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Dune & Why We’re Enthralled by Science Fiction

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune took home a box office sum of $397 million last year, making it one of the highest grossing movies of 2021. A vivid reimagining of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction book of the same name, the film was critically acclaimed for its stunning cinematography, sound design, and production quality. With a star-studded cast and some of Hollywood’s most lauded creators behind the project, Dune was a massive hit on all fronts, resonating with fans familiar to its world and newcomers alike.

Villeneuve’s success directing Dune and other science fiction films like Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival demonstrates a simple truth: audiences love science fiction. From the slow, meditative filmography of Andrei Tarkovsky to the action-packed Star Wars films, the science fiction genre of film has a rich history of depicting the evolving relationship between humans and technology. The imagination of these creators have paved the way forward for decades of speculative fiction across mediums that ponders the nature of that same relationship. As a film, Dune represents both the genesis of many of these ideas, and a new stepping stone in the continued innovation of science fiction themes.


Related: Here’s Every Denis Villeneuve Film, Ranked

Otherworldly Imagery

Sourced via Warner Bros. Pictures

Set on a barren desert planet called Arrakis, the film introduces the Atreides family, an important clan within an established political hierarchy that comprises a galaxy-wide empire. Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet, bears the burden of reconciling the imperialist interests of his family with the indigenous Fremen, whose rich history allows them to exist in the harsh desert environment. Right away, the film establishes multiple factions with their own motivations, competing in an interplanetary chess game of resources and supremacy.

It’s the job of cinematographers, production designers, and VFX artists to translate each of these elements into interesting visuals. That also involves costume design, vibrant locations, practical effects, and other entire departments dedicated to bringing those elements to life.

Dune’s desert scenes were shot in Budapest, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, with VFX artists using special technology to create the effects of the ornithopters and sand worms. Under Villeneuve’s direction, the production team neglected to use techniques common to blockbuster films, and tried instead to replicate the textures of the desert using a blend of practical effects and computer generated imagery. The implementation of these techniques is what makes Dune look so vivid and realistic, yet simultaneously mysterious and exotic. Fascinating visuals are part of why the phenomenon of science fiction is so engrossing to so many: it’s difficult for people to imagine locations and sights that are this alien and intriguing.

The planet of Arrakis has an incredibly unique ecology, and part of the story revolves around the relationship of the planet’s inhabitants to their environment. This is where the production team excels at translating that theme into visual imagery. The architecture of the structures belonging to House Atreides (and formerly the Harkonnens) is characterized by wealth and excess. Huge, palace-like construction dominates the space belonging to the Atreides family, and water consumption is strained for decorative palm trees while indigenous people suffer and die without access to resources. The people of House Atreides strut about in important-looking dress and armor while the locals are wrapped in rags. The architecture and costuming of the different groups here tells the story of struggle against imperialist forces without needing any dialogue, which speaks to the strength of the production team and their efforts towards world building.

An Alien Soundscape

Timothee Chalamet walking on beach in Dune.
Warner Bros.

Sound design can be a subtle way of adding atmosphere to films, since the attention of viewers is more likely to be pulled to the visuals. In Dune, the sound design is impressively unsettling, containing rhythms and melodies that don’t sound recognizably like most other musical experiences. Hans Zimmer explains his reasoning behind the film’s strange, alien vocals in an episode of the Song Exploder podcast. Where other science fiction like Star Wars communicate grandeur using trumpets, horns, and a vast orchestra, Hans Zimmer’s recognizes that none of those instruments would necessarily exist in another universe. This is why the film’s sound design heavily focuses on arrhythmic drums and human vocals to create the sensation of an otherworldly experience.

The sound designers behind the film elected to chase the feeling of a documentary-style film that relied mostly on naturally occurring sounds, minimizing the influence of synthesized or digital sounds. As a result, some 3200 new, mostly non-synthesized sounds were recorded to bring different elements of the film to life. The ornithopter, for example, is a combination of the purring of a cat, beetle wings, and a tent strap flapping in wind. Three naturally occurring sounds, taken together, create the illusion of an entirely new sound – this design philosophy is why Dune sounds so distinct. Science fiction films carry the task of injecting novelty and mystery into the DNA of the film, giving viewers the sensation of experiencing something completely unknown and different.

Related: Dune: Part Two Director Denis Villeneuve Gives Promising Update on Sequel’s Production

Challenges the Relationship Between People and Technology

Sourced via Warner Bros. Pictures

Dune’s technology mirrors our own technology in principle—that humans will invent devices to creatively overcome problems and make living either easier or more efficient. The stillsuit, a Fremen invention of clothing that retains the body’s moisture, illustrates the way that the Fremen have created tech to adapt to their environment in the same way a real-life water filtration system makes water access easier and more accessible.

In the scene featuring the gargantuan spice harvester and the arrival of the sand worm, the film covers quite a lot of ground uncovering the relationship of these people to their environment. The spice harvester is a monstrosity of an invention, dominating the landscape, extracting resources, and attracting the ire of the sand worm, a native species. This is an invention for the explicit purpose of creating capital via trade. Compare that to the invention of the stillsuit, an unobtrusive arrangement of fabric focused on conserving and recycling resources. These inventions, characteristic of the imperialist house Atreides and the indigenous Fremen respectively, explore differences in technology and culture that set the two groups at odds.

Part of the task of a well-told science fiction story is to introduce readers to new cultures, whether that’s humans in space, alien species, or natives of another planet. Giving depth to those cultures by exploring their relationship with technology adds an intimacy to the story by convincing the viewer that these are living, complex beings. Dune juxtaposes cultures and their technologies to illustrate the conflict between them, making all the different cultures feel alive and vibrant.

Imagining New Horizons

Chalamet Dune via Slash Film

All stories imagine different worlds, but it takes a lot of work to create a vision for the systems and forces that form a different society, like politics, ecology, and religion. This is where Dune excels. The religion of the Bene Gesserit, a secretive group of women influencing the interaction of distinct groups across the galaxy for centuries, is another example of the terrific world building in Dune. Their interests are part of what push the story forward, making each of the characters significant agents of change in their own ways.

Arrakis is home to spice, a mysterious substance with hallucinogenic properties that is coveted across the galaxy. The planet was previously controlled by the Harkonnens, a rival clan that took brutal, authoritarian tactics to the mining of space and the subjugation of the local population. House Atreides, the Bene Gesserit, the Harkonnens, and the Fremen are all forces as essential to this world as gravity. To understand another society, it’s instrumental to understand the ideas and forces that have shaped it. The interaction of religion, politics, and ecology is what makes Dune feel like a well-realized vision of another world. It’s much easier to become immersed in the vision of these creators when the world itself operates according to the confluence of these different forces. Like other successful science fiction, it is a portrait of how humanity struggles and thrives under a completely different ruleset defined by the author, mixing what we understand about the human condition with a unique spin on a new world.

With a sequel about to begin production, it seems hopeful that the next installment of Dune will continue to build on the science fiction elements that made the first film so successful.

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