The Worldbuilding In Villeneuve’s Dune

The inevitable Dune post has arrived.

I mean, c’mon, you knew it was coming.

We will just get out of the way right now my review: I loved it. I did not expect to love it. I adore Villeneuve’s work pretty universally, not a bad note in that fella’s song so far, but I have a lot of squirrelly feelings about Dune. They’re not particularly complicated or controversial, these thoughts, they’re just a loose tangle of snarls and burrs that make me generally disinterested in it. To try to name the three legs of this stool: first, I read the book in high school and found it to be fine, and, like a lot of weighty sci-fi, firmly up its own ass; second, I really love the David Lynch version for maybe no good reason except I love Lynch and it’s such a weird and brave adaptation for its time (even if Lynch’s vision was itself compromised); third, as a writer of genre fiction and reader of it and as a friend to many genre writers, I’m always like, hey there are other books, you can make other books, you don’t need to keep hacking away at this one, JFC.

Any doubts I had were dashed against the rocks. I watched the film at home, which rankles some cinema purists*, but I have a pretty TV with surround sound that makes my living room better than most theatrical experiences (barring, say, IMAX), with the bonus that I can pause the movie to get up to go pee (sorry, I mean, “refill my stillsuit”). And I was held rapt by it. I watched it a second time last night, this time with my 10-year-old, and to my surprise, he seemed to like it, too (with the exception of him reaching the end and being like, “wait what where’s the next part” and I said, “I think in about two, three years” whereupon he made a face like he’d just eaten a cat turd).

It’s rare I want to rewatch a movie so quickly, if at all. This felt like a seven-course meal and a strange dream in equal parts, and I wanted to keep going back to it, to experience new tastes and to try to decipher little bits, savoring this bite, pondering over another. It’s not a happy movie. It’s a tragedy. And the film wisely doesn’t divert away from the fact that the prophecy of this desert Messiah is one that is propped up, invented, seeded by the Inscrutable Witch-Nuns. I also really enjoyed that for what is traditionally to me a very cold, speculative story, Villeneuve and the actors went the extra distance to make me feel the humanity of some of these characters. Not overmuch, not so that it feels ham-fisted, but there is I think a habit of getting so lost in the weeds of the political maneuvering and prophetic machinations that you can very easily lose the people in that equation. (Though I also could’ve used a little more here. I enjoy that the Emperor’s jealousy is kept far from us, like a shadow threatening to overtake the light — but I really wanted more character from the Baron, whose hatred of Duke Leto feels so intensely personal but has no expressed reason to be. His character in the film ends up being mostly just Wow What A Bad Guy, which isn’t quite enough.)

As usual, I also like to pick apart a thing, at least a little bit, to try to understand what went into the architecture and articulation of a particular story. If not necessary to provide a “lesson,” then to consider how other creators choose to organize and design narrative. Choices are made in the telling of a tale, and I like to try to understand those choices. Both as a “firmly up my own ass” thought exercise and also to see if there’s anything to help me sharpen how I tell my own stories. Right? Right.

Here, I think the big takeaway for me — though surely there are more to come — is in how the film hands its worldbuilding. Dune as a storyworld has a lot of it — the story of this first book is one that sits atop a rather prodigious history of its own galaxy, and one with a lot of fiddly, crunchy bits on which the story seemingly relies. It’s actually so crunchy and obtuse I’m not even sure I entirely understood it —

Up until now. Until this movie.

Which is a helluva thing, really.

I really, really love its approach to worldbuilding, which seems to match with what my own desires for worldbuilding happen to be. In capsule, I’d describe the approach as this:

When the worldbuilding is inessential to the movement of the story, it discards it.

When the worldbuilding is essential to it, it folds it into the experiences of the characters.

It does not promote worldbuilding as the story’s priority. It demotes it to being only support.

(Which, in my mind, is what worldbuilding is there to do, lest your story become an RPG manual.)

Most importantly, Villeneuve trusts the audience.

To unpack this a little more —

There can be a habit in some movies or books to tell some of the background worldbuilding in a display of grand exposition — a voiceover, an encyclopedic chapter, a speech by a character Haughtily Explaining Things In A History Lesson. The story becomes a temporarily mouthpiece for Exposition Delivery. Now, the writing advice of Show Don’t Tell is well-meaning but not universally applicable, because sometimes it’s far more direct and empathetic to the audience to just tell them a thing rather than go through the shadow puppet play in order to demonstrate it. Just the same, it can also be true that Capital-T Telling can become very boring, very quickly. Nobody wants a story to be a lecture, even if that lecture is just trying to teach a class about its own history, culture, science, food, religion, what-have-you. This is especially true in film, where you need to be particularly judicious with your time. A minute of movie can be $100k or more in cost.

In Dune, Villeneuve is glad mostly to expect that the characters of this world know what’s happening, and to just move through it, and past it. (Contrast this with the godawful worldbuilding exposition found in a movie I otherwise quite like, The Force Awakens. The C3P0 “As you know, Bob, er, I mean, BB8” scene is so jarringly bad, as are any scenes where Leia explains to Han things that Han obviously definitely knows already.)

I’m spoiling a bit here (though it’s also difficult to spoil a story that has been around for over 50 years in a variety of iterations), so close your eyes now if you don’t want any spoilers at all —

But in the early scene where Duke Leto receives the Imperial Decree or whatever-the-fuck-it-is, we don’t need a lot of data. Simply by pushing forward into that scene without waiting for you to catch up, we swiftly learn there’s an Emperor, he spent a lot of money to send his envoy here, Leto’s signet ring is important in asserting his authority, and this is a moment of great significance for the Atreides family (one they hope is ascendant but that is ultimately tragic). We get a very brief glimpse of a Bene Gesserit witch but we really don’t know who all the Daft Punk motherfuckers are who are hanging out there, and it doesn’t really matter. I mean, it matters if you view story as a collection of details and data, but if you care about the broad human strokes of it, it really doesn’t add up to anything useful except trivia. (That said, there are those readers and genre fans for whom it is the trivia that matters most, and these tend to be the readers and watchers that care most about the notion of “canon.”) Villeneuve trusts you, the audience, to gather the context clues and to move on.

When context clues aren’t enough, the worldbuilding is delivered in merciless, in-narrative experiences. When it’s time to know what a Stillsuit is, the narrative is allowed do double-duty in the story — it’s about the suit being fitted to the Duke and to Paul, and in that we get a host of vital narrative bits: we meet Liet Kynes; we see how fiercely protective Gurney is over Leto; we see that Paul is able to intuit things about Fremen life and culture, and also that Kynes recognizes it and is aware of the prophecy. It’s a lot of juiciness while simultaneously telling us what a Stillsuit is. Later, we learn of a “sand compactor,” and Villeneuve doesn’t stop to explain it — he’s just like, “Fuck you, it is what is says it is, and you’ll see it later, it’s fine.” Then he just… ushers you past it.

It’s a good approach, because it doesn’t bog you down in details, and it makes sure that the focus of the story is on what matters most in the story: the characters. They’re why we’re here — we’re not here for the internecine grappling of empires and fiefdoms. We’re here for the people inside that internecine struggle, because without them, the story just becomes another bad high school history lesson where they fail to focus on why individuals matter and instead demand you simply know the dates of their kingly or presidential reigns, as if that’s all that really matters.

It’s wonderful. I like it.

Not to mention, it’s a beautiful movie. Truly.

I may have more thoughts on it at some point, but for now —

I HAVE COMMITTED BLOGGERY.

*presses big fat chonky ring into blob of wax*

*signet ring image is a screaming possum*

HOUSE WENDIG IS TRIUMPHANT.

Now buy my books (Book of Accidents, Dust & Grim) or I die in the desert of obscurity.

BYE

* okay to unpack “cinema purists” a little, there has, particularly with Dune, been this attitude that somehow seeing a movie in a movie theater is How You Must See Filmses, which of course utterly disregards the fact that the life-span of a movie is at best 5-10% of its total experience, and the rest of it will be on televisions and tablet screens and, I dunno, eventually on the control panel of your SmartFridge or some shit. It’s also ableist and pretentious and is a weird attitude to shove in people’s faces during a fucking global pandemic, AH YES THE ONLY WAY TO SEE A MOVIE IS TO GO OUT AMONG THE UNWASHED LUNG-HORKING MASSES AND ENJOY THEIR RESPIRATORY MIASMA, WHICH WILL BE THRUMMED INTO YOUR BRONCHIAL TUBES, FOR NO MASK IS A DEFENSE AGAINST THE MIGHT OF DOLBY ATMOS. Plus in this day and age people have 4k tablets and 8k TVs and room-filling surround sound or killer headphones. Shit, some of my favorite movies I watched on crappy CRT televisions in the 80s and 90s. It’s fine. If you like watching movies in theaters, do so! Huzzah and hooray. Just don’t judge me for not wanting to go to one of our local shitbox theaters where someone will bring a screaming baby and another person will be texting the whole time in front of me and a third jerk will be dully kneeing my chair every 47 seconds.