6. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1984)
Environmentalism is a big talking point in Frank Herbert’s original novel, something that made it a bit of an outlier at the time of its release and which also contributes to how relevant the story has remained to our day. One of Dune’s many virtues is precisely the way it sheds light on contemporary problems opposed to shying away from them like many other genre films do. Much emphasis is placed on holding accountability over Arrakis’ environmental collapse as a result of bureaucratic indifference and foreign exploitation. One of the most prominent characters in the film is Liet Kynes, an Imperial ecologyst who envisions a better future where the planet hopefully develops into a self-sustaining oasis rather than the barren wasteland it is today.
Considering how vocal he was as a pacifist and environmental activist, it isn’t hard to imagine Frank Herbert and Hayao Miyazaki hitting it off. The latter — who happens to be the greatest animation director of all time and co-founder of Studio Ghibli — also poured his work with his own beliefs. His debut film, which would later serve as a rough template for the better known Princess Mononoke, employs its fantastic premise to create a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked greediness and global warfare. There’s a silver lining to be found in both Dune and Nausicaä, in that no matter how small our efforts are, meaningful change is still within our grasp.
7. Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013)
For all of Frank Herbert’s genius, there’s a reason why his seminal book was considered ‘virtually unadaptable’ for ages. A deliberately anticlimactic story about false prophets and ecological transformation? Not quite the most accessible sci-fi story in the cosmos. Dune’s troubled history of film adaptations tells us that not even a hefty director helming the project has been any guarantee of success. Long before Denis Villeneuve had a crack at it (or David Lynch for that matter), Alejandro Jodorowsky took up the daunting challenge of adapting the novel.
This documentary gives an account of the great lengths the Chilean ateur went to develop the film, where he poured his heart, countless hours and millions of dollars to try to make it work against all odds. From Salvador Dalí, Pink Floyd, Orson Welles and Mick Jagger, his version of Dune was supposed to feature a fascinatingly eclectic pool of talent. Thousands of storyboard sketches and imaginative concept art still remain to this day, but what once seemed destined to redefine science fiction as one of the most ambitious endeavors in cinema ultimately never came to be.
Now, the legacy that precedes it is that of the ‘greatest science fiction movie never made’, as it’s been famously dubbed ever since. But the subject of this documentary isn’t failure itself, but the admirable courage of daring to do so. Although he never got the chance of materializing his vision, Jodorowsky put everything on the line to pursue his dreams and refused to compromise his artistic integrity in the slightest. Watching him burn with passion all these years later is nothing short of inspirational.
8. Mad Max 2 (George Miller, 1981)
In science fiction more than in arguably any other genre, world building can make or break a film. In this regard, it’s hard to find a more captivating setting than the one Dune inherited from Herbert’s novel — a world that feels grand and layered enough to leave you craving for more. From political intrigue, different cultures and landscapes to religious institutions pulling the strings behind the scenes, it has a bit of something for everyone.
George Miller understood the assignment and created a unique and immersive backdrop to his Mad Max saga — a fuel-starved, lawless dystopia filled to the brim with biker gangs, lone wolfs and reckless outlaws. Every man is for himself in this testosterone-heavy affair, including Max Rockatansky, an icon of male stoicism and self-assertiveness who needs only a blank stare and an occasional grimace to make his presence felt.
The Road Warrior is still considered the golden standard when it comes to sequels — breathing new life into the saga by upping the stakes and improving the original in every aspect. As a film that could easily be traced back to Frank Herbert’s prominently desertic odyssey, it makes for a perfect companion piece to Denis Villeneuve’s latest hit.
9. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
Up next we turn to not only one of the most celebrated sci-fi releases in recent memory, but also one that’s been cited among Denis Villeneuve’s personal favorites. During an interview conducted by the New York Times, the French-Canadian raved all over Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece, hailing it as one of the best films of the 21st century. It isn’t hard to see why it struck a chord with the director of Dune, as someone who first made a name for himself with his own string of nihilist, hard-hitting dramas.
Children of Men places us in a not-so-distant future where mankind’s future seems to hang by a thread, no longer capable of procreating and pushed to the brink of collapse by authoritarian regimes. The only hope for survival comes in the form of a miraculously pregnant woman and a disillusioned bureaucrat who agrees to smuggle her into a hidden sanctuary at sea. Against this bleak prospect, the film offers an uncompromising look at humanity by exploring themes of faith and empathy in light of overwhelming misery. There are many common threads between Dune and Children of Men — from ethnic vilification and oppressive totalitarianism to prophetic figures — as two different but equally thought-provoking novel adaptations.
10. Fantastic Planet (René Laloux, 1973)
So far we’ve covered films that offer a daring challenge to imperialism, dystopian tales of greed and hard indictments on religious indoctrination. The highest praise any of these films can get is that they carry out to do exactly what any piece of iconoclastic art should — lay out incisive criticism as creatively as humanly possible.
Bookending this list, we have another provocative film that manages to do just that. Wrapped in a 70-minute outburst of animated brilliance, Fantastic Planet interrogates human behaviour and all of its social constructs through an exploration of free will, cruelty and rebellion. The film speculates on the basis of a rather simple scenario: what would be mankind’s fate if it didn’t sit at the top of the animal chain? In this world, humans are subjugated by a bigger, stronger and superior race — the Draags. Widely dismissed as witless pets and viciously hunted down, humans always get the short end of the stick.
One can easily be enthralled by Fantastic Planet on a surface level. One glance at the psychedelic artwork and mesmerizing animation is enough to keep you glued to the screen. But it’s as a sociopolitical allegory where it shines the brightest — by making us re-evaluate the very same principles on which our society stands.