In addition to being a film critic for Film Threat, I’m an astronomer, TV host (check me out right now in Killers of the Cosmos on Discovery+), and sometimes a science advisor for books and movies. When there’s a fun big-budget science fiction movie, I often make an episode of Science Vs Cinema about it, taking a deep dive into related science topics. Partly this is because getting the science right can help filmmakers tell better stories. Here’s the Science Vs Cinema episode on Dune!
Long before there was Game of Thrones, way before there was Star Wars, there was Frank Herbert’s Dune – a novel about clans struggling for dominance in a sprawling space empire. It’s one of the most influential novels in science fiction history. Just take its influence on Star Wars. It, too, is science fiction fantasy, featuring a struggle against an evil Empire using, ostensibly set in the future using throwback technology.
The desert planet Tatooine is a whole lot like Arrakis, right down to the krayt dragons, which are basically just sandworms. And the powerful drug Spice, which drives much of the plot in Dune, even shows up in the Star Wars universe.
The novel has a ton of world-building – which helps us believe in this enormous interstellar society with complex tribal politics. That emphasis on politics over action may be one reason adaptations of Dune have never quite connected with audiences. First, Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to adapt the book but failed. Then came the weird David Lynch version from 1984. After that, there was a three-part miniseries on the Sci-Fi Channel and its 2003 sequel. It was faithful to the source material, some say too faithful, but it didn’t have a big enough budget to fully realize the world of the novels.
But now we’ve got a lavish, star-studded IMAX version, directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Denis Villeneuve. It strikes a great balance between character development, world-building, politics, and spectacle. Villeneuve previously did the same thing when he made two of my favorite science fiction films, Arrival and Blade Runner: 2049. Obviously, Dune is beholden to the fantasy-based source material, but Villeneuve has previously successfully ground the fantastical elements in real and plausible science and technology. So, let’s examine the world of Dune.
Can you have a planet that is entirely desert? Of course! We only have to look to one of our nearest neighbors — Mars. Mars today is mostly sand, dust, and rocks. But it wasn’t always that way — evidence from NASA’s Martian rovers and orbiters indicates that Mars had a warm, wet climate and a much denser atmosphere billions of years ago. We see evidence of ancient lake beds, dried-up rivers, and minerals that could only have been made in the presence of water.
Some of the water stayed around, locked up in polar ice caps, and some of it may have gone underground. But thanks to NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft orbiting Mars, we know some of the water is leaving the planet. It turns out Mars’ lack of a global magnetic field is mainly to blame. Without that protective shield, the sun’s solar wind — a constant stream of charged particles — beats down on Mars, ejecting most of its atmosphere and water into space.