[Ed. note: This piece contains mild spoilers for Dune.]
Early in the runtime of Dune, a curious thing happens. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) offhandedly muses about how much money it must have taken for the Emperor to send an envoy to his home planet of Caladan. In response, his retainer Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) rolls his eyes back in their sockets until only the whites are showing, and when he rolls them back down, his tattooed lips are able to spit out the precise monetary cost of the whole production.
Director Denis Villenueve’s Dune has so much to explain over the course of its runtime that it never quite details what the heck just happened, but readers of Dune the book will have a pretty good idea: Thufir Hawat, and David Dastmalchian’s Piter De Vries, are Mentats, the human computers of the world of Dune.
Why does Dune need human computers? Don’t they have regular computers?
The lore of Dune is long, and deep and weird. Which is to say, tens of thousands of years before the events of Dune, human society was drastically altered by a seismic war against artificial intelligence called the Butlerian Jihad. In the aftermath, humanity swore to never create machines that could do the work of human minds ever again. It was even codified into the galaxy’s dominant religion, “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”
So, no, the world of Dune doesn’t have any computers — not even pocket calculators. Instead, complex calculations are performed by people called Mentats who are specially trained to be, like, really smart.
Yep, it turns out the only thing keeping us from being as good at math as computers is the right training.
Why do Mentats have lip tattoos?
The Mentat lip stain is one of Dune’s most evocative character visuals, a visual cue all Mentats share because of — this is Dune, after all — drugs. Mentats habitually drink “the Juice of Sapho,” a kind of hyper-coffee that increases their mental acuity twice over or more. Naturally, Sapho is addictive, and eventually it has the side effect of staining a user’s lips an obvious red.
Donald Mowat, head of hair and makeup on Dune, told Polygon that the “wine-stained lips” of the movie’s Mentats were among the most difficult elements to design.
“It’s ridiculous to say,” Mowat said over Zoom. “I spent a week on that. I honestly lost my mind for a minute.”
On the recommendation of a member of his team, he decided to look at the 1984 David Lynch adaptation for inspiration. “I tried. I played with the idea of blackberry, the color of it, wine stains. And I went ‘That just looks like a kid that drank Kool Aid.’”
Mowat was already working on designing tattoos for other classes of characters in the movie, like the Fremen and Sardaukar warriors.
“That’s what made me think ‘Why does this have to be a stain? Why can’t it be a symbol in the color of wine?’ I just kept thinking about blackberries, black currant, dark. And that’s how that came to be as that little piece.”