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TV Review: 'Children of Dune' better than its parent

Sunday, March 16, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Sci Fi Channel's original "Dune" miniseries felt like it was lost in the desert, making the sequel an improvement in just about every way.

"Frank Herbert's Children of Dune" tells a clearer story with better acting, stronger writing and a propulsive, majestic score by Brian Tyler that befits a grand space opera.

"Frank Herbert's Children of Dune"

When: 9 tonight, tomorrow and Tuesday on Sci Fi

Starring: Susan Sarandon, Alec Newman, Alice Krige

"Children of Dune" is actually based on two "Dune" books. "Dune Messiah" gets polished off tonight while "Children of Dune" is brought to life in parts two and three.

"Children of Dune" does a better job of introducing characters or at least giving viewers enough context clues to get the gist of who they are. That said, for a while during tonight's installment I thought Paul "Maud'Dib" Atriedes (Alec Newman) might be sleeping with his sister, Alia (Daniela Amavia), but it turned out his lover, Chani (Barbara Kodetova), just looks like her.

Thankfully, Paul's wife-in-name-only, Irulan (Julie Cox), has a more unique style as does her sister, Princess Wensicia (Susan Sarandon), who brings to mind Endora from "Bewitched."

"Children of Dune" picks up 12 years after Paul ascended to god-like status, ruling the desert planet of Arrakis. Becoming a people's messiah has its perks, but it's also destructive, as Paul discovers tonight.

The action and intrigue ratchets up tomorrow as Paul's twins -- Leto II (James McAvoy) and Ghanima (Jessica Brooks) -- take center stage as teenagers rather than children, one of several changes Pittsburgh native John Harrison made in scripting this adaptation. (Sarandon's Wensicia also becomes more central to the action than she was in the books.)

"Dune" fans may object, but then again, "Dune" fans are the only ones likely to appreciate and understand all the intricacies of relationships and plot in this miniseries. I'm still unsure why Leto II begins to molt in night three or what meaning it has that he begins to grow skin similar to the giant sandworms that live on Arrakis.

Shot in digital by director Greg Yaitanes, "Children of Dune" has a sleeker look than the first miniseries. That visual style brings to mind "Star Wars: Episode 2 -- Attack of the Clones" in that you know you're watching special effects, but you can't see any evidence of it (no wires, no jagged edges from blue screen work).

Many of the cast members in "Children of Dune" appeared in the first miniseries, but what a difference a couple of years make. Newman, once a whiner reminiscent of Luke Skywalker in the original "Star Wars," has grown into a commanding presence.

Both Sarandon and Alice Krige, who takes over the role of Lady Jessica, are new to the saga. Sarandon will get all the press attention, but Krige deserves it. Sarandon doesn't take her role seriously, hamming it up at will. Krige, best known to genre fans as the Borg Queen in "Star Trek: First Contact," plays her part with fewer cartoonish qualities.

McAvoy, a dead ringer for Gregory Smith in "Everwood," is another valuable newcomer. He demands attention on screen as easily as his character commands a sandworm.

In January at a Hollywood press conference for the miniseries, cast members compared the latest "Dune" saga to non-sci-fi forerunners, including "The Godfather" and "Dynasty."

Sarandon said her role in the miniseries involved "a lot of hair acting," given the progression of strange styles sported by Wensicia.

"I must say that the wardrobe and hats and things are a little OTT -- Over The Top," she said. But playing a villain was a treat.

"It was kind of like being in 'Snow White.' I felt like the evil witch," Sarandon said. "It's always more fun to play the villain. You don't have the burden of sincerity."

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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