Operation Desert Sequel

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A charismatic political leader cum messiah has unleashed a jihad. His minions have waged universal war and upset long-standing alliances. In the balance are power, religious freedom and control of the economy's most valuable resource. If it weren't for the giant worms and the hybrid men-fish carted around in big tanks, you might think you were watching the news.

The Sci Fi Channel's six-hour mini-series Children of Dune (March 16-18, 9 p.m. E.T.) is a sequel to the highly successful 2000 adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel Dune, but this version has a little extra timeliness. That said, Sci Fi would be just as happy if you simply tuned in for the giant worms and the men-fish. Children is the latest in a series of high-profile productions (including last year's 20-hour mini-if-you-can-call-it-that-series Taken) that have helped Sci Fi grow into a broad-based, Top 10 cable channel rather than an obscure haven for 30-year-old virgins who can name every actor who played Dr. Who.

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That change is the work of network president Bonnie Hammer, charged with "broadening" the fan base, which, not to put too fine a point on it, largely means: bring in women. Hammer dismisses the idea that "female sci-fi fan" is a contradiction in terms. "Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein," she notes. But the key to attracting women, and nongeek men, is emphasizing drama over technology, psychological drives over warp drives, fi over sci. "These viewers want things that have more emotional and ethical components," says Hammer. "They'll say, 'I'm not a sci-fi freak, but I loved The Sixth Sense.'"

The Dune saga made a good fit in that it's a space opera with a philosophical bent. Dune tells of the rise to power of Paul Atreides (Alec Newman), a young noble and psychic who is adopted by the Fremen, a nomadic warrior people, as their messiah. The Fremen have been exploited for centuries because their desert planet (Arrakis, or Dune) is the sole source of "spice," a substance that makes hyperspace travel possible, expands consciousness and extends life — it's oil, LSD and Botox all in one. (Spice is an excretion of Dune's giant sandworms, but people ingested weirder stuff for less benefit in the '60s.) Harnessing his powers and the Fremen's fanaticism, Paul leads a rebellion that makes him Emperor of the galaxy.

In Children, Paul — now both Emperor and god — realizes that the revolution he unleashed is out of his control, and he sets about trying to dismantle his own legacy. These themes and the environmental focus (the Fremen's new prosperity threatens the ecosystem on which their culture and spice depend) attracted co-star Susan Sarandon: "The idea of raping the environment for the profit of the few," she says, "and the idea of justifying a war in the name of some god."

Children is best enjoyed if one doesn't take it too seriously, though. (Sarandon plays a juicily over-the-top villainess, in a getup that makes her look like an evil B-52s singer.) You could write an encyclopedia detailing all the Tolkienesque mythology, invented religions and backstory behind the Dune novels — in fact, someone did — but the script does a good job of illustrating the action for the screen without getting bogged down in background. If you're a newcomer, you're better off ignoring the myriad guilds and secret societies at play and enjoying it more as a juicy religio-political soap opera, in which respect it is as satisfying as its predecessor (which Sci Fi is rerunning on March 16).

Still, Herbert was better with ideas than with dialogue, and that trait carries over here in such lines as "Nothing in this universe is as great as my love for you." And while Sarandon's wicked witch is campy in a good way, Daniela Amavia, as Paul's power-drunk sister, lacks emotional range; whether in moral turmoil or rage, she looks as if she is ticked off that someone messed up her mochaccino order. The true stars are the sumptuous-for-TV special effects and the Matrix-esque combat scenes. It's hard to get too earnest about any drama that includes the battle cry "Send men to summon worms!" but the message--"When religion and politics ride in the same cart, the whirlwind follows"--does resonate. If only the whirlwind were usually so picturesque.