracies and making conspiracies of their own, which of course means the other person will be considering new conspiracies, forcing the other guy to… Well, you get the idea. The best analogy to the incessant politicking and conspiracy plotting of “Children of Dune” is Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator”, but take out all the gladiatorial matches and battle scenes, and just leave all those scenes of Roman senators walking up and down corridors and whispering in corners. There is nothing but that in part two.
The truth is, I wouldn’t be so impatient with the excruciating lack of action in the second and third part had the first part not been so spectacular. Bringing back Alec Newman as Muad’dib, the mini-series’ first part is an intense and emotional tour de force from beginning to end. This could be because we’ve already seen what these people have gone through once, and seeing them in such bad situations breaks our heart. There is Paul’s undying love affair with his warrior concubine Chani (Barbora Kodetova) and his neverending private battles with his own knowledge of the future, and his inability to escape his fate. The conspiracy against Paul ends with the nuking of a city block, leaving Paul blinded but somehow still able to see. I wanted this heartbreaking chapter to continue, but it ended much too soon.
The first part is everything the second and third parts aren’t. If there is a saving grace, it’s that the third part eventually gives off signs that it may become worthy of its exhilarating opening act. As Leto (James McAvoy) heads off on his own to discover his destiny and set right what his father did wrong, the mini-series begins to take on the tone of the first “Dune”, with Leto now literally walking in his father’s footsteps. And like the original mini-series, “Children of Dune” ends in a not-so-spectacular knife battle in the emperor’s main court. Couldn’t they have figured out a better way to end the movie? Don’t they remember that this is exactly how the original ended, and it wasn’t all that great when we saw it the first time?
There are some unfortunate casting choices in “Children of Dune.” Daniela Amavia, as the unstable Alia, was a favorite of mine until the second and third part, when it appeared as if another actress had completely taken her place. Effective and sexy in the first part, Amavia became silly and laughable as she attempted to be “evil” for the rest of the series. The casting of the mini-series’ only high-profile actress is Susan Sarandon, who seems to have completely discarded all acting ability in the name of camp. Besides sporting a terrible haircut, Sarandon seems so disinterested in the part of the scheming Wensicia that her neverending plotting made me feel sorry for her. Not the character, but for the actress.
The rest of the cast is appropriately somber and intense. Alec Newman is a revelation in the role of a man who has been given godhood, but fears it. Barbora Kodetova brings real strength and vulnerability to her role of Chani. Julie Cox returns in the role of Princess Irulan, Paul’s token wife, who learns to care for Paul and Chani’s children as her own. Edward Atterton is also terrific as the improbably named Duncan Idaho, a warrior who is “cloned” by conspirators, but proves to be an invaluable ally to Alice Krige, who takes over the role of Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica.
For those wondering, the special effects in “Children of Dune” is slightly better than the first mini-series, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re George Lucas quality. Some of the sets from the original were obviously redecorated into new locations, but that’s a matter of budget constraints. Besides the nuking of a city block, there’s not a single scene of massive battles or the clashing of armies to be found. I don’t know if these scenes exist in the book, but the mini-series has none of them.
And also, for a series of books revolving around a mythical “spice” that makes space travel possible, there are surprisingly few scenes of ships partaking in those space travels.
Greg Yaitanes (director) / Frank Herbert (books), John Harrison (teleplay)
CAST: Alec Newman …. Paul Atreides
Julie Cox …. Princess Irulan
Barbora Kodetova …. Chani
Daniela Amavia …. Princess Alia
James McAvoy …. Leto II
Jessica Brooks …. Ghanima
Alice Krige …. Lady Jessica
Susan Sarandon …. Wensicia