Despite dire predictions to the contrary, Dune has succeeded in the post-COVID, theatrical shake-up era. The film pulled off the seemingly impossible twin feats of getting Americans back into movie theaters and getting folks interested in HBO Max. It did it with the quiet restraint of its lead performances, a dark and foreboding sense of mystery, and just the sheer epic scale of it all. At the same time, director Denis Villeneuve did something else truly remarkable.
He finally got ornithopters — Dune’s awesome dragonfly fighter planes — right.
Also called “thopters,” these aircraft are one of the overlooked gems of Frank Herbert’s original novel. In the context of the 1960s, when Herbert’s first Dune stories and novel were published, they make absolute sense. Of course humanity will move past the clumsiness of traditional airplanes and helicopters, thought the pulp fiction pundits of the day.
Just couple Leonardo Da Vinci’s original designs with some of that new-fangled atomic power and we’re off to the races. But ornithopters — heavier than air travel based on insect-like flight — never really caught on. Here in the 21st century, our military is still trying to make sense of the tech.
Dune’s thopters have never made sense when depicted onscreen. The 1984 movie got the proportions comically wrong. The inert little brass bricks floated through the air, buoyed only by Kyle MacLachlan’s potent overacting. Meanwhile, in the 1992 video game Dune 2 (the first game to popularize real-time strategy), they flitted across the screen like insignificant bugs. The legs were too spindly, the wings too small, and the engines woefully underpowered.
Villenuve has clearly put a lot of effort into the thopters that he created for this film, which finally feel like working airships. One of the first images of a thopter in flight is with Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) at the controls. The ship is huge, powerful, and loud. In the 4DX theater where I saw the movie, the entire building hummed as it spooled up, the syncopated beat of its wings (thanks to some clever fan work) filling the air around me.
In the air, Villneuve’s thopters are anything but clumsy. Leto’s maneuvers are controlled and intentional. The ships don’t hover in place so much as they carve out a space for themselves from the wind, maintaining their orientation in the air while jetting forward on powerful twin engines. Then, when the moment is right, they drop their wings back and swoop like raptors toward the ground. Their presence makes the rescue of the harvester crew early in the film thrilling. Later, Duncan Idaho (Jason Mamoa) runs rampant on a group of Harkonnen landing ships, weaving in and out of fire as he makes his escape. Both of these scenes show the audience what mastery of a thopter in flight looks like, and they represent a kind of expertise for Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) to grow into.
Thopters go on to play an important role in the film’s climax. Watching Paul and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) ride out a sandstorm, I could actually feel what needed to be done in order to survive. I found myself sitting there quietly one moment, and the next I was actually calling out to the screen: “Drop the wings!”
Paul’s mastery of the thopter in that scene — and of the sandstorm itself — feels like the character growing from boyhood into adulthood. He’s not just taking the reins of House Atreides, preserving his bloodline by rescuing himself, his mother, and his unborn sister. He’s stepping into his father’s shoes by strapping into that cockpit.
Ultimately, that climactic scene of Dune Part One simply wouldn’t be as powerful if Villeneuve hadn’t already — finally — shown the audience how a thopter truly handles in the air. That successful crash landing represents Paul’s first real steps in his transformation into Muad’Dib, the messiah that will help to free the entire planet, and it wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful for me without a trip to the theater.