The slow blade penetrates the Shield. In the status-quo of Dune, an old-school, almost feudal system of fighting reigns supreme.
While other sci-fi universes struggle to justify why swords would be cool in a world populated with blasters or phasers, Frank Herbert figured out a way to make knife-fighting seem futuristic but also justified with world-building.
Here’s what Shield fighting is in Dune and why it prevents this science fiction story from having too much pew-pew-pew.
Spoilers ahead for Dune: Part One and Dune by Frank Herbert.
What is Shield Fighting in Dune?
Thanks to the technology of the Holtzman Shield (named for the discovery of the fictional “Holtzman Effect”), projectile weapons are less effective in the future world of Dune than they are now. Additionally, energy weapons — like lasguns — are also not that useful around personal Shields because they can be easily overloaded. And so, because of this formidable technology, a new kind of hand-to-hand combat was invented: Shield Fighting.
Shield fighting refers to when people duel with swords or knives while each combatant is wearing a Shield. Because the Shields can’t be airtight (you wouldn’t be able to breathe), some molecules pass through the outside of the Shield and the person being protected by it.
This means the Shield has one weakness: objects can pass through the Shield at prolonged speeds. When Gurney (Josh Brolin) trains Paul (Timothée Chalamet), we see several instances of the slow blade that can penetrate the Shield.
Dune: Part One also uses a specific visual effect when the person's Shields are penetrated. They glow red, as opposed to blue.
Why can’t Paul use his Shield in the desert?
Like many pieces of technology, the Holtzman Shield emits a kind of thrumming sound. In the deserts of Arrakis, any type of rhythmic noise, however faint, will always attract sandworms. For this reason, using Shield technology on the planet Dune is dangerous, which changes the game again.
While the Harkonnens favor energy weapons like lasguns, everyone uses Shield technology, not just House Atreides. This is why the Sardaukar — the elite soldiers of the Imperium — also use swords. Even in his final battle against many Sardaukar soldiers, Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) is still Shield fighting.
Shield tech doesn’t just exist for personal use. Because Shields tend to overload lasguns, they can also be used as makeshift explosives. This is what Duncan does at one point in the movie.
Bottom line: Shields in Dune are like the reverse of a lightsaber in Star Wars. They’re not an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. The advent of the Shield brought on a more civilized age, and what we see in Dune is the beginning of the end of that time in the galaxy.
Dune: Part One is out in theaters now and streaming on HBO Max.