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.


25 responses to “The Worldbuilding In Villeneuve’s Dune”

  1. As to your footnote about “cinema purists”…Thank you all the way from your toenails to your uppermost follicles for wording it in just that way. The thought of a movie theater has me chewing Ativan like candy, and I was perfectly content, nay, ecstatic!, to watch it in my own basement on my own 50” TV with the sound streaming straight into my Bluetooth-capable hearing aids. No germs other than my own, thanks!

    Also, I freaking loved it so, so much!

  2. Posting before I have finished reading (not TL;DR) just rushing to agree with you on what I thought was a brilliant scene and such excellent foreshadowing… the Imperial Decree. What a fantastic scene, so rich in so many ways and just designed so damned well! It gave me chills.

  3. This is a terrific review/exposee/homage to the film and to the book, Chuck. I read it as a teen, when it was new, and I’ve not wanted to go anywhere near it since. especially with all the modern hoo-hah about it. You’ve made me want to see it now, and also gave me lots of new thoughts about world-building 🙂

  4. No judgment here. Watch movies the best way you can and want. Watch movies is the takeaway. I bought The Book of Accidents, does this mean you you just coma in the desert of obscurity?

  5. I did see it in the theater. We haven’t been to a movie since the before times and I had heard from friends that our local theater was never crowded. There were maybe a dozen of us in a medium theater and well spread out. I’m glad we saw it there for the immense visual scale, but the sound was painfully loud.

    I appreciate you putting into words some of the things I loved about this version. I too loved the Lynch saga and read the book in middle or high school. I am re-reading it now, because I can’t wait the 2-3 years to continue the story.

  6. You liked Lynch’s Dune? That movie was nothing but a sanctimonious offering to Lynch’s ego, and Frank Herbert would have nothing to do with it. You are redeemed by seeing the value in this Dune, which is everything Lynch’s was not.

    • Really? Herbert wrote, “I enjoyed the film even as a cut and I told it as I saw it: What reached the screen is a visual feast that begins as Dune begins and you hear my dialogue all through it.” Herbert also commented, “I have my quibbles about the film, of course.

    • Yeah, I don’t really truck with that kind of judgey-pants attitude. I do like Lynch’s, and as has been covered, Herbert didn’t disown it. Let people like things, Karen.

  7. I loved it. I was very anxious beforehand because of the divisive reactions to it I’ve heard from people who I trust. And as a huge fan of the Lynch version which was crippled by the studios.

    Midway through it I realized I was so used to the plot and progression of Dune 1984 that I’d forgotten the book was the source for both. Then it reminded me of Solaris, another difficult, dense science fiction book. Tarkovsky’s version is different from the book as is Soderbergh’s (though he’s argued his is more literal). Both are valid visions of the novel.

    So same with Lynch and Villeneuve’s adaptations. First and foremost I gotta say what Lynch did with the available tech in 1984 was nothing short of miraculous. He was doing with practical FX what most people wouldn’t try for another 15-20 years. Then the studio destroyed his film.

    But Villeneuve made a different take on it and it’s beautiful. And the characters were for more human than in Lynch’s. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen it so often but Dune 2021 seemed to depict the characters as not only more human but showed what was at stake. In an understandable way at that.

    It even reminded me of The Last Temptation of Christ in that it showed Paul really being very fraught over his role, the prophecy, etc.

    I’m watching it tonight. Again. With pants on even!

  8. Chuck! I am disappointed you credited all this worldbuilding you love to Villeneuve alone and didn’t mention Jon Spaihts or Eric Roth! You’re a writer, you know better. (I also enjoyed this Dune, I’m bummed they didn’t shoot both of these at the same time so we could get the sequel on a reasonable timeline, if at all.)

    • That is correct, I should credit the screenwriters — though, to be fair, the way screen credits work, it’s increasingly hard to be sure exactly what on the screen belongs to whom. And at the end of the day, the director is the easiest shorthand for why choices onscreen are the way that they are.

  9. I saw it yesterday in a theater. Only about 20 viewers. All spaced far apart, their choice. Sound was too loud on the music, not loud enough on the dialog. Beautiful is a good way to describe it. Knowing it was a two part movie was a godsend. So much to the story. I read Dune nearly 50 some years ago. Saw the Lynch movie in 1984, and several times on TV. This movie is good. Can’t figure out why Duncan Idaho became a hero to me so long ago.

    • Your comment on the music vs. dialog is something my wife and I have been noticing for some time now. It seems like dialog has been pushed down to make way for every note and Foley. It makes watching films now somewhat of a balancing act – make it loud enough to hear what people are saying without blowing out year eardrums when the music starts.

  10. A particular benefit of watching a movie at home over a theater: Ability to turn on subtitles if you want them. And wow was there a lot of whispering in this film that I missed parts of in the theater. So I’ll watch again at home with subtitles on at some point. Just not up for springing for a binge-month of HBO Max right now.

  11. Someone just asked me for my review of Dune. “Ummm It’s loud.” Also, it’s good. Yes, it’s good.

  12. “and, like a lot of weighty sci-fi, firmly up its own ass;”

    I read that and thought they should’ve put it on the cover of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. Man, that book was right up its own ass. There are some writers out there that just can’t tell a story.

  13. I’m glad the movie’s good! I’m rereading the book before I go. I’ll see it at the theater on a weekday afternoon when everybody’s at work or school. I’ve been to the movies a couple of times recently, and those annoying people with their phone lights and noisy kids weren’t there – in fact, we had the theater almost all to ourselves. I like the big screen and the immersion of being in the theater. At home I get distracted and it’s just not the same intense experience.

  14. I’m so glad you loved Dune (seemingly as much as I did, because I too watched it twice in the same day!). The world building was amazing as was the characterization. So bummed to discover it was only part one, but gives us all something to look forward to:)

  15. I’m just happy that you pointed out “easy way” tropes like history lessons as exposition for world building. Of course, the one that has drives me insane is any character that utters the words “Tell me again…”

  16. I very much liked the film (watched in an uncrowded theater). Like others, I had difficulty hearing some of the dialogue. I appreciated all the subtitles. Of course I read the book eons ago. And saw the David Lynch version.
    What didn’t dawn on me till now, they have interstellar flight, antigravity devices and other wonders. Why are they still fighting with knives? Can somebody explain that to me?

    • The shields prevent fast projectiles, so blades that go in slow but then pierce under the armor is, I think, the intent. (Also the book, if I recall, has something about how the “lasguns” interact poorly with the shields — causes an explosion or some such?).

  17. My one hesitation was about where the movie ends. I think I would have ended it earlier (as soon as Paul & Jessica make it into the desert and get in the tent) and added a bit more about the fateful dinner the night that House Atreides is toppled. But really, I’m just going to forward this post when people ask me if the movie is worth seeing, and if it’s worth seeing at home. Also, thank you for my new favorite euphemism: “Excuse me while I refill my stillsuit.”

  18. I didn’t much care for the first attempt at the movie, but as my wife says, “That’s why Baskin Robbins has 31 flavors”. I did (from what I remember) like the SyFy 2-part miniseries (veryminiseries?). I think that Lynch’s was so far from the original text that it bothered me, but again, to each their own. Maybe I need to go back and watch that again.
    I did like this one and I think your review of it is very on point. I may have some spare time this weekend and a rewatch might be in order.
    As to the theater issue – we have a 110″ projection tv with 7:1 surround sound, blackout curtains, and a pause button. We also have a rule about not allowing electronics when we’re watching something like Dune. So, why would I want to go to a theater with people talking, cell phones and arm rest fights? Also, our dogs cuddle up with us and those aren’t allowed in the theater.

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