At long last, the spice flows. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune hits theaters today, and it does an excellent job exporting the eccentricities and sci-fi shenanigans of Frank Herbert’s novel to the big screen. Sand worms, space nuns, slow blades – it’s all there. But if you’re watching closely, you may also notice what’s not there—screens. Timothee Chalamet’s character Paul Atreides learns about Arrakis with a fancy projector; people carry books with them. But even though there are extremely powerful spaceships in the Dune universe, there are no computers. There’s a reason for that, and it’s key to understanding why everything is the way it is in Dune.
Villeneuve’s movie doesn’t dip as deep into expanded Dune lore as it could. So: A little more than 10,000 years before the events of the movie, there was an intergalactic war between humans and artificial intelligence. (Does this sound like The Matrix? No, The Matrix sounds like Dune.) Regardless, the humans won, computers were banned, and the events of the movie were set up.
The psychic space nuns, led by Charlotte Rampling’s Reverend Mother? Those are the Bene Gesserit, and they emerged to preserve humans after computers wiped a lot of humans out. Stephen McKinley Harrison’s character and his weird mental math tricks? He’s what Herbert called a “mentat,” basically a human computer. Even the whole quasi-Medieval political setup – the Emperor, the “houses,” the weird galactic feudal system that sends the Atreides family to the desert planet – it’s a reactionary arrangement that moves the universe back to a simpler time, not forward into a technological future.
This is one way Dune separates itself from a lot of science fiction media—it leans lo-fi. Unlike 2001 or an Asimov story or Villeneuve’s last outing, Blade Runner 2049, there isn’t much hi-tech futurism. It’s a dude on a hero’s journey dealing with some serious intra-family feuds; he happens to be in outer space. The tech – the stillsuits that retain water, the thumpers that distract worms, so on – is mostly mechanical. Unlike warp drive in Star Trek, space travel in Dune is a mystical experience, conducted by “navigators” who can “fold space” after huffing a nonstop stream of spice. You can see a few of them when the Emperor’s herald arrives to send Oscar Isaac and crew to Arrakis.
This lack of computers is also something Dune shares with Star Wars, along with a lot of other essential DNA: desert planets, mind tricks, Chosen Ones. The two universes take a similar approach to tech: R2 and C-3PO, for instance, are charming companions, but their artificial intelligence is incidental; light sabers are just slightly fancier swords and so on. One could even argue that both Dune and Star Wars are fantasy stories parading as science fiction. What is Star Wars, after all, if not a battle between good and evil wizards, set in orbiting golf balls?