Duna: Medieval Retro Meets Futuristic Sci-Fi


Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi film Duna presents a grand audio-visual feast for the viewer with its exquisite sets, unique aesthetic system, and poetic mood, creating a world of Dune that is both familiar and unfamiliar to us. Whether it’s the solemn cold gloom embodied by the seawater-covered planet of Kaladan, the darkness of Harkonnen Prime, or the sizzling grit of Erakos, all of these scenes reveal the poetic beauty of the movie.

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Duna: Silent. Huge.

Duna doesn’t just show the size of the worm’s body directly, but through the shaking of the desert, the trembling of the earth, and the fearful reactions of small animals, it “approaches” the worm step by step, and then near the end of the movie, the worm opens its mouth and stands in front of human beings, which creates a great shock and trembling sensation.

In Villeneuve’s movies, you can often see such BDO scenes, such as “Blade Runner 2049”, the wilderness of the yellow sand in the sky, the barren scene in the only remaining single human being, and the formation of a stark counterpart, is the artificial statue of the huge silent object, to bring people a kind of inexplicable fear and fascination.

Villeneuve’s keen use of BDO is not purely for aesthetic reasons; according to Cicha, it captures one of the most central aesthetics of sci-fi, which is the “stark contrast between the vast and the small.”

For example, at the end of the Duna movie, when the sandworms are chasing Paul, he turns around and is presented on the large screen as nothing more than a tiny, matchstick-like villain facing the spectacle of the giant standing sandworms.

“In that moment, you could feel that Paul was not just facing a simple animal or beast, he was facing the whole of nature, a whole vast universe, and the sandworm became the embodiment of a mysterious and powerful force. This kind of intention is difficult to be felt in the universal and high-speed media of today.


It conveys a sense of the vastness of the desert, which is not really that different from the vastness of space depicted in other science fiction movies. Because of the relationship between man and the desert, there is a poetic and ineffable relationship with the “king of the desert”, the sandworm.”

As a line from the novelization of Duna states, each time mankind confronts its insignificance, it is a great advancement in itself.

Duna Adaptation, Why Is It So Hard?

When discussing Duna, “adaptation” is a topic that often comes up, not only because of the success of the original novel itself, but also because of several previous attempts at film and television adaptations that were not as successful as they could have been.

Unfortunately, because of the large investment and other reasons, no film company was interested in the project, and the movie was not actually filmed in the end. But the planning process has left many legacies, such as Giger’s use of the concept art for Duna as the basis for the grotesque and shocking classic monster of cinema history: the Alien, which has left us with endless imaginations for this unfinished version of the adaptation.

For film and television adaptations, Xixia emphasizes that it is not necessary to pursue “restoration” of the original work, because novels and films are two completely different types of art works. The focus of film and television adaptation is not necessarily to faithfully present the original work, but to use the audiovisual language and presentation of the image itself, to tell and explain a new kind of expression that belongs to the creators of the movie from the original work.


Back to Duna, underneath the superficial story line of “The Prince’s Revenge”, the novel actually describes in detail the ecology of the entire desert: how the plants and animals survive in the desert, and how the desert people have explored all kinds of technologies and lifestyles in the desert, trying to survive.

Duna’s movie also uses a lot of footage to depict this “desert ecology”, such as the flapping winged plane that is modeled after a dragonfly, the way the plane opens its wings, takes off and lands, the way it dives and rises in flight, and the way the wings flutter, all of which are given a lot of detail.

From the different human races to the species of flora and fauna, from the desert to the dungeons in which they live, from the “survival gear” to the pace of their travels, on the basis of all these details, the movie builds a huge fantasy world, born out of the daily life that we know, but full of a sense of wonder.

According to Cicha, Villeneuve’s choice of direction for the film adaptation not only captures something of the core of the original – “a desert with a sense of life rather than a pure landscape” – but is also in line with the aesthetics and explorations that Villeneuve has always pursued. consistent with Villeneuve’s consistent pursuit of aesthetics and exploration of the topic.

“The aesthetic at the heart of science fiction is the aesthetic of wonder, and Villeneuve has found it and has skillfully combined the conflict of man facing his own destiny with the presentation of the grandeur of the world and the universe. Humans are small in the face of nature and the universe, of course, but in the end it always reveals the greatness of humanity.”

We still have a yearning

Although one of the kernels of science fiction movies is the “aesthetics of wonder”, but in recent years with the special effects blockbuster bombardment, for the “spectacle” show, but more and more on the surface, it is difficult to go down to a deeper level of exploration.

Terminator” liquid robots, “Back to the Future” a variety of high-tech inventions, “Avatar” where the Pandora, “Alien” in the alien creatures that make people scream, as well as “2001: A Space Odyssey” in the black stone monument ……

Good sci-fi works do not only use “spectacle” as a kind of special effects display, but they also often involve a lot of discussions about the “ultimate question” of human beings:

Where did we come from? What kind of subtle tug-of-war will emerge between human beings and technology, between human beings and themselves, and between human beings and society? Through these spectacles, sci-fi can make us think by posing a question, or it can portray a dark, anti-utopian future that makes us wake up.

What is technology? According to Marshall McLuhan, technology is an extension of humanity, an extension of human capabilities and desires. When we see the beauty of technology, we are actually appreciating our own abilities; and the fear of technology is actually a human fear of the loss of our own abilities.

This is actually one of the more interesting setups in the Duna novel, which takes place 10,000 years later, after a war between humans and AI, which ended with humans surviving, and consequently banning the development of AI and robots.


This results in the society of the movie Duna presenting a rather peculiar technological state, with both spaceships capable of time and space leaps, and at the same time many ancient mechanical items, which are again completely different from the high-tech designs we are familiar with. The novel also mentions that the political system of the whole society is manipulated by a mysterious organization called “The Sisters of Beni Jesserit”.

Returning to Humanity

Herbert tries to bring back the ability and power of human beings from those external technologies to human beings themselves. In the novel, under the premise that artificial intelligence and high technology are limited, he reduces the imagination of pure “science and technology” and focuses more on conceiving the possibilities and breakthroughs of human beings themselves, such as the protagonist’s ability to foretell the future, and the design of a character with special abilities such as the “Master of Truth”, who can manipulate language and consciousness. The character can manipulate language and consciousness.

On the other hand, Herbert focuses on depicting the great unknowns of the natural world, and then puts people in the middle of it, exploring the connection between human beings and the world. Thus, those slow-motion scenes in the Duna movie are actually depicting a man’s inner fear, and his courage. How can a man, find his place, and ultimately then his destiny, in a chaotic world with no direction or clear future?

Xixia commented that Villeneuve’s Duna is very similar to The Descent in that the protagonists know the future, their destiny, and even the horrors that they will encounter in their destinies, but in the end, they still muster the courage to go through such a life.


The “medieval prince’s revenge” shell of Duna is just a way to bring the audience closer, but the real interest is to offer an alienating parallel world, where strange technological forms exist and we can think about ourselves.

In the face of the possibilities envisioned by different science fiction works, looking back at reality, what will our future be like? Will it be better or worse than the present?

Sci-fi seems to be a way of searching for answers and projections, and some of those past sci-fi prophecies have become jokes, while others have become reality. Many authors have predicted pandemics for mankind, but no one could have imagined that the Neo-Coronavirus alone would leave the world in such a divided state and cause such casualties.


In the past, religion constructed a power that was vast, beyond mankind itself, mysterious and unknowable. But at a time when everything has been virtually demystified by technology, it has become more and more difficult to imagine the future, not to mention the increasing loss of possibilities in our lives.

Perhaps in years to come, “epic” will become a need again. When we get so caught up in our daily struggles, in our economic, political and power struggles, we forget that there is a world beyond humanity.

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