Technology in the Dune Universe

Hello again techies and social studies experts! I’m sorry, I assume those are the only two kinds of people who would enjoy these posts 😉 Regardless, I love doing them, mainly because it gives me a chance to exercise a little critical thinking when it comes to some of the most popular franchises of science fiction.

And today, I thought I’d tackle the bid baddy of classic sci-fi, Mr. Frank Herbert himself. Whereas most writers in this expansive genre tend to take a highly positive or negative view, Herbert distinguished himself by being highly subtle, ambiguous and multilayered in his approach.

Far from saying technology would save humanity, or condemn it, he seemed to be arguing that it really wouldn’t alter our basic makeup and behavior. That, presumably, would only come with thousands of years of natural evolution, selective breeding and funky narcotics!

But I digress, here are some examples of the technologies that characterized the Dune universe:

stoneburnerEvery house in the Dune universe keeps a nuclear arsenal in reserve. However, since the Great Convention forbids their use in war, and anyone found in dereliction would guarantee their own obliteration, they are not employed. Everybody’s got em, nobody uses em! At least not anymore…

Their last known use occurred on Selusa Secundus many years before the events of the first novel. It was here that a rogue house employed several in an attempt to destroy House Corrin. The attempt failed and the house was eradicated, their name erased from history. Unfortunately, Selusa Secundus was left a radioactive ruin, hence why it was converted to serve as the Emperor’s prison planet.

However, one type of nuclear device is still legal under the Great Convention. Known as a Stone Burner, these devices emit powerful J-radiation that destroys eye-tissue, rendering everyone in the blast vicinity blind. However, their primary function is to burn through a planet’s crust. If they are powerful enough, they are able to burn clean through to a planet’s core and destroy them planet from within.

Axlotl Tank:
2007-8-18_DuneAxlotlTankThough widely used in the Dune universe, axlotl technology is also one of its most mysterious. A trade secret of the Tleilaxu, an axlotl tank is a “device for reproducing a living human being from the cells of a cadaver,” resulting in what is known as a ghola. In addition, the Tleilaxu Masters use these tanks in order to produce clones of themselves and keep their line going.

As the series progresses, axlotl tanks began being used to produce the spice melange, which had previously only been available on Arrakis. In time, it was also revealed that axlotl tanks were in fact Tleilaxu females, women whose bodies had been converted to grow gholas, clones and spice inside their wombs.

Guild Heighliner:
Dune_heighlinerThe principal means of interstellar transport in the Dune universe, a heighliner is a Guild ship that is capable of transporting massive amounts of people and cargo. Powered by the Holtzman Drive (see below) the ship is capable of “folding space” – jumping from one point in space-time to the next – instantaneously.

Each Guild Heighliner comes with its own navigator, a Guild mutant who uses their semi-prescient abilities to see through space and time to chart a safe rout for the ship to fly. The navigators do all this from inside their giant tanks where they remain immersed in spice gas.

Holtzman Drive:
foldspaceThis is the technology that allows Guild Heighliners to fold space, thus traveling instantaneously form one point in the universe to another. Using what is known as the “Holtzman Effect”, the same phenomena that powers personal shields as well as the catastrophic effect when one comes into contact with the beam of a lasgun.

Though it is never explained in detail, some hints are given throughout the series as to what principles of physics may be involved. For example, in Chapterhouse: Dune, an allusion was made to tachyon particles, the theoretical particle that can presumably travel faster than light.

lasgunThe appendix of the first Dune novel, titled Terminology of the Imperium, defines Lasgun as follows:

continuous-wave laser projector. Its use as a weapon is limited in a field-generator-shield culture because of the explosive pyrotechnics (technically, subatomic fusion) created when its beam intersects a shield.

At one time, these directed energy weapons were the mainstay of Imperial armed forces. However, the development of shields meant that their use had to become more selective. Mounted on ships, ornithopters, and carried by infantry, lasguns remain a highly effective weapon, capable of cutting through any material.

ixian_noshipThis technology was first mentioned in God Emperor of Dune and took the form of a No-Chamber. This Ixian invention was basically a chamber that was cloaked in a stealth field which blocked it from prescient vision as well as more conventional means of detection.

After the death of Leto II, this technology was expanded to include No-Ships and even No-Globes. The former were basically heighliners which were equipped with no-fields and the Ixian machine which did the job of a Guild Navigator. In essence, these ships were not only sheilded from prescient vision, but were invisible to sensors and even the naked eye.

No-Globes were an even larger version of the technology, capable of covering an entire planet in a no-field and rendering it both invisible to prescience, invisible to the naked eye and undetectable. However, in Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune, it is suggested that those of Atreides ancestry are capable of seeing through no-fields. This proved to be the case when Miles Teg was awakened to his abilities after being examined with an Ixian T-probe. His ghola also had this ability once he was awakened to his past memories.

dune_thopter1In the Dune universe, ornithopters (or ‘thopters) are the principle means of planetary transportation. Combining jet thrusters with articulated wings, the thopter is capable of vertical takeoff and landing, making it one of the most versatile flying machines ever invented.

Though most are used for commercial and personnel transport, thopters are also capable of being militarized, and often are. Armed missiles, bombs, lasguns, and even shields, they are most effective when used in an assault and/or supporting role.

Personal Shields:
Holtzmanshields-Dune1984The Terminology of the Imperium defines them as follows: the protective field produced by a Holtzman generator. This field derives from Phase One of the suspensor-nullification effect. A shield will permit entry only to objects moving at slow speeds (depending on setting, this speed ranges from six to nine centimeters per second) and can be shorted out only by a shire-sized electric field.

While these shields can be mounted on aircraft, vehicles and even large structures, the most common use is in the form of personal shielding units. These are worn by infantry for battle or for the sake of combat training in order to prevent serious injury. The introduction of this technology to the battlefield had a regressionary effect on warfare in that it forced troops to largely abandon energy and ballistic weapons in favor of hand to hand combat. Hence why swords and knives are commonly used in the Dune universe.

stillsuitThe trade secret of the Fremen! Stillsuits, as the name suggests, are a water reclamation and purification system that are worn by the desert-dwelling nomads whenever they are out on the sand dunes. Powered by the motion of it’s user, which includes foot-pumps mounted in the suit’s heels, the system turns all water loss – perspiration, urination, even feces – into usable water which they can draw from a tube near their mouth.

Given water’s scarcity on Arrakis, the purpose of these suits is clear. By preventing moisture loss and recycling it into useable water, they ensure that a person out in the open can sustain themselves indefinitely in the extremely dry and hot desert environment. As Doctor Kynes himself remarked: “With a Fremen suit in good working order, you won’t lose more than a thimbleful of moisture a day..”

When it comes to science fiction franchises, one can tell a lot by the technology, big and small, that are all part of the background. And when looks over these examples of technology in the Dune universe, a few things become abundantly clear right away:

  1. The connection between environment and invention: Because the bulk of the story takes place on Arrakis, much of the technology we see was specifically adapted for desert use. Shields were useless in the desert environment, turbofans often broke down from dust and sand, and even massive crawlers were at risk of being consumed by Sandworms. In short, all the advanced technology of the Imperium was either useless or subject to hazards from the desert and its creatures. In the end, the most basic inventions, stillsuits and thumpers, were best suited to ensure survival. In short, those technologies who worked with the environment instead of against it were the most likely to work. More indications followed, such as how Paul’s father said to him that “On Caladan we ruled by sea and air power, but here on Arrakis, you need desert power.” On the one hand, this would seem to indicate that every planetary environment required its own balance of technology, Caladan being a sea planet meant ships and aircraft were the weapons of choice. On the other, he seemed to be alluding to the fact that rule on Arrakis required the allegiance of those who knew the desert best (i.e. the Fremen)
  2. Technology as regressive as well as progressive:This is something that I found particularly intriguing about the Dune universe, which was how it combined medievalism and futurism. On the one hand, humans have perfected interstellar travel and have colonized millions of planets throughout the galaxy. On the other, they fight with swords, knives, and live under a feudal system of government. As the story progresses, two reasons are given for why this is:
    1. After the Bulterian Jihad, the Great Convention established that no thinking machines or anything resembling them would ever be created again. As Leto II remarked in GEOD: “The target of the Jihad was a machine-attitude as much as the machines… Humans had set those machines to usurp our sense of beauty, our necessary selfdom out of which we make living judgments.” In short, the purpose of the Great Convention was not just to ban AI’s but the very mentality that had created them. Thenceforth, the very concept of industrial dependence was to be banned. And as Duncan Idaho later observed, such an economy was the basis for unlimited consumption and growing social equality. This ideal, borne of the Industrial Revolution, was also the cause of social chaos and the eventual rise of AI’s. By banning these and the system that ensured their creation, humanity was effectively going back to a time where feudal control by a small group of barons was basically necessary.
    2. The Great Convention also forbade the use of atomics. This meant that war had to be conventional from now on. The advent of shields also meant that energy weapons were no longer advisable, which meant that soldiers were further forced to adapt to conventional means of fighting – i.e. hand to hand combat. Swords, knives, and slow-pellet stunners were now mainstays of modern warfare, not by choice, but by necessity.

All of this leads to conclude that Frank Herbert was a freaking genius, or at least possessed a very complicated intellect. Whereas most science fiction and speculative writers tend to take a positive or negative view of technology, he preferred to take a very historic and ambiguous view of it. Setting his story in the distant future, one would immediately get the impression that humanity would be so highly evolved that it no longer resembled humanity of today.

However, Frank showed us a universe where humans were not only very much like they are today but also retained elements from our past. Much like the world of today, people are dependent on a single resource, are subject to petty rivalries, and a morally dubious system. But like the world of yesteryear, they are ruled by dukes, barons, emperors, and a system of entitlement and gross privilege and view democracy as a threatening sham.

One can only assume that Frank was making the point that human nature will not change as a result of technological innovation or space travel. Sure, AI’s and cybernetics might emerge down the road, giving humanity the ability to enhance their bodies and thought processes. But Frank’s take on this was that humans would naturally revolt against these once they came to the conclusion that they were needlessly complicated people’s lives.

So in the end, the only way out of being human was to create “mature humanity” as the Bene Gesserit said. This consisted of selective breeding and organic enhancement, relentlessly training people to strengthen their minds, bodies, and unlock the mysteries of the brain, eventually culminating in a person who could not only access their genetic memory, but merge space and time in their own mind. Interesting… and freaky!

Well, my mind is blown and I got nothing more to say. Stay tuned for something else, assuming I can overcome the effects of venturing into Frank’s head space. Man, it’s weird and awesome in there, kind of like a spice trance!

Cool Ships (volume V)

Back again! More ships, more designs, more franchises too. Like I said last time, there’s just no limit when you get right down to it. And in the course of doing my homework on cool sci-fi concepts, I’ve found that there are hundreds of franchises out there that I’ve never even heard of before. Of those I have heard of, I always seem to miss a few obvious candidates. That’s the beauty of ongoing segments though. Here are the latest, with some suggestions thrown in too 😉

Colonial Raptor:
Another late entry from the Battlestar Galactica universe, the updated version. Designed for reconnaissance, transport, atmospheric and space flight, and capable of making short range FTL jumps, the Raptor is the workhorse of the Colonial fleet and one of its most versatile vessels. Ordinarily, the Raptor is operated by a crew of two, one pilot and one Electronic Countermeasures Officer. Given it’s size and shape, it cannot launch from a launch tube and must take off and land from a Battlestar’s forward launch bay.

Having served with the Colonial fleet for over 40 years, making its debut in the first Cylon War, the versatility and reliability of this craft have prevented it from being phased out by newer generations of Colonial ships. During the second Cylon War, Raptors were used regularly in order to dust off survivors from Caprica and other colonies. Relying on a fly-by-wire system, rather than the new defense network systems, it also proved invulnerable to the virus the Cylon’s used to cripple the fleet.

Now here’s one that people probably won’t remember. In fact, I didn’t recall it either until I did some reading and realized I had seen the movie which featured it – The Black Hole – as a child and quite enjoyed it. Though a little Buck Rogers-y by modern standards, the concept and the movie and this ship still stand the test of time.

Released in 1979 by Walt Disney Pictures, The Black Hole was one of many movies that sought to take advantage of the sci-fi craze that Star Wars had unleashed. The plot centers on a derelict ship, known as the Cygnus, which is run by an android crew and a brilliant (albeit mad) scientist named Doctor Hans Reinhardt.

In addition to looking pretty cool, with its glowing transparent sections and old-school design, the Cygnus is apparently able to withstand the gravitational pull of black hole due to its ability to generate its own gravity well. In addition, its commander, Dr. Reinhardt, theorized that he would be able to fly it through a black hole and see once and for all what lay on the other side… It didn’t take, but still a cool idea!

Guild Heighliner:

Artist’s concept for a Guild Heighliner

Here’s one I couldn’t believe I had forgotten. In fact, I will accept any and all chastisements for my failure to include Dune craft in this series thus far. This can include physical beatings, just stay away from the nads… not quite done with those yet!

Anyhoo, when it comes to Dune ships, the Heighliner definitely takes the cake! Massive as all hell, this ship was the backbone of all commerce, diplomacy, travel and tourism in the Dune universe. Like all shipping, it was the exclusive property of the Spacing Guild and subject to their many controls, laws and whims.

Boasting Holtzman engines – a FTL drive system that was capable of “folding space” – the ship still required the services of a Guild Navigator. This person, a semi-prescient mutant due to years of living in a spice tank, would see a path through time and space and thus navigate the ship safely to its destination.

According to the original Dune, a single Heighliner was capable of lifting an entire planet’s worth of personnel, goods and supplies from one point in space to the next. As Duke Leto tells Paul in Part I of the story: “A Heighliner is truly big. Its hold will tuck all our frigates and transports into a little corner — we’ll be just a small part of the ship’s manifest.” Later in that same installment, House Harkonnen used a single Heighliner in order to lift an entire army to Arrakis for a surprise assault on the Atreides, and the cost was nothing short of punitive!

Given that the Heighliners are the sole means of commerce in a Empire as massive as that of the Dune universe, its little wonder why Heighliners are so freakishly big. Chartering one aint cheap, and if you do stowe aboard, you are expected to mind your business and wait until you arrive at your destination. Due to their high level of secrecy and sensitivity, no one is even allowed to venture beyond their own boarding craft when on a Heighlinger, and virtually no one outside of the Guild has ever seen a Guild navigator. Considered to be neutral territory by Imperial law, any and all acts of violence aboard Guild Heighliners carry stiff penalties.

Ah, another childhood classic! Taken from the film The Last Starfighter, the Gunstar was the first line of defense of the Star League against the evil Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada. Sounds pretty cheesy, huh? Well, it was the eighties! And this was yet another Disney franchise that seemed to be riding in the Star Wars wake. Still, this movie was one the first to make extensive use of CGI (Tron being the only other) and had a none-too-bad storyline too boot!

Boasting multiple guns, missiles and a “Death Blossom” trick that is nothing short of devastating, the gun star is a rather unique and innovative design. Apparently, it was meant to be a class of ship that would never go out of style, merging functionality with lethality and being able to take on any class of enemy ship.

Every Gunstar is a two seater, with the starfighter (gunner) in front, and the navigator in the rear. While the navigator flies the ship, the gunner directs fire from a swivel chair, which gives them control over the ships moveable weapons batteries. Although it has no shielding to speak of, the hull is protected by armor plating which can withstand multiple direct hits. When cornered, it is also capable of unleashing the “Death Blossom” where it will begin to rotate at a furious speed and unleash gun and missile fire in all directions. This however, is considered a weapon of last resort, since it will drain the ship’s power supply completely.

Heart of Gold:
Now here’s an interesting, and highly improbably, entry! Coming to us straight out of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, the SS Heart of Gold is rather unique in that it merged scientific theory with Douglas Adam’s notoriously quirky sense of humor.

Being a prototype vessel, it was the first ship ever in the universe to boast the “Infinite Probability Drive”. This drive system is essentially a Faster-Than-Light engine which is actually based in quantum theory. Essentially, the theory states that a subatomic particle is most likely to be in a particular place at a particular time, but that there is also a small probability of it being found very far from its point of origin. Thus, a body could travel from place to place without passing through the intervening space as long as it had sufficient control of probability.

Pretty cool huh? In the original radio series, the shape of the vessel was not specified. In the novelization of the series, it was described as a “sleek white running shoe”. For the sake of the movie, artists went with a tea-cup design, and added some brake lights for good measure. Originally built as part of a secret government project on the planet of Damogran, the ship was stolen by President Zaphod Beeblebrox during its launching ceremony and became the means through which the main characters began exploring the universe.

Minbari Cruiser:
Back once more to the B5 universe for another fine example of kick-ass shippery! Known officially as the Sharlin-class Warcruiser, this Minbari vessel is the mainstay of the Minbari fleet in the original series. Big, bold, stealthy, and packing a sh*tload of firepower, this vessel is veritable nightmare for all but the most powerful of races. Even Shadow vessels mind their business when some of these are in the field.

Making its appearance in season one of the show (episode 17: “Legacies”) and went on to become a regular feature. When Sheridan assumed command of the station in season two, the renegade cruiser Trigati was destroyed in the course of a standoff. After B5 broke away from Earth in season 3, a force of Sharlin cruisers arrived just in time to prevent the station from being captured by forces loyal to Clarke. Many went on to serve alongside Sherian and Delenn in the Shadow War and even went on to help liberate Earth from Clarke’s forces.

According to Delenn, Minbari ships do not rely on conventional engines like other ships. Instead, a system of gravitational and electromagnetic fields for propulsion, which have the added benefit of supplying artificial gravity. This frees up their ships from the needs of rotating sections and makes for a more effective combat platform. Sharlin cruisers also boast a significant amount of weaponry, which consists mainly of heavy beam cannons, but also includes missile launchers, neutron guns, and electro-pulse cannons.

During the Earth-Mimbari War, Earth Forces were completely outmatched by this class of Cruiser. In addition to being highly resistant to Earth force weapons, the Sharlin cruiser also boasted a stealth field which prevented Earth ships from being able to lock onto it. In the course of the war, only one human Captain ever survived combat with one, Captain John Sheridan. Relying on a phony distress signal and several well placed tactical nukes, Sheridan was able to lure the Black Star, the Minbari flagship, into a trap and destroy it. Though the Minbari considered it a cheap victory, Sheridan’s fame and renown quickly spread throughout the fleet.

During the battle of Sector 83, the Sharlin-class Cruiser proved an effective weapon against the Shadows. Although somewhat slow and providing a large target for Shadows, their powerful beam weapons were capable of destroying a Shadow ship unassisted. When protected by smaller, faster craft like the White Star, it proves to be a very effective combat platform.

Nebula-B Escort Frigate:
More Star Wars! God, I think I’m OD’ing on this franchise. But the sign says “Cool Ships” and this one is no exception. Known as the Nebula-class frigate, this ship is probably best remembered as the “Medical Frigate” which appeared in Empire and Jedi. 

Measuring some 300 meters long and designed to defend Imperial convoys from Rebel attacks, this ship was more famously used by the Rebellion as a hospital ship. During heavy fighting, Nebula-B’s would be on hand to pick up pilots that had ejected and provide them with life-saving assistance, ensuring that Rebel pilots could live to fight another day.

The most famous appearance of a Medical Frigate was during the Battle of Endor, when several medical frigates were on hand to service Rebel pilots who had been shot down by superior Imperial forces. It was also on board the Medical Frigate Redemption that Luke Skywalker received his prosthetic hand after losing it in a lightsaber duel to Vader.

In addition to providing escort and as a hospital ship, the Nebula-B was proved useful as a deep space scout and reconnaissance ship, due to its sophisticated sensors. During raiding missions or less intense combat operations, many also served as command ships given their speed and defensive capabilities. One weakness of the Nebula-B however was its thin fusilage. Though this made the ship an inexpensive vessel by most standards, it also made it a poor choice for heavy combat. Hence why it was relegated to support, scouting and medical roles.

The Nostromo:
You know, I really thought I covered this one already. I already mentioned how the Alliance Cruisers from Firefly appeared to be inspired by this baby. And it just makes sense that if you’re going to cover ships from the sequel, (the USS Sulaco and the Cheyenne Dropship) that you cover the original first. But alas, the Nostromo was somehow passed over by me, another act of wanton insensitivity! Beating shall continue until my attitude improves!

Okay, now that we got my punishment out of the way, allow me to pay this ship it’s due homage. The main set for the movie Alien, the USCSS Nostromo was a deep space commercial vessel which belonged to the Weyland-Yutani corp (much like everything else in this universe!).

Overall, the Nostromo was a curious design which made perfect sense from a space-faring point of view. Doing away with such things as streamlining and aerodynamic sleekness, the ship was well suited to deep-space travel and hailing. In addition, it was also taller than it was long, another common aspect to spaceships which are confined to the whole sea ship/airplane paradigm.

It’s massive refinery, which it towed behind, would process its manifest of mined ore while it made its way back to Earth from wherever it had been deployed. Thus, in addition to providing transport and amenities for a crew of miners and spacers, it was also a mobile refining platform that could deliver processed materials to factories rather than just unrefined ore.

While on return from the distant planet of Thedus, the Nostromo was rerouted to LV-426 where it picked up the alien organism known as a xenomorph. After all but one of the crew were killed the by creature, Ellen Ripley, the ship’s Warrant Officer, set the ship’s to self-destruct and escaped aboard the ship’s life craft with the crew cat, Jones. According to Weyland-Yutani execs, who were some pissed when she returned without her ship, the destruction of this vessel cost them 24 million in adjusted dollars. Damn penny-pinchers!

The Sathanas:
What do you call the most fearsome, intimidating and powerful ship in the universe, without being too obvious, that is? The Sathanas, that’s what! Being the Latin name for Satan, this title is very apt when applied to a massive juggernaut built by a race known as the the Shivans (i.e. Shiva, Hindu god of destruction).

This last entry, much like The Colossus and Deimos from my last list, comes to us from the game Freespace 2. Making its appearance midway through the game, this terrifying vessel was the most powerful space-faring ship ever encountered by the human race or its allies.

Boasting four massive beam cannons which are situated at the end of its claw like appendages, this ship best exemplifies the offensive fighting spirit. Jumping into a field of battle, it is capable of dealing devastating blows on a target head on, keeping its flanks and rear hidden from the enemy.

Above all, it is clear that the Shivan built the Sathanas to act as a terror weapon in addition to a capital ship. One look at its design confirms this, given its clawing appendages and thorny skin. Defeating this ship outright is quite difficult given its reinforced plating and terrible array of weapons. Disabling this ship, through EMP missiles and guns, is not much easier given the incredibly density of its hull and many redundant systems. In the end, the only way to beat it seems to be for lighter craft to take out its “claws” while heavier vessels strike at it from a distance. However, this still proves to be a suicidal mission given the Sathanas’ many missile and defensive batteries.

Ultimately, taking down this ship in the game is much like the real-life campaign to sink the Bismark. This dreadnought, which was the pride and joy of the German navy in WWII, also boasted massive weapons, a heavily armored hull and superior systems. In the end, the Royal Navy brought it down through a combination of luck, persistence, and careful engagements, taking their time to disable it and then closing in to pound it relentlessly! Hmmm. I guess good history makes for good gaming 🙂

Final Thoughts:/strong>
The suggestion box, as always, is still open. Thanks to Goran Zidar for suggesting the Gunstar, I knew I’d have to include it sooner or later and I’m glad someone asked. Anything else? I got another installment on the way, and probably a few more after that. No? Sigh, alright, bring on the beatings! No nads!

Dune, the movie (and miniseries)!

Wow… when I first started doing these movie reviews, last week, I knew that at some point I’d have to cover the book-turned-movie that inspired me to write! And truth be told, I actually saw this movie before reading the book. Yes, Dune was just like Lord of the Rings for me, a film that I was drawn to because I knew it was based on a classic. And upon learning that the movie was significantly different from the book, I decided that at some point, I’d check the latter out. However, it was not until years later, with the production of Frank Herbert’s Dune (the six part miniseries that was much more faithful to the novel) that I finally put my money where my mouth was.

Well, you know the rest… sort of. Short version, it inspired me; long version, I read the first three books, had to return them, then read all six… twice over. Guess you could say I liked them, though I got to admit, not as much as some people! Since I first posted my thoughts about Dune and its Descendents, I’ve learned that their are Dune fansites out there where its all they talk about. And boy do they know their stuff! So let me take this opportunity to give a shout out to the good folks at Jacurutu and Hairy Ticks of Dune! Keep up the good work!

I think I also mentioned somewhere that movies based on books, especially where they differed, would get special attention. To make good on this drunken boast, here’s my review of Dune (1984, directed by David Lynch) and Frank Herbert’s Dune (the 2000 miniseries that premiered on the Sci-fi network). First up, Lynch’s adaptation of Herbert’s Magnum Opus!

Since 1971, six years after Herbert wrote Dune, attempts were made to adapt the novel to film. Several directors tried and failed, among them Arthur P. Jacobs, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Ridley Scott. However, all came up short. Then, in 1981, the Italian film producer Dino De Laurentis decided to tackle it and brought in relative newcomer David Lynch to direct it. This did not mean that the two did not go through hell to create it though! The movie did not hit the screen until 1984, Lynch distanced himself from the work, saying he was denied final cut privileges, and several versions have been released over the years. The original was a two-hour movie that glossed over much that happened in the book and simplified the plot. A three hour version was also released, but this too was guilty of the same faults (i.e. glossing and simplifying). But then again, how do you do justice to a book that is as dense as Dune while still making it fit into a two hour format? Hell, even a three hour format is pretty damn tight, and Lynch cited pressure and deadlines as a reason for the disappointing final product. So really, its lack of commercial success and mixed reviews are entirely understandable. But, as Nietzsche said, “God is in the details”. So let’s get down to the particulars and see just what made the original flop and the miniseries work.

The original movie opens with an intro that parallels the novels, but which seems, in a movie format, to be both confusing and misleading. Princess Irulan (played by Virginia Madsen) gives us an overview of the known universe, set to a background of stars. She lets us know what year it is, how her father’s the Emperor of the known universe, and how the spice runs everything. She also introduces the namesake of the movie, the planet where all spice in the universe “flows” from – Arrakis, aka. Dune. Now here is why this is confusing. Aside from this intro, she has voice over lines for the rest of the movie, and one line of dialogue in the opening scene. But otherwise, we don’t hear or see from her until the very end, and even then she’s just a stand-in. A glorified prop. This is faithful to the novel, in which every chapter opens with a quote from her Histories of Muad’Dib and what not, but like I say, doesn’t work here. In a movie, if someone’s doing the intro, you’d expect them to have some kind of role throughout the movie.

Moving on, the original movie then introduces us to the Spacing Guild by having them confront the Emperor about a possible conspiracy they got wind of. They demand that the Emperor explain the key elements to them, which is really just an excuse for some exposition. I should mention that none of this takes place in the original novel, and it feels like a total info dump, especially if you’ve read said novel. There, Herbert took his time to build up the conspiratorial relationship that existed between House Harkonnen and the Emperor and used dialogue to put it into the background, which is something they should have done with the movie. Dropping it on the audience all at once just seems forced. Oh, and once the Emperor is done explaining his conspiracy, the Guild adds their two cents: if Duke Leto Atreides is to die, could he throw in the son as well? Why? They try to explain that later. In the meantime, we are left to wonder for ourselves, and the Emperor even asks this obvious question in an internal monologue. I should note that this ALSO did not happen in the original book. In fact, the Guild never made any demands at all and had nothing to do with the conspiracy that gets Act I rolling. So again, no real need for this, except to set up the truncated, simplified plot they went with. The scene did involve some cool costumes though, not to mention a big, animatronic navigator in a pressure tank; all of which was pretty original since the appearance of navigators was never described in any great detail. But for the most part, this scene is kinda useless. It also sets up the rather annoying and persistent habit this movie has of relying on internal monologues. I’m reminded of Blade Runner, where Scott felt that need to include narration in the theatrical version, something which was left out of the Director’s Cut. And as time has proven, the latter was better, relying on the actors and direction to establish things and convey information instead of just telling the audience what’s going on.

The movie then moves to planet Geidi Prime, the home of the Harkonnen’s. This scene I actually liked, at least until the dialogue really started to flow. The reason was because the sets were actually very cool. They create the kind of dark, fearful atmosphere that you would expect from a director like Lynch. But then, a big expository speech is made in which the Baron (Kenneth McMillan) and Mentat Piter De Vries (Brad Dourif) explain to Feyd (played by Sting!) and his brother “The Beast” Rabban, what their plan is, in painfully simple terms! “We got us a conspiracy here, and nobody can know about it, k?” I mean, c’mon people, a little subtlety! They go over the top just a little to make the Baron look evil here too, like how he’s got disease ridden flesh that a doctor has to lance constantly, or how he molests some boy to death, or how Rabban and Feyd enjoy the spectacle immensely. I mean, we get it, they’re evil. Move on!

Speaking of moving on, we are brought to Caladan next, home of the Atreides. We meet Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) as he’s brushing up on his planet studies from what appears to be an iPad/audiobook. And of course, more internal monologue is used to tell us what we need to know about these places. And it’s annoying as all hell! “Geidi Prime, home of our enemy…”, “Kaitain, where the Emperor lives…” “Arrakis… Dune… Desert planet…” Then, we get to meet Paul’s tutors, who stand still and stare at Paul long enough for the narration to introduce them all. Really? Why not just freeze frame it, or better yet, NOT have Irulan introduce them? Seriously, it looks like they’re in a stage play and are waiting for the damn chorus to stop talking so they can say their lines. Okay, so there’s Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart, aka. Captain Picard), Thufir Hawat (Freddie Jones) and Doctor Yueh (Dean Stockwell, aka. Al from Quantum Leap). More expository dialogue follows as they dump info on Arrakis, the Fremen, the giant Sandworms, the spice, their enemies the Harkonnens, and how they suspect the Emperor’s in league with them. Then we get a quasi-action scene as Paul takes down a robot using a Weirding Module (a gun that relies on sound, already mentioned in the movie). Do I even need to mention that these things were never in the original book? In truth, they are kind of neat, and the settings used for this scene are also lavish, just like the ones used to reconstruct the emperor’s palace and Geidi Prime. But, you kind of get the feeling that they are setting the tone for the rest of the movie at this point, like all the money went into wardrobe and sets and none was left over for decent writers!

After beating up the robot with his Weirding gun, Paul meets up with Duke Leto (Jürgen Prochnow), who tells Paul he’s proud of him and explains how their move will do them good in spite of the danger. Why? Some stuff about how the “sleeper must awaken”. Now of course this is a case of foreshadowing, but even with all the info dumping and internal monologues, its never quite clear what this means, even by the end of the movie. The Lady Jessica is then introduced, Paul gets to meet the Revered Mother, and she tests him with that funky black box that induces pain. This is also in keeping with the novel, as it establishes that Paul might be the Kwisatz Haderach*, and that there is a conspiracy in the works against Paul’s father. Unlike the previous scenes, this one doesn’t feel so info-dumpish. Maybe that’s because its actually pretty close to what was in the novel, so the writers didn’t feel the need to be so expository. But alas, this good scene is followed by a pretty stupid one in which Duncan Idaho (Richard Jordan) is intro’d and Paul says good-bye to him, since he will be going to Arrakis with an advance party to check the place out. What makes this scene stupid? Two lines of dialogue: “May the hand of God be with you,” says Paul. “May the hand of God be with us all,” replies Duncan. Just substitute the word Force and you’ve got a lawsuit on your hands. What the hell! That wasn’t even a subtle attempt at ripping off Star Wars, which was by 1984, the most popular sci-fi franchise of all time! What were they trying to do, cash in on one-liner recognition?

We then cut to the Guild transport ship where we get a special effects montage that is meant to illustrate the mysterious process of how a navigator “folds space”. This, as the novel explains, is an instantaneous form of space travel, which is dependent on navigators who have heightened, spice-induced mental abilities to merge time and space. Whoa! Okay, while the special effects in this scene are not up to current standards, it was still pretty cool. And I did love the models used to create the scene, mainly because you get a real sense of grandeur from them which is what Lynch was clearly going for. In the novel, Herbert emphasized that the Guild ships were really, really big! So kudos for more good set work, David. That’s one thing this movie keeps doing well. Then, cut to Arrakis, where the ship has deposited them safely.

What follows is several scenes in which we see the Duke’s men deploying and settling in. Lady Jessica also meets the Fremen and we find out that they also have legends that involve a Messianic figure that parallel the Bene Gesserit’s. We also get a good long scene where Doctor Kynes (Max Von Sydow), the planetary ecologist, takes them to the desert in an ornithopter and we get to see a worm attack a harvester. Again, kind of cheesy by current standards, but the scene is quite well done and does a pretty good job of conveying Paul’s wonder and the obvious tension over being attacked by a gigantic beast. Then, an attempt is made on Paul’s life, they find booby traps, yadda yadda, yadda. And all the while, Paul becomes more and more entranced with Arrakis, the spice, and his own fate. Then, after ALL that build-up, the Harkonnens and the Emperor finally attack! The combat scene is short, people die, Doctor Yueh betrays the Duke, and Paul and his mother are ushered to safety. Duncan also dies way too soon, having lost the better part of his page time and any involvement he had in making sure Paul and his mother survived. But this was obviously done in order to speed along the movie, which was already going long and had lots to cover still.

Speaking of which, Paul and his mother then find themselves in the desert where they narrowly escape a worm and the Fremen find them. Now this part, mainly the scene where they see the desert Fremen for the first time, I got a problem with for three reasons. First of all, they totally change the reason why Paul takes the name Muad’Dib. Its the name of a desert mouse, not the damn “mouse shadow” that’s on the planet’s second moon! Why’d the movie writers change that anyway? Was the book’s version not messianic enough for ya? The nerve! Second, the acting is wooden, from Stilgar (Everett McGill) to Chani (Sean Young), and just about everyone else in this scene! Everything they say just sounds laughable and cheesy. Third, they speed through it like they’re in a huge rush, which is precisely what the movie does from this point onward! Like I said, its as if they acknowledged that they’ve already spent half the movie on Act I and need to rush through Acts II and III. So from this initial encounter where Paul and his mother are welcome into the tribe, we are rushed to the Fremen’s hideout where they show Paul and his mother one of their moisture traps, the Reverend Mother dies and Jessica take her place (in the process drinking the “Water of Life”** and altering her unborn daughter, Alia), Paul begins teaching the Fremen the “Weirding Way” (still sounds weird!) and they begin their campaign against the Harkonnens, and Paul and Jessica fall in love. Totally, totally rushed! Scene by scene, minimal time is given to establishing the significance of these events, Lynch relying on internal dialogue and narration to relate what the audience needs to know. Even the scene where Paul rides the worm feels rushed, and its got the epic music and a freaking Sandworm!

To make matters even worse, Irulan’s voiceover is cued again and we’re told that Paul then spent the next two years waging war against the Baron’s spice production, Alia grew up way faster than any normal child, and Paul and Chani fell in love. Really? All that just happened, huh? And we’re only an hour and fifteen minutes in? Wow, were making great time! Naturally, the book did this too, but it dedicated plenty of page time filling in those gaps. They didn’t just phone it in! I know, I know, time constraints, but even in the long version, it’s the same. Just a montage of shit blowing up, then we come to the scene where Paul meets Gurney again – whose taken up with some smugglers since the attack – and they join forces. I should also mention that the movie then skips a whole bunch of scenes that took place in the novel and moves right to the part where the Emperor comes to Arrakis to demand answers. He does this, in the movie, because the Guild demanded it of him. Again, not in the damn book! In the book, the Emperor intervenes because the Baron’s incompetence in suppressing the rebellion demanded it, not because the Guild is pissed. Then, we learn why the Guild wants him dead. They say so, and Paul sees it in his dream. They are afraid he’ll drink the “Water of Life”, apparently, because… Well, we’re not sure why at this point. And we’re not even sure why Paul will do it, aside from the fact that we’re told, point blank, that he HAS to. His visions are interrupted, you see, and he needs to take the water of life to regain it and “become what he is meant to be”, or some such prophetic shit!

Anyway, Paul achieves a higher state of awareness after surviving the ordeal, as is demonstrated by a series of watery images and more internal monologue. The truth, he realizes, is that the worms create the spice and the two are interrelated. Duh! But apparently, drinking the water has not just restored his visions but given him control over the worms too. Oh boy! Do I even need to say it? NOT IN THE BOOK! In the original story, Paul drank the water to gain full awareness, which is something every Bene Gesserit sister does and Paul knew he’d have to do sooner or later to see if he was the Kwisatz Hadderach. And he didn’t gain control over the damn worms in the process! What’s more, the Guild didn’t give a shit about any of this, nor did it ever even come up, mainly because they didn’t suspect he would take control over the spice-producing worms in the process. That was all invented by the movie’s writers, and it was pretty damn flaccid, you ask me! It was the simplification I mentioned, and for any fan of the novel (or anyone with half a brain, for that matter) it was a letdown. This, apparently, was what his father was talking about when he said those prophetic words: “The Sleeper must awaken.” Well, seems it has. Makes no sense, but whatever…

So, Paul and the Fremen get a hold of a whole lot of Sandworms and decide to attack the Emperor, who’s arrived on Arrakis in his Imperial fortress. And this climactic action scene is, once again, rushed and pretty sloppy. Lots of tracers and lots of things blowing up, but hardly a satisfying fight scene with the kind of urgency or desperation you’d expect. I mean, I know Paul’s prescient and has already foreseen victory, but that doesn’t mean it should be all one-sided. Then comes the final scene where Paul is dictating terms to the Emperor, a scene which is truncated and underdeveloped by any standard. Yes, he does order the Emperor to abdicate and give him power, which involves marriage to Irulan (who appears in this scene, but says nothing), and yes, he tells off the Mother Superior; all of which is in keeping with the original novel. But nothing is mentioned as to how Paul plans to back up these demands. In the novel, his victory is not complete since the Emperor still has the armies of every noble house sitting in orbit, just waiting for him to say “attack!”. He cannot bring the Emperor and the entire universe to heel until he threatens to destroy the spice, which he knows about because he’s stumbled onto the secret of how water is lethal to the worms. “He who can destroy a thing, controls a thing”, as the novel put it. But in the movie, the Emperor is about to protest until the Guild simply tells him to shut up, because apparently, they “know what he can do”. Uh, mind telling the rest of us? Paul controls the worms, so does that mean he can shut off spice production? Tell the worms to simply stop making it? What?

But all that gets pushed aside so Paul and Feyd (aka. Sting) can have their final knife fight scene. Of course, Paul kills him, and makes his proclamation, also from the novel. “We Fremen have a saying. ‘God created Arrakis to train the faithful’. One cannot go against the word of God’. Then comes the two stupidest parts of the movie, nice that they saved them for last! First, Irulan’s final voiceover of the movie explains that Paul ushered in some kind of golden age. “Where there was war, Paul would bring peace. Where there was hate, he would bring love.” Are you freaking kidding me? I could mention that this is a total perversion of what happened in the novels, where in fact Paul’s reign brought in successive Crusades against the world’s that resisted him, killing billions, but I think I’ll just point out how this makes no sense. For starters, this bringer of peace and love, is this the same guy who just waged a war against the Harkonnens for two years, a war that was based on tons of guerrilla/terrorist-style attacks? The same guy who brought down the Emperor’s army by using a tactical nuke, followed by a full-frontal assault that involved monster-like creatures? Second, just how is this messianic emperor (who happens to have an army of skilled religious zealots at his disposal that see him as a living god and obey his every comomand) going to spread peace and love? Boxes of candy and flowers? Get real! It’s “Do as I say, or freaking die like these other bastards!” Why the hell they even threw this line in in the first place is beyond me! It totally goes against everything the book stood for, which was a sense of historic and humanistic realism. Paul wasn’t no Gandhiesque Jesus figure who loved his enemies and fell on their swords. He was a bass-ass prophet with the toughest army on the block, who smote his enemies hard, fast, and where it hurt! Second, its just plain stupid!

Oh, but I’m forgetting the other stupid thing. Paul makes it rain. Yeah, that’s right. As a demonstration of his powers after he’s killed Feyd and brought everyone to heel, he uses his mind and makes the skies open with tears. Um… what??? What the hell is this, more totally over the top messianic crap? The man is NOT God, in spite of his freaky powers or what his followers think of him. Furthermore, as the extended movie already established (not to mention the novel, many times over), water is poisonous to the worms! This is why Arrakis is a desert planet, for chrissakes! The worms altered the ecology so they could survive. So making it rain would automatically kill all of them and shut down spice production forever! And, as the novel and movie both mentioned, spice is the life blood of EVERYTHING! Without it, people die, and I don’t just mean from the total breakdown of trade, commerce and transport. I mean they start Jonesin’ and freaking die! True, the book did dedicate vast amounts of page time explaining how the Fremen want to alter Arrakis’ ecology so it will be lusher and more hospitable, hence all the moisture traps, but this plan involved centuries of ecological engineering, with great care being given to ensure that some patches of desert would remain so the worse could survive. So not only was it a completely over the top, Ten Commandments-style trick, it also contradicted everything established in the movie – and more importantly, the novel – up until this point.

Ah, screw this! Roll credits!

Okay, no two ways about it, I didn’t like this movie. Obviously, my love of the original book has much to do with that, but so does my commitment to a well-drawn out, well-written story! And while I liked the sets, the costumes, and felt they did a good job of casting, that’s about as far as my love went. The dialogue moves between wooden and preachy, their are far too many expositions being made, the internal monologues are as annoying as they are persistent, the pace is rushed, and the plot feels like a cut and paste job. Once again, I must acknowledge that time constraints and production difficulties were responsible, but that doesn’t change the fact that it feels like they cut a whole lot of corners in this movie, then pasted on some half-assed plot lines in their place to make it fit and still make sense. Well… not exactly make sense, but you get the point. And I’d be one of the first people to admit that this was inevitable since Dune really can’t be made into a two or even three hour movie, but that doesn’t change the fact that the end result was still pretty bad. Not all bad, mind you. In fact, the first hour or so is actually pretty enjoyable if you don’t know what to expect. But then, it all kind of goes to hell and by the end, you get the feeling even David Lynch was saying it “screw it, roll credits.”

And as was to be expected, the movie was panned by critics and did poorly at the box office. A cult classic like Dune you’d expect to not garner a lot of attention at first, but at least you’d hope it would get the attention of critics and command a cult following. Alas, this movie did neither, and it was for this reason that the miniseries was made some sixteen years later. Essentially, many felt that the Dune franchise, with all its adherents and devoted fans, deserved a second shot at a worthy adaptation. And by opting for a miniseries format – three episodes, two hours each with commercials – they would be able to do it justice. And you know what, they did! But more on that in my next installment…

Entertainment Value: 6/10 (good for the first hour, then not so much)
Plot: 3/10 (weaaaaak!)
Direction: 8/10 (nothing wrong with how Lynch shot it!)
Total: 6/10

Endnotes:(your welcome!)
* A superbeing the Bene Gesserit were conspiring to develop through selective breeding. A male that would combine all their powers of genetic memory, prescience, and super-human kills.
** The liquid exhalation of a sandworm that is excreted in the course of their dying, which the Bene Gesserit rely on to achieve higher awareness. The “trial” involves drinking the poisonous water and converting it by using their mental acuity. Those who survive achieve higher awareness, those who fail die.