How ‘Dune’ Influenced Your Favorite Sci-Fi Movies

Kim Taylor-Foster
Movies Sci-Fi
Movies Sci-Fi

“It just looks like Star Wars,” a friend said recently on seeing the trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune. That’s because Star Wars – which, following the 1977 release of George Lucas’s first chapter, Episode IV – A New Hope — went on to become one of the biggest, best known, and most loved film franchises ever. And it was heavily influenced by, you guessed it, Dune. Of course, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune didn’t exist back when George Lucas was crafting Star Wars in the 1970s. Neither did David Lynch’s version from 1984. But Frank Herbert’s expansive novel first published in 1965, most certainly did.

Itself influenced by the likes of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, recently also adapted for the screen as an Apple TV+ series, Dune’s legacy runs deep. Its shaping of Star Wars gave Villeneuve a headache. Speaking to Fandom in 2018 when he first began thinking about his adaptation, the Arrival director said, “Most of the main ideas of Star Wars are coming from Dune so it’s going to be a challenge to [tackle] this. The ambition is to do the Star Wars movie I never saw. In a way, it’s Star Wars for adults.”

Star Wars, though, isn’t the only science-fiction film that has its roots in Frank Herbert’s space saga. Villeneuve and the cast of Dune chat to Fandom about the movies they love that owe a debt of gratitude to Dune. They’re the same movies that you also love and which you may not realise have Dune coded into their DNA.

Villeneuve on Star Wars

Paul Atreides Dune
Timothee Chalamet's Paul Atreides and Josh Brolin's Gurney Halleck straddle a ship in the desert. Remind you of anything?

“The first Star Wars is absolutely amazing, A New Hope, and then there was The Empire Strikes Back which is still today one of the most impressive movies I’ve seen,” says Villeneuve of his favourite sci-fi movies touched by Dune. “I still have vivid memories of that movie when I was a kid. I was floored when I saw that. It had so much of an influence on me that I probably am a filmmaker today because of The Empire Strikes Back. After that, Star Wars left me; abandoned me. But those are the two movies that pop up in my mind. It’s crazy the amount of stuff that has been taken out of the novel to create Star Wars – and, frankly, in a great way. I think that, in a way, you could say Star Wars is an interesting adaptation of Dune.”

The desert landscapes, a nefarious Emperor, political machinations, the Jedi order and its harnessing of the Force with its likeness to the ethereal talents of the Bene Gesserit – there’s even a way of using the voice to bend people to your will in both. Let’s not neglect to mention the Sarlaac and the Great Pit of Carkoon and the kinship with Dune’s sandworms. Moisture farming on Tatooine is an idea borrowed from Herbert’s novel, too, as are references to spice mining. The list of similarities goes on.

“I was a huge fan of Star Wars growing up and when I read the [Dune] books I didn’t even make the connection. I read the book when I was offered the role. That’s when someone pointed out the connections, then I started to see all the connections, and then I started to search for all the connections but it was never something that I was well aware of until I was involved in this film.” — Dave Bautista who plays Glossu ‘The Beast’ Rabban in Villeneuve’s Dune

Ahead of His Time

Dune Paul Jessica Chani Stilgar
Dune tells the story of a young boy with special talents whose family is torn apart.

“It’s the blueprint of so many sci-fis with regard to visuals, with regard to the formula as well,” Says Sharon Duncan-Brewster who plays Liet Kynes in Villeneuve’s adaptation. “Young boy loses contact with the family, or things go wrong; he has to find his destiny… there are hints of many other films that we know and love. To see them all incorporated within this story, you just go, ‘Oh my gosh, [Frank Herbert] was well ahead of his time, for sure. Back in the time that I remember, [films redolent of Dune] for me were Flash Gordon and the big one was Star Wars, without a doubt. I remember running around in the playground pretending to be Princess Leia.”

Like Star Wars, Mike Hodges’ 1980 film version of Flash Gordon would be categorized as a space opera, marked by space battles, the scheming of a fearsome and underhanded emperor, and swashbuckling adventure. Though Flash Gordon, of course, began life as a comic strip in 1934, before the publication of Dune, itself predated by another space-set adventure strip, Buck Rogers.

Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet Kynes in Dune
Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet Kynes.

“It was written in 1965; I was born in 1968 so I didn’t know at that point [about Dune’s influence], but it had already happened at that point,” says Josh Brolin who plays Gurney Halleck, the Atreides Warmaster and instructor to the young Paul Atreides. “When I was turned onto Ray Bradbury when I was about eight years old, my brain exploded; my imagination [went wild].”

Bradbury wrote famed 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 as well as a collection of short stories called The Martian Chronicles in 1950, among other works. He also worked in television on shows including The Twilight Zone and film with, for example, 1953’s It Came From Outer Space.

“I preferred it [science fiction] over reality,” continues Brolin. “So then I got into Isaac Asimov and then I got into Dune after. But I was very affected, it had a major impact on me. So I think I already knew [its significance before taking on this role] but then you also know that with a movie of this scale it’s going to have its own impact. You have the David Lynch film but that was so long ago. Technologically, they were at a certain point and now it’s so advanced, the possibilities are stratospheric.”

A Galaxy Far, Far Away

Denis Villeneuve directs Javier Bardem as Stilgar on the set of Dune.
Denis Villeneuve directs Javier Bardem as Stilgar on the set of Dune.

Villeneuve’s Dune certainly stands alone and is, without doubt, the cinematic feat Brolin describes. Given that the first title anyone mentions is Star Wars, and given that Star Wars is so ingrained in pop culture, it makes sense that Villeneuve was concerned about the challenge of distancing his vision from the Star Wars aesthetic, as he admits back in that 2018 interview, and making something unique that also remained true to Herbert’s book. Now that he’s created his impressive adaptation, how did the director manage to overcome the hurdle and make it distinct — a galaxy far, far away, if you like — from Star Wars?

“Obviously, Star Wars was massively influenced by Dune so it’s incredible to see where it all started. The way that Denis has approached it has been with such sensitivity for the world and what the world looks like, and the feeling and the tone. I think it’s just a spectacular, incredible cinematic experience and I know when I saw it for the first time, I just left with utter gratitude that I could have been a small part of something so so beautiful.” — Oscar Isaac, who plays Duke Leto Atreides in Dune

“[Part] of the genius of Star Wars, I think, is design,” begins Villeneuve. “I think it was very revolutionary what they did at the time; it was completely unique and still today it’s a massive reference for everybody in sci-fi. The key [for us is] we have two weapons that we used to try to move away from Star Wars — [first] Frank Herbert’s description itself. We went back to the novel and tried to be as close as possible to what Frank Herbert described in his book. And [second is] nature; Mother Nature. Trying to inspire ourselves from nature and to ground this world in a reality that makes total sense in relationship with the environment… where the creatures and the vehicles are.

“Trying to bring some specific emotions in the design [was important too], and some specific meaning that I was looking for around trying to bring back humanity to its place in the ecosystem. To bring back humility, and [to depict] the human being [as] a small ant in the gigantic ecosystem of a planet. That dramatically and instrumentally influenced the feeling of isolation; and humility influenced the whole design of the movie.”

Of course, there’s more in Dune than just the kernals that spawned Star Wars.

“It’s immense, it’s intense, and it’s rich,” says Duncan-Brewster. Which is why we see its influence far and wide. Despite its setting in a fictional far-away universe, and its detailed worldbuilding, Dune is ultimately about humanity – something that both Brolin and co-star Javier Bardem appreciate.

Alien and Blade Runner

Dave Bautista as Glossu 'The Beast' Rabban in Dune; he also appeared in Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049.
Dave Bautista as Glossu 'The Beast' Rabban in Dune; he also appeared in Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049.

Bardem plays Stilgar in Dune, the Fremen leader befriended by House Atreides’ Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) who takes in Paul and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) when they flee the Harkonnen attack. Bardem cites Blade Runner and Alien as two of his favourite sci-fi movies influenced by Dune. Dave Bautista, who plays fearsome Harkonnen muscle Glossu ‘The Beast’ Rabban, calls out these films, too. It’s interesting to note that Denis Villeneuve is also behind the accomplished sequel to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Blade Runner 2049.

“I grew up watching Star Wars and that was an experience of a lifetime when you were a little kid, and then, of course, Blade Runner. Those two are the biggest. And Alien.” – Javier Bardem

The Xenomorph and much of the aesthetic of Ridley Scott’s 1979 science-fiction horror Alien were famously created by artist HR Giger. Before he would go on to work on Scott’s seminal creature feature, Giger worked closely with Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky on designs for the avant-garde director’s thwarted attempt to make a version of Dune. There’s a documentary from 2013, called Jodorowsky’s Dune, that explores the story if you want to learn more.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is perhaps one of the most lamented never-made movies but Giger gained acclaim, and built on the work he did through his Alien concept designs. Without having worked on Dune, Giger might never have applied his talents to Alien, meaning the movie would have had a distinctly different aesthetic. Ridley Scott would also go on to repurpose Giger’s designs for the Harkonnen Palace in Alien prequel Prometheus.

“Alien would be right up there at the top of my list. Blade Runner. The original Blade Runner and 2049 are magnificent sci-fis. I think those two would be at the top of my list.” – Dave Bautista

The parallels between the two titles don’t stop there – writer Dan O’Bannon who was working on Jodorowsky’s Dune was so affected by the cancellation of the project he had planned years of his life around, he found himself derailed. “The only thing I could think to do at that moment was to write a screenplay, so I did Alien,” he said.

It’s not just in the productions of the two films in which there are crossovers. Indeed, each story covers similar ground in its depiction of matriarchal societies. Both ‘societies’ — the alien matriarch and its brood and the Bene Gesserit — are monstrous, abject, and opaque; mysterious sisterhoods to be feared.

Another science-fiction artist links Jodorowksy’s Dune with Blade Runner: Jean Giraud aka Moebius. A hugely influential artist on many legendary science fiction films, he met Dan O’Bannon while the two worked on Dune together, and they collaborated on a comic-book project called The Long Tomorrow. It’s this graphic story and Moebius’s artwork that directly influenced Blade Runner.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.
Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.

Stellan Skarsgård, who plays the sadistic and loathsome Baron Harkonnen, picks another film as his favourite that was influenced by Dune: “2001, Kubrick. That I think that was the first sci-fi movie that impressed me. And it impressed me. It’s still a fantastic film.”

Released in 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey came out just three years after the publication of Dune and leans heavily into the book’s cerebral sci-fi and psychedelic visuals. 2001 itself, like Alien, Blade Runner, and Star Wars after it, would all go on to have their own massive influence on cinema – but each can trace its origins back to Dune. And while the likes of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars stories may have influenced Herbert, it’s Dune that can perhaps be seen more clearly in the science fiction movies we love – including the likes of Tremors (desert sci-fi horror with giant sandworms), Stargate (another desert sci-fi with themes of resistance and attempts to stage a coup upon an interstellar regime), Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (a messianic figure battling the desert; ritualistic fighting), and more.

Dune's sandworms inspired Tremors.
Dune's sandworms inspired Tremors.

Josh Brolin believes that the buck stops with Frank Herbert’s Dune; he sees it as a true original.

“It’s nice when they’re about humanity,” says Brolin of sci-fi stories. “If you look at Star Wars, especially when you were young, all you were experiencing was the movie and the story itself but as you get older you’re like, ‘Wait a second, what does this remind me of? This is Dune, that’s Leia…. So, it’s nice to be able to go back to the source material. You can’t go back [further] and refer to anything else because [Dune] was solely created for [Herbert’s] own kind of ethics and morals, and all that.”

Frank Herbert was a true visionary, that’s for sure. And Villeneuve’s Dune? It’s a cinematic masterpiece that will no doubt shape the future of science fiction in its own distinct way.

Dune hits screens on October 21, 2021 in the UK and October 22, 2021 in the US.

For another deep dive into classic science fiction, check out our interviews with the cast of Apple TV+ series, Foundation below. 

Kim Taylor-Foster
Kim Taylor-Foster is Entertainment Editor for Fandom in the UK. She was raised on an unsteady diet of video nasties and violent action flicks.