A few weeks ago, I posted a Cool Beans Blog on the subject of Apple TV+ Foundation: First Impressions. That humble offering elicited a cornucopia of comments, so I thought I’d offer a similar treatment to the recently released 2021 version of the movie, Dune (here’s the trailer).
Setting the Scene
On the off chance you aren’t familiar with the overall concept, let’s take a moment to briefly set the scene. Dune first appeared in 1965 in the form of a novel by American author Frank Herbert. Since that time, it’s won the Nebula and Hugo awards, been translated into dozens of languages, sold around 20 million copies, and been described as one of the greatest novels in the science fiction canon.
The time in which this tale takes place is around 22,000 AD give-or-take, but even this nugget of knowledge may cause confusion because — right at the beginning of the movie — viewers may think they see a date of 10,191 AD flashed up on the screen. In fact, the text that is really displayed is 10,191 AG, where ‘AG’ is an acronym for “After Guild,” referring to the time when the Spacing Guild established a monopoly on all space travel, transport, and Imperial banking.
But I fear we are racing ahead of ourselves, so let’s take a step back and start again. About 10,000 years from now, having spread throughout the galaxy, we (humans) run into a problem of our own devising in the form of artificial intelligence and “thinking machines.” This leads to the Butlerian Jihad in which we crush the machines and come up with Plan B (“If we don’t have a plan, we’re no better than the French,” as the old saying goes), which involves banning any type of computers and using only human brains to do all the mental “leg work.” To provide a point of reference, the Butlerian Jihad took place between 200 BG and 108 BG, where ‘BG’ is an acronym for “Before Guild.”
As an aside, it’s been proposed that the “Butlerian Jihad” moniker could be a literary allusion to the English novelist and critic Samuel Butler (1835 – 1902). His novel Erewhon, which he originally published anonymously in 1872, was one of the first to explore ideas of artificial intelligence, as influenced by Darwin’s recently published On the Origin of Species (1859) and the machines that were appearing out of the Industrial Revolution. This prescient piece of prose portrayed a people who destroyed machines because they feared the machines would out-evolve them, but we digress…
So, what we have at the time Dune takes place is a sort of high-tech feudal society. At the top of the pile is Shaddam IV, the 81st Padishah Emperor of House Corrino, which has ruled the known universe for over 10,000 years. The emperor, who lives on the Imperial Capital world Kaitain, is backed by a military force called the Sardaukar. These fearsome fighters are renowned for their fanatic zeal, exceptional fighting abilities, and sheer ruthlessness. The reason they are so good is attributed to the harsh environment and brutal discipline they are exposed to on the prison planet Salusa Secundus where they live and constantly train.
Imperial power is balanced by the assembly of noble houses called the Landsraad, which enforces the Great Convention’s ban on the use of atomic weapons against human targets. These houses are headed by people with titles like Duke and Baron, each of whom rules an entire world or multiple worlds in a solar system. These rulers have total control of their own home worlds.
The two houses featured in Dune are House Atreides, which is located on the lush oceanic world of Caladan and headed by Duke Leto Atreides (these are the “goodies”), and House Harkonnen, which is based on the heavily industrialized planet of Giedi Prime and ruled by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (these are the “baddies”). The main hero of this epic is Paul Atreides, who is the son of Duke Leto Atreides.
And then we come to the planet Arrakis, which is also known informally as Dune. This is an incredibly harsh, barren, water-limited desert planet populated by a people called the Fremen. The combination of the brutal environment coupled with persecution by whoever is currently charge of the planet has resulted in the Fremen becoming an incredible fighting force, but no one really knows this because their communities live in caves located in rocky outcrops and mountain ranges in the deep desert.
If the truth be told, no one in the rest of the galaxy would care about Arrakis if it weren’t for the fact that this planet the origin of a substance called melange, which is also known as “spice.” In addition to increasing lifespans, spice is an “awareness spectrum narcotic” that can expand an individual’s consciousness in various ways, including prescience (which, in this case, means the ability to see into the past, present, and future). Large quantities of spice are consumed by mutated navigators in the Spacing Guild, thereby allowing them to successfully guide enormous heighliner starships through “folded space” from planet to planet instantaneously.
There are a few other players that it helps to be aware of before seeing the movie. First, we have the Swordmasters of Ginaz, which refers to a school of martial artists who are widely considered to be the most elite warriors available outside the Imperial Sardaukar.
Next, we have the Mentats. In a society that fears a resurgence of artificial intelligence and thus prohibits computers, Mentats are specially trained to mimic the cognitive and analytical ability of computers. More than simple calculators, Mentats possess exceptional cognitive abilities of memory and perception that enable them to sift large volumes of data and devise concise analyses. Also, they can accurately assess people and situations by interpreting minor changes in body language or intonation.
Also, we have the Suk School, which is a prominent medical institution. Suk doctors are the universe’s most competent and trusted physicians. These individuals bear a black diamond tattoo on their foreheads and wear their hair in a special silver ring. Those who have received the “Suk Imperial Conditioning” are incapable of inflicting harm upon their charges.
Last but not least (at least for our discussions here), we have the Bene Gesserit. This is a secretive and exclusive sisterhood whose members train their bodies and minds through years of physical and mental conditioning to obtain superhuman powers and abilities that can seem magical to outsiders. The Bene Gesserit have been working on a secret, millennia-long selective breeding program to bolster and preserve valuable skills and bloodlines with the ultimate goal of producing a theoretical superhuman male they call the Kwisatz Haderach.
We’re Almost Ready to Rock and Roll
Prior to the start of Dune, the Harkonnens have been in charge of Arrakis, mining spice and shipping it to the other worlds. As part of this, they have made a vast fortune, which doesn’t make the Emperor very happy, so he’s ordered Baron Harkonnen to vacate the planet while also ordering Duke Leto Atreides to take over.
The problem is that this is a trap. Duke Leto is a popular leader in the Landsraad, binding them together. If all the houses in the Landsraad were to combine, they would be more powerful than the Emperor. This explains why the Emperor wants to get Duke Leto and his family away from the safety of their home world so that he can wipe them out of existence.
Lady Jessica of the Atreides is the official concubine of Duke Leto. She’s also a member of the Bene Gesserit, who have ordered her to bear the Duke a daughter as part of their selective breeding program. The Bene Gesserit hope that the progeny of this daughter and a Harkonnen would be the long-sought Kwisatz Haderach, who would be able to precisely predict the future and — equally importantly — would be under their control.
However, after falling in love with the Duke, the Lady Jessica gives him the son he desires to carry on his line. This is Paul Atreides, who is the hero of the tale. The fact that the Lady Jessica disobeyed orders is bad enough; even worse, she trains Paul in the Bene Gesserit ways, including the power to employ “The Voice,” in which speaking using subtle sonic waves can bend whoever hears it to its user’s will.
So, What Are My Thought on Dune 2021?
I loved it!!! We start off on the Atreides home world of Caladan, which lets us see the sort of lush, water-rich environment they are used to.
Next, we travel with the members of House Atreides to Arrakis, and watch as they take possession of the planet. As part of this, Duke Leo charges his sword master (and Paul’s personal trainer) Duncan Idaho to reach out to the Fremen and offer the hand of friendship. This is where we learn that the Harkonnens, who treated the Fremen like uneducated scum, badly underestimated their numbers and fighting abilities.
Unfortunately, things go pear-shaped when Dr. Wellington Yueh — the Suk doctor who serves House Atreides as the personal physician of Duke Leto — turns out to be an agent of Baron Harkonnen, betraying the Atreides by lowering their shields, thereby letting the Baron’s army (bolstered by three divisions of the Emperor’s Sardaukar) rampage through the stronghold killing everyone they see.
Happily, Paul and his mother escape into the desert, eventually meeting up with a party of Fremen. After a bit of getting to know each other, which involves Paul killing one of the Fremen, they all head off into the desert to rest up in anticipation of the sequel.
Overall, the film makers did a great job setting the scene and explaining what was going on. The special effects were nothing short of awesome — including the 400-meter-long sandworms with their 40-meter-diameter mouths lined with rings of crystal teeth — and the movie very closely followed the book.
If I have any niggles, they are about things that were left unexplained. For example, when we meet Thufir Hawat, who is a Mentat reporting to Duke Leto, there’s no explanation as to what he is and his abilities. It was only the fact that I knew the story that helped me understand his role. I also noticed that he had a small black rectangular tattoo under his bottom lip. When I saw the same tattoo on one of Baron Harkonnen’s inner circle, I realized that this character was the Baron’s Mentat.
Similarly, it’s obvious in the film that Duncan Idaho is a master swordsman, but we are not informed that he’s a Swordmaster of Ginaz or what this means, all of which would help explain why he manages to show so many Sardaukar the error of their ways. And, speaking of the Sardaukar, while it’s true that we do get a short glimpse of the planet Salusa Secundus where they live and train, we don’t really learn why they are such fearsome fighters or why they are so fanatically loyal to the Emperor.
Finally, for my nit-picking niggles, there was no explanation as to the fact the Dr. Yueh is a Suk doctor and that he’s therefore received the “Suk Imperial Conditioning,” which should have made him incapable of betraying House Atreides (the Baron cracked this conditioning by torturing the Doctor’s wife).
However, these niggles aside, I personally thought the movie was awesome, and I can’t wait for Part 2, which will be where all the real action takes place.
Yes, it’s true, Dune 2021 takes us only half-way through the book, which explains why some viewers feel that the movie leaves things unfinished, with Paul’s new Fremen girlfriend prophetically saying, “This is only the beginning.”
As we come to discover in the second half of the book, the Bene Gesserit are eventually going to have a “very bad hair day” indeed because — after consuming more spice than one should — it turns out that Paul is indeed the Kwisatz Haderach, but he’s not under their control. Similarly, Baron Harkonnen is not going to be smiling at the end of Part 2 and neither is Emperor Shaddam IV.
Happily, I hear that Dune: Part 2 has been given the go-ahead and is scheduled to debut in October 2023. Also, just to add a large dollop of cream on top of the cake, I just read an article on the Popular Science website: Could humans survive on Dune’s Arrakis? It turns out that a bunch of scientists with too much time on their hands have created a planetary model and used a supercomputer to simulate the climate of Arrakis in order to determine if the physics and environment of such a world would stack up against a real climate model. Suffice it to say that the results are more than a little interesting.
As one final piece of trivia, my chum Jay Dowling just emailed me to tell me that, as per this article, the screenplay for Dune 2021 was written in an an MS-DOS program that can only hold 40 pages in memory.
Phew! I wasn’t planning on going into so much depth, but several of my friends who haven’t read the book asked me to summarize things for them and — once I’d started — I couldn’t stop. How about you? Have you seen the movie? If not, are you going to? And, if not, why not?