The Spice Must Flow

Denis Villeneuve's Dune will finally do the 1 thing Star Wars never could

It could be a true first for sci-fi cinema.

In the genre of "space opera" — that ill-defined sci-fi class with big heroes and epic starships — the vast majority of films are family-friendly. Star Wars can get hardcore with Rogue One and Revenge of the Sith, but doesn't come close to critters popping-out of people's chests like Alien. So, when will sci-fi fans get an epic space opera series made specifically for adults? The answer is very soon. Denis Villeneuve's new version of Dune will likely be the first true space opera for grown-ups. Here's why.

Back when the new Dune was still in pre-production in 2018, Villeneuve threw down the space gauntlet, saying his goal was "to do the Star Wars movie I never saw. In a way, it’s Star Wars for adults."

The implication here is that Villeneuve thinks Star Wars is for kids. George Lucas would agree with him, having long maintained that the saga of a galaxy, far, far away is directly aimed at older children and adolescents.

The cinematographer on the new Dune, Greig Fraser, said that he'd initially worried about the influence of Star Wars, but as he got working on the project, realized it wasn't that big of a deal. This is profound for one simple reason: Fraser was the cinematographer on Rogue One and also worked on The Mandalorian. Speaking to Collider in early June, he elaborated:

"I had to forget a lot of Star Wars when I was making Dune. It wasn’t hard, though. Denis and I spoke clearly about how the film should look and should feel, and the formats and this and that, so it was not hard to swerve and change lanes. There were some similarities like the deserts. I mean listen, ultimately I’m positive George Lucas was inspired by Dune when he made Star Wars. I don’t know if that’s sacrilegious to talk about, but there are a lot of similarities in some areas, so you could tell he was definitely influenced by that."

The "sacrilegious" notion here is the low-key, but long-running contention among some fans and scholars that Lucas cribbed imagery from the Dune novels and the unmade 1975 movie version directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Two versions of Paul Atreides in Dune movies: Timothee Chalamet and Kyle Maclachlan.

While pretty much everyone can agree that Lucas seemingly stole the word "spice" from Dune outright, the idea that Star Wars is a Dune rip-off is a little muddled, specifically because Star Wars, as a franchise, would never truly engage with the moral ambiguity of Dune. In other words, if you leave the obvious visual aesthetic of a desert planet out of the mix, these two space operas aren't even remotely alike. Dune is about an average person becoming a messiah in a revolution, but it doesn't say that's entirely a good thing. Plus, the hero's journeys in each story are essentially the opposite of each other. In Star Wars, you generally have someone who leaves their backward desert planet in search of adventure. In Dune, Paul Atreides is taken from his cosmopolitan life of galactic privilege to go live on a backward desert planet.

Elsewhere in his chat with Collider, Fraser noted, "I had to be careful doing both [Dune and The Mandalorian] and not to repeat myself." But that's almost entirely down to the visual aesthetics. Baked into the core of Dune's premise is a critique of a government structure that relies on a diminishing natural resource, and how non-humanist political policies destroy entire populations, but also have grave ecological consequences. Comparatively, Star Wars is mostly concerned with good guys making sure the Death Star doesn't go zap before they can make it go boom.

To be fair, Star Wars is an enduring piece of pop art for a reason and doesn't really deserve that description I just gave it. But, when compared with something as mature and multilayered as Dune, it's easy to see which one is for kids and which one isn't.

Dune — the first of two films in the saga — will hit theaters on December 18, 2020.

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