A few words on the world built in Dune
Updated: Nov 11, 2021
Denis Villeneuve's Dune is a movie that takes its time. A fair amount of those that have seen it did not like that, and this is perfectly fine, of course. Every person has their own taste and likes what they like, however, as some might be aware, this is the first of two movies planned, meaning that if this first installment performs well at the box office, the second part will fill in the gaps. In short, this is a calculated risk that might or might not pay off. Before sharing my thoughts further, I would like to point out that I haven't read any of the Frank Herbert novels, and I'll be sharing the impressions I got from watching the movie alone. With that being said, let's continue.
Powerful people try to outdo each other by any means necessary. The plot that follows is not overly complicated, our protagonist Paul Atreides travels with his mother, an agent in a shadow organization with mystical goals, and his father, who now governs Arrakis, to their new home. In the eyes of some viewers, this portion of the movie is perhaps the biggest offender in terms of 'nothing happening.' I'd argue that these 30 to 40 minutes are crucial for people like myself who haven't read any of the novels and only barely know about Dune and what the tale inside the pages is.
First, we get a very important look into our protagonist's daily life. What is mundane for him is combat training with real knives and daggers, and on the more mystical side of things, his mother teaching him to use the Voice. This ability I found extremely interesting in terms of how it seemed to function in the movie universe. Essentially, through the power of the Voice, a trained user can manipulate another living being into following orders. In other words, mind control but without the mystical aspect. In the world of Dune, both in the movie and the book, the Voice is a skill. It isn't something you can just be the bestest at from the get-go. The user has to find the right pitch when issuing commands, so what works on some might not work on others. The concept behind this stood out the most for me. The Voice is a powerful weapon to have, but it is tempered by skill, so it's not a cure-all for characters stuck in a bad situation. In addition, it creates a good power scale between Paul and his mother, who is an extremely experienced user. At the mid-point of the movie, Paul in his mother are in a tight spot, and while our protagonist struggles to find the right balance, his mother elegantly, almost effortlessly, commands through the skill. Showing us the simple interaction between her and Paul, in the beginning, sets all of this up. There is an additional scene where the Voice is used, but the breakfast scene between Paul and his mother accomplishes all I've listed above, while the other scene is there for pragmatic, plot reasons. None of these scenes are wasted and have a specific spot in the opening of the movie. They give us vital information that helps us realize the stakes and the players involved in this grand, galactic play.
You're probably noticing the trend of me being impressed by the movie's world-building. And you're absolutely correct. Next on the list of things that caught my eye is the central role shields take in the story. Plot-wise they serve their purpose, providing protection against fast-moving things, like sword or knife swings. Beyond this, they do a lot of heavy lifting below the surface of the story. Visually, they explain the lack of energy and ballistic-based weapons. For example, most soldiers carry some fashion of spears, swords, or other sharpened implements. The viewer, without being explicitly told, can infer that the shields either protect against bullets or laser blasts so well that these types of weapons have been rendered useless, or the rulers of the universe have a sort of supreme gun control. The result is plain to see, a futuristic society that still uses metal edges to end lives. Another benefit of the shields is that the indigenous people of Arrakis, the Fremen, do not use them. They have lived among the spice-filled desert their entire life, and their customs and way of life has adapted accordingly. Even without the use of advanced, defensive technology, they are able to stand on equal footing with the soldiers of house Harkonen, their oppressor and ruler up until now. This divergence is shown by the lack of shields around the Fremen's frames. The desert has been their home all this time, and except the life-prolonging spice, there is precious little to find in the way of technology. Pointing this out, it seems fairly obvious. A culture centered around surviving in the desert by any means possible isn't all that advanced, duh. And I think the movie's visual language is trying to convey precisely that. It delivers this information to us in a visual way, using the medium's strength. It shows us the otherness of the Fremen just by the mere absence of a background piece of technology.
Transferring a long-loved sci-classic from page to screen is no easy task. Due to run-time constraints, not everything can be shown, introduced, or mentioned, so things, unsurprisingly, get lost in the process. Like I mentioned before, I have not read the books, so I cannot judge what is missing or misrepresented. That's why I did not attempt to and pointed out the things I found interesting in the final product I watched.
In conclusion, while the movie suffers from some pacing issues during its middle parts, I very much enjoyed my time with Villeneuve's latest work.