Brief lead-in: in a feudal Empire spanning the whole universe, there is a special substance called spice that can only be found on one planet, Arrakis, and is essential for interstellar travel. House Atreides, one of the ruling families of the Empire, is allocated to Arrakis, a world full of sand and hazards, one of which are giant sandworms, and inhabited by Fremen. The heir of house Atreides is Paul, a young man trained to be a perfect warrior and the main protagonist of the story. The family is betrayed, leaving Paul stranded in the desert with his mother. What unfolds afterwards is a tale of a messiah that won’t go the way you’d expect.

“Dad told me that you could follow any of the novel's layers as you read it, and then start the book all over again, focusing on an entirely different layer,” says Brian Herbert, the author’s son and a writer himself, in the afterward to an anniversary edition of Dune that I read several years ago and since then came to cherish. 

Truly, the novel is a multilayered volume that touches upon many issues on its 900 pages – and in such depth that could hardly fit into a 2.5-hour-long movie (even if said movie was to depict only half of the novel). Here is a list of five topics you might’ve missed while watching the film:

  • Groundwork of politics

If you’ve ever wondered why international politics is often referred to as the grand chessboard (following Brzezinski’s prominent monograph), after the movie you’ll likely have this question answered: the issues are always which pawns you are ready to lose in order to preserve your precious resources (the omnipotent spice, in the case of Dune). The Empire that dominates Herbert’s universe seems to be composed only of plots, betrayals, and rampaging individualism, zealots of which give not the slightest consideration to the losses, fears, or damage of others. Each fights for their own place under the sun, and by not taking any side or justifying anyone’s actions, the book, but not the movie, it seems, makes us look closer at the principles that are still behind many of today’s political decisions.

  • Environmentalism at its mightiest 

In not properly introducing Dr. Kynes, Arrakis’ first planetologist, whose life’s mission was to transform the desert planet into an oasis, the film deprives us of the book’s deep-rooted ecological layer. In the book, it is through this character that we get to experience an understanding of equilibrium on a scale that we are yet to establish on our own planet: possessed by his (as Dr. Kynes was a man in the book) project, he comes to view the planet as one organism. By noticing how animals of Arrakis, like the tiny desert mouse, accumulate moisture, he becomes ever more hopeful of providing water for plants and greenery that would grow to be as adapted to the climate as these endemic species. Personally, my perception of nature evolved after reading Dune and I can only hope that Dr. Kynes’ ideas will return to the screen in Dune: Part Two.

  • Postcolonial perspective

Postcolonialism is a critical movement, initially in literary studies, that was born out of the need to deconstruct the image of the colonized once attempted to be set in stone by the Western colonizers. In this respect, the book can be a little hard to untangle. Herbert’s sympathies clearly lie with the Fremen, the native people of Arrakis, whose value of the common is in sharp contrast to the Empire’s individualism. At the same time, they appear not to have their own voice (another essential issue for postcolonialists) – the myth of a messiah crucial to their religion had been planted by strangers and the messiah himself, when he came, did not lead the Fremen to the paradise promised in the legend. Everyone will view the story a little differently, but what’s important is to not let the simplistic image of the “less cultivated” people of the desert prevail over the complicated picture originally painted by Herbert. So far, the movie is rather inclined towards simplicity – and my hopes are that Part Two will right this wrong.

  • Forging a hero you can trust

Over the years since the book’s publication, we’ve seen many a pop culture hero grow into their full power – and many of them, especially in recent years, tend to be believable rather than perfect. Everyone has their own flaws and we’re more interested in seeing the hero reconcile with them, accepting the imperfections. It is different with Paul, however: though we do witness him grow and change, he is omnipotent almost from the start. This character evolves from having all of our affections to the point where we question his every decision – apparently, as per Herbert’s design: he believed that people should trust their own judgement instead of blindly following a power figure. Can you spot the foundations of his later choices in the fledgling messiah portrayed by Chalamet in the first part of the film? I’d say the shadow is already there for those who know where to look.

  • Controlling minds and bodies

Finally, one incredibly empowering layer of the book is the existence of the Bene Gesserit, an all-female society that spins its web behind the scenes of the Empire’s power plays, and Mentats, essentially human computers capable of performing complex calculations and store countless facts in their minds. They weren’t paid as much attention in the film, but actually these communities emerged, in part, to compensate for all human-like machines that were banned after they waged war on people – that all happened centuries before the events of Dune take place. When I read the book, I was inspired by the idea of controlling my mind and body almost to the level of cells, and not through any special powers other than training and concentration. That was another of Herbert’s beliefs: anyone can be a hero, anyone can develop incredible skills. And even though I am not at the level of Paul or the Bene Gesserit yet, I can vouch that the Litany Against Fear (introduced in the book and popularized by the movie trailer) did help me reason with my nerves in troubling times. 

Cinemas in St. Pete will be closed until November 7, but you can watch the movie online (for example, here) and enjoy a deeper understanding of the main storyline.

Curious to read more of our takes on cinema? Check out this series for your ultimate movie night inspiration.