In 1965, a landmark text in soft science-fiction was published, which changed the face of the genre for good. Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, Dune, has influenced countless works in the genres of sci-fi, fantasy, politics and more. Dune is set in the distant future, where warring noble houses have formed a feudal interstellar society. The House of Atreides is put in charge of the desert planet Arrakis. Arrakis has a hostile climate but is the sole source of the invaluable “spice” — the drug which provides an enhanced perception of space and time.
The novel’s complex intermesh of politics, religion, technology, ecology, and psychology in a background of incredibly innovative sci-fi concepts and adventures is nothing short of visionary. However, adapting Dune to the big screen has been a cinematic minefield for directors so far. Dune fans have high hopes that Denis Villeneuve’s two-part adaptation will be the one that does justice to the great novel.
Here are 12 brilliant movies with similar themes you can watch in anticipation of Dune, that hits theatres October 22, 2021:
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
This epic sci-fi film from Stanley Kubrick is considered as one of the greatest and most influential movies ever made. It was inspired by “The Sentinel” and other short stories from Arthur C. Clarke. It depicts a space voyage to Jupiter after a mysterious monolith is discovered. Most of the spacecraft’s functions are controlled by a sentient supercomputer which is designed to be error-free.
2001 is a groundbreaking film which explores the concepts of evolution, extraterrestrial life, technology, philosophy, and human consciousness. Its ambiguity has baffled many, but is also perhaps the best thing about the film. The imagery, the performances, the pioneering special effects and Kubrick’s concept of AI are exemplary. The appeal of this movie has only increased over time and seems more prophetic than speculative in the current era.
2. Solaris (1972)
This landmark film from Andrei Tarkovsky brings an unforeseen philosophical and psychological depth to the sci-fi genre. Based on Stanisław Lem’s novel of the same name, this dark and complex sci-fi art film easily qualifies among the best movies in the history of cinema. A psychologist travels to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris to see why the crew has stalled their mission. He finds them experiencing strange emotional crises, and starts feeling the same way himself.
The shiny sheen of spacecraft is done away with, and we get a haunting and desolate picture instead, which resonates more deeply. This film contemplates alien intelligence as an agent of transformation, but focuses on the inner space as much as the outer. It is original, innovative, visually stunning, emotionally affecting, and thought-provoking.
3. Interstellar (2014)
Christopher Nolan’s epic sci-fi drama combines innovative concepts with great psychological depth to create a modern masterpiece. It is set in a dystopian future, where the earth has become inhospitable and desolate. A group of astronauts travel through a mysterious wormhole in search of a new home for humanity.
The film explores several complicated scientific ideas in a surprising and creative way. The concept of space and time is handled with mesmerising proficiency. But the human drama of love, loss, faith, and sheer survival is just as integral to the film, which makes it exceptional. Every piece of the film is propelled by a remarkably rare combination of intellect and emotion. It is highly unpredictable and the cinematography and performances are impeccably stunning.
4. The Martian (2015)
Based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, Ridley Scott’s space-wreck drama shines through simplicity rather than mind-boggling ideas. The plot is straightforward. An astronaut gets stranded on Mars when he is accidentally left behind, and must do whatever it takes to survive till he is rescued. The excellence of the film lies in its execution.
It avoids the pitfalls of the survival story trope, and doesn’t pretend to be an unpredictable thriller. It leans into the inevitable and the practical and offers plenty of fun along the way. The near-absurd humour of fighting the forces of the universe using duct tape is one of many great touches. The visuals are brilliant, and the performances strong. It is a thoroughly entertaining film that ironically offers a down-to-earth approach in an out-of-earth environment.
5. Star Wars trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983)
The original trilogy of this iconic franchise pioneered the blockbuster space cinema. George Lucas is the mastermind behind this space opera, which is still a huge pop cultural phenomenon. The first movie is especially important as it provided groundbreaking technical innovations. It deviated from contemporary trends, by presenting a grand and positive take on sci-fi, replete with spectacular visuals.
The films revolve around the Galactic Civil War between the tyrannical Galactic Empire and the freedom-seeking Rebel Alliance. The archetypal hero’s journey takes place within this backdrop. The films have a great balance of memorable characters, action, romance, humour, and emotion. The fantasy elements are some of the big highlights. While not deeply complex, the Star Wars series is immensely entertaining and culturally relevant. The first two films are also widely considered two of the greatest films of all time.
6. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Years after the fantastic original Mad Max movie, George Miller revisited this genre-defining franchise and gave it a stunning modern makeover. This is a post-apocalyptic action film set in a desert wasteland full of desperate, insane, grotesque characters. The loner Max (Hardy) joins forces with rebellious war commander Furiosa (Theron) to flee from a dangerous cult leader and his crazed army.
Most of the film is a long, violent, hyperactive convoy chase, and yet, the socio-political and emotional drama is given remarkable weight for an action film. The film brilliantly compresses a lot of ideas within very little dialogue. The visuals and stunt work are absolutely breathtaking. The performances are top-notch. This movie is creative, audacious, wonderfully deranged, and you absolutely must “witness” it.
7. On the Silver Globe (1988)
This sci-fi art film from Andrzej Żuławski was never completed. The political turmoil this film went through during production is splashed all over it, but in a strange way, it seems to further add to its appeal. It is a deeply unsettling tale that utilises its sci-fi setting to present a highly philosophical contemplation of life.
A space researcher tries to explore a civilisation founded by astronauts who were once stranded on a planet resembling Earth. Based on Żuławski’s great-uncle Jerzy Żuławski’s novel, the film is concerned with the foundation of civilization, religion, and the nature of human beings. The blend of the savage and the futuristic is haunting and thought-provoking. The surrealistic imagery and strategic camera movements make it visually stunning. It is one of the most unconventional and creative sci-fi movies ever (almost) made.
Żuławski’s grand production design, mind-bending staging and philosophical musings intrigue as well as exhaust us.
8. Ikarie XB-1 (1963)
This lesser known film from director Jindřich Polák was actually a game-changer in the sci-fi genre when it was released. It’s based on Stanisław Lem’s novel, The Magellanic Cloud. It centres on space travel, extraterrestrial life, and the psycho-social dynamics that govern human nature.
It is set in the year 2163, when a spaceship is sent to probe potentially habitable planets. The crew tries to cope with their heavily restricted life. They also encounter various issues, including a mysterious spaceship and a dark star. The film offers beautiful cinematography and a creative production design. The special effects are impressive for its time. It is a refreshing blend of the dark and the upbeat. It is exciting, artistic, original, and manages to focus on serious subjects without being heavy-handed.
9. Fantastic Planet (1973)
This is an experimental animated sci-fi film from René Laloux, based on Stefan Wul’s novel, Oms en série. It can be viewed as an allegory on colonialism, set on an alien planet. The Draags are the large blue-skinned civilised race that rule the planet Ygam. They treat the savage humanoid Oms as their natural inferiors, but a seismic shift occurs when an Om receives an education.
What makes this movie exceptional isn’t the plot, but the imaginative visuals. Renowned artist Roland Topor is largely responsible for its colourful, surrealistic, hallucinatory quality. The world-building is remarkable as the savage intermingles with the futuristic in an uncanny way. The cut-out stop-motion animation heightens the strangeness of the film even further. This inventive psychedelic spectacle uses a well-trodden theme, but creates something wholly original with it.
10. Kin-dza-dza! (1986)
This Soviet cult film is a sci-fi dystopian dark comedy, directed by Georgiy Daneliya. When two Russians press a button on an alien device, they are transported to the bizarre planet called Pluke. Pluke is a post-apocalyptic landscape with a Mad Max-esque society. Black markets, exploitation, inequalities, and utter ridiculousness abound.
The truly clever thing about this surrealistic, amusing film is that this ridiculousness actually hits rather close to home. It is a social satire and critique of consumerism, capitalism, and the basic greed in human nature stretched to extremes. This makes Kin-dza-dza!, one of the greatest Russian films of all time, as frightening as it is funny. The absurd elements and wry humour that marks the tone of the film brilliantly convey the inherent absurdity of life itself.
11. Hard to Be a God (2013)
This sci-fi art film from Aleksei German is based on the novel of the same name by the Strugatsky brothers. Decades in the making, it was finally completed after German’s death. It is a jarringly unique take on alien life and sci-fi as it looks to the past more than the future. It is set in the planet Arkanar, where the civilization is a mirror of our own medieval times. Scientists from Earth are sent there in disguise to understand this society and help the alien intelligentsia.
The film unfolds like a vision of hell, entirely nightmarish and repulsive. The exceptional production design has created a visceral and convincing world of repugnant beauty. It is a difficult and challenging watch. The technical innovations and oblique narrative style showcase the avant-garde at its finest. This is not just a film, but an immersive experience.
12. Avatar (2009)
Avatar demanded such dazzling and sophisticated special effects that director James Cameron had to stall it for a few years to let technology catch up. The final product, especially when viewed in 3D, was a jaw-dropping visual spectacle. But the film has substance too. It is set in the year 2154, when humans are colonising an exoplanetary moon called Pandora to mine a valuable mineral. They explore Pandora by using avatars — lookalikes of the native Na’vi tribe, mind-controlled by humans.
It is a heart-warming film with a strong anti-war message. The characters are developed well, and the setting is an imaginative triumph. The vibrant colours and intricate detailing make the lush alien world of Pandora a thing of beauty. The motion capture techniques are used brilliantly, making the Na’vi seem lifelike. It is an entertaining and engaging crowd-pleaser.
With a great director at the helm and an impressive cast at the forefront, Villeneuve’s Dune seems poised to become the adaptation that finally cracks the novel’s code. Initial reviews have already been favourable. The movies listed here will not only get you more hyped up about Dune, but also broaden your perception of sci-fi and cinema as a whole. Some of them have even taken inspiration from Dune itself. Also check out Villeneuve’s earlier masterstrokes in sci-fi — Arrival and Blade Runner 2049.