It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Dune was one of the best films of 2021. The movie, which was released towards the latter half of the previous year, has earned critical acclaim for its, well, everything.
The film had a killer score made by Hans Zimmer, a well-selected cast, breathtaking shots of the sand dunes of Arrakis, and, best of all, one of the most faithful movie adaptations of a book. Based on what we’ve seen so far, at least.
That said, Dune struggles with the same problem that all movie adaptations of good books do: There’s not enough movie to cover the whole book. Though Villeneuve’s Dune gets all the novel’s story beats down to a tee, you can’t help but get the sense that there’s more to Dune than the experiences of Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides. A lot of the movie’s lore just doesn’t get explained enough for us to fully grasp the impact of what the characters are going through.
But you don’t have to stay lost in the sands of Arrakis because in this Dune guide, you’ll learn everything there is to know about Dune without having to read the books and without being exposed to the dreaded spoiler.
What Is Dune?
Let’s start our journey through Arrakis with the absolute basics.
Dune is a novel written by Frank Herbert. Published in 1965, the book was originally a series of stories that were published in Analog, a sci-fi magazine that’s still running today. If you watch Dune after reading this, you might notice how important the movie’s setting is to its story.
Sure, all stories have a setting, but not all of them dedicate as much time and attention to fleshing out the details of the world in which the characters exist. In Dune, the desert planet of Arrakis is a part of the main cast in its own right.
If you live in Florence, a city on the coast of Oregon, you’re already on Arrakis. In 1957, Herbert went to Florence to write an article about the rapidly expanding sand dunes that were consuming the surrounding forest — an experience that would inspire him to write Dune.
Combine this with a dash of sociology, a pinch of mysticism, a subversion of the traditional Hero’s Journey, and intimate knowledge of Carl Jung’s theories on the collective unconscious and you have Dune.
Long story short, when you watch the next Dune film, keep your expectations in check. This is not your typical “hero saves the day” epic space saga. Expectation setting aside, let’s move on to one of the first things you may have noticed in Dune: the absence of computers.
Why Is Dune So Low Tech?
There are two things that are notably missing in Dune: guns and computers. To be clear, there are guns shown in a couple of scenes in Dune, but we don’t see them in combat. So why is everyone in this movie bringing knives to a potential gunfight?
In the universe of Dune, shields are the main method of defense used for personal protection and for protecting buildings and vehicles. The shields, represented by the glitchy blue and red effects we see on the characters, are able to stop fast-moving objects but not slow-moving ones. This means that the shields make bullets and blaster shots practically useless, forcing combatants to train in hand-to-hand combat.
As for the computers, that role is filled by Thufir Hawat who is played by Stephen McKinley Henderson in the film. Thufir is a Mentat, a professional trained to perform complex computations in their minds in order to replace the use of “thinking machines.” The humans of Dune treat thinking machines with suspicion after the events of the Butlerian Jihad, a revolutionary war between humans and machines, nearly destroyed humanity.
What Is House Atreides?
We can’t talk about the men who serve House Atreides without discussing House Atreides itself. House Atreides claims descent from the heroes of ancient Greece. Ruling from their ancestral seat of Caladan, and later, Arrakis, the Atreides maintain a strict sense of honor and attempt to rule their people on the basis of respect, not fear. This moral uprightness places House Atreides in conflict with House Harknonnen.
You’ll notice in the movie that both the Harkonnens and Atreides are referred to as “houses” because, to put it simply, Dune‘s political system is Game of Thrones in space.
Though the human civilizations of Dune are organized under the emperor and his Imperial House, the vastness of the galaxy makes it impractical to rule the empire in a fully centralized way. Because of this, Dune‘s government is feudal. The planets of Dune are governed by noble houses as their fiefs. The noble houses, in turn, answer to the emperor.
Who Are the Sardaukar?
Speaking of the Padishah Emperor, it’s hard to rule a galactic empire if you don’t have an army which is why the emperor kept an army of elite warriors that answered only to him. These soldiers are called Sardaukar.
The Sardaukar are recruited before they’re even 11 years old and are put through a grueling training regimen that’s meant to turn them into the Known Universe’s most feared fighters. Unlike the earthly Roman emperors before him, the Padishah Emperor seems to understand that he can be betrayed by his own guard.
This is why the Sardaukar are indoctrinated to become fanatically loyal to the Imperial House, a.k.a House Corrino. The Sardaukar are renowned for their martial prowess and the soldiers of House Atreides are only second to them in skill.
Who Are the Bene Gesserit?
The sisters of the Bene Gesserit are easily the most mysterious faction in the Dune movie that we’ve seen so far. Their penchant for vaguely religious sayings, obsession with a prophecy, and use of ritualistic “tests” make them look like a group of priestesses. But to think of the Bene Gesserit as space nuns is vastly underestimating how shady they are.
Like the Mentats, the Bene Gesserit came into existence in the aftermath of the Butlerian Jihad. Unlike the Mentats, the Bene Gesserit only induct women into their order because most men born with the powers to become a Bene Gesserit tend to die at some point in their training. It’s a shame considering how many cool powers the sisters have.
The most prominent one that you’ll see in the film is the Voice. The Voice refers to a “pitch” of speaking that allows the Bene Gesserit to perform mind control tricks on other people after observing their behavior to look for cognitive weak points that can be exploited.
Aside from the Voice, the Bene Gesserit are able to tap into the collective memories of women in the past and use that information to make it appear as if they have divination or mind-reading powers.
The Bene Gesserit sisters are also able to control their bodies at a molecular level, giving them the power to slow down their aging if they chose and the ability to choose the gender of their child.
That latter perk of being a Bene Gesserit sister is key to the order’s quest to bring about the Kwisatz Haderach.
What Exactly Is the Kwisatz Haderach?
Say it with me: kwi-satz ha-de-rach.
The name “Kwisatz Haderach” translates to “Shortening of the Way.” The Bene Gesserit believe that the Kwisatz Haderach would be able to see into both sides of the collective memory, that is, male and female, without dying like your usual male supernaturally gifted male would. By doing so, the Kwisatz Haderach would have enough wisdom and knowledge to guide humanity into an ever-prosperous and peaceful future.
So basically a Chosen One, right? Well, yes and no. While the successful Kwisatz Haderach is a chosen one, Dune establishes that there are multiple options for a Kwisatz Haderach. The Bene Gesserit sisters have taken on the task of creating multiple possible Kwisatz Haderachs by operating a shady breeding program where they carefully interbreed the noble bloodlines of Dune with their most powerful sisters.
When it comes to these plans, the Bene Gesserit are terrifyingly patient. They’ve been planning to create a Kwisatz Haderach for what seems to be several centuries. In addition, they’ve been preparing to induct the right Kwisatz Haderach into their order and indoctrinating him into serving them so they can accomplish their goal of preserving humanity and securing its future.
What Is the Spice Melange and Why Is It Important?
There’s a quote from the Dune book that explains, in a nutshell, why spice is important in the world of Dune. It goes like this: “The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness. The spice is vital to space travel.”
The spice, also called “spice melange,” is a type of psychoactive drug that’s able to fully unlock the mental capabilities of humans when consumed. Okay, so space drugs, right? Sure, but spice is valued not just for recreation, but primarily for the fact that it’s the cornerstone of human civilization in Dune.
All spice melange comes from Arrakis, the only planet where the drug can be found. The ultra-rare spice is consumed by the Navigators of the Spacing Guild to help them plot travel routes in space. This way, the Navigators allow for the safe operation of guild heighliners, ultra massive spaceships that facilitate interplanetary travel, throughout the Known Universe.
If there’s no spice, there are no Navigators. No Navigators means no space travel, and if there’s no space travel then there’s no space trade. If there’s no space trade, there’s no space empire. See where this is going?
Though spice is primarily valued for its vital role in trade, many nobles consume the spice recreationally and are addicted to it. In Dune, there’s no such thing as rehab. If you become dependent on spice, you live longer but that comes with the tradeoff of needing to consume spice to stay alive.
Who Is Shai-Hulud?
Remember the Alaskan Bull Worm that Sandy wrangles in Spongebob Squarepants? It’s a direct reference to Dune‘s Shai-Hulud.
Shai-Hulud is a monstrous sandworm that dominates the planet of Arrakis. Everyone who lives in Arrakis lives in fear of the ever-present threat of Shai-Hulud’s visits and why wouldn’t they? Look at that thing.
Life on Arrakis is as defined by the scarcity of water as it is by Shai-Hulud. Because of how deeply Shai-Hulud affects the daily lives of the native Fremen people, their spiritual beliefs are shaped by the sandworm as well.
To the Fremen, Shai-Hulud is a manifestation of the Maker of the universe, hence the Fremen prayer that’s commonly recited when Shai-Hulud tears through the sand dunes: “Bless the Maker and His water. Bless the coming and going of Him. May His passage cleanse the world. May He keep the world for His people.”
Who Are the Fremen?
The Fremen are the native people of Arrakis. Having dwelled in the desert for hundreds of generations, the Fremen are masters of surviving the deadly heat of Arrakis. They’re presented as a capable and intelligent people with a strong sense of dignity.
The Fremen are also a spiritual people who keep a strict adherence to their indigenous beliefs. One of them is that the crysknife, a knife made from a tooth of Shai-Hulud, is sacred. The cultural significance of the crysknife comes up a lot in Dune so here are the main rules about it:
- The crysknife can’t be resheathed without drawing blood.
- The crysknife can’t be shown to people who aren’t Fremen. If an outsider sees a crysknife, they’ll need to be cleansed or killed.
- The crysknife, generally, has to be kept close to a person’s body. Prolonged separation from a person will cause a crysknife to “die”.
While the Fremen are tough and aloof, their culture is highly communal. The harshness of their environment has forced them to work together which has lead to practices like draining water from bodies of deceased Fremen because the Fremen believe that “water belongs to the tribe”.
These spiritual beliefs centered on water are the reason why the Fremen believe in the coming of Lisan Al Gaib.
What Does Lisan Al Gaib Mean?
Lisan al Gaib is what the Fremen call their prophesied savior. According to Fremen belief, the Lisan al Gaib or “The Voice From the Outer World” will deliver the people of Arrakis in true messiah story fashion.
Sometimes called the Mahdi, the Lisan al Gaib is believed to be an outworlder who will come to Arrakis, assimilate into their culture, and help them realize their dream of turning Arrakis into a lush, water-rich paradise.
Not quite the “deliver us from our sins” narrative that most of us are used to, but if you’re living on a planet where water is so rare that watering plants is a sacred ritual, you can begin to understand why the Fremen believe in the coming of Lisan al Gaib.
That said, “Mahdi” and “Lisan al Gaib” aren’t exactly mutually interchangeable terms. The Bene Gesserit sisters do more than perform Jedi mind tricks. Not only do they have a hand in shaping the politics of Dune through their breeding program, rumor has it the sisters dabble in social engineering as well.
But if I explained that, I’d be giving one of the biggest mysteries of Dune away.