Building a believable fantasy or science-fiction world for a film is one of the hardest things to do for a filmmaker. If characters just spout technobabble or made-up words that don’t really convey any true meaning, a filmmaker runs the risk of alienating their audience rather than drawing them into their story.
George Lucas was able to do this fairly well in the first Star Wars film, having the concept of the Force explained to the audience by having Obi-Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guiness) explain it to audience-surrogate Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). The addition of a disbelieving Han Solo (Harrison Ford) to the scene, helps to make things more conversational rather than just a straight lecture while adding color to Han’s overall character arc through the film.
For his part, Peter Jackson was able to convey the depth of history that J R R Tolkien had the freedom to develop for readers in his Lord Of The Rings books on screen through flashback and occasional character exposition. But he also used art direction and production design to suggest the deep, thousands years history of Middle Earth and the many struggles and wars it had previously seen.
And then there is David Lynch’s 1984 film Dune, celebrating the 35th anniversary of its release today. Like Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings, Dune is based on a seminal genre work that is acclaimed in part due to the complex worlds that author Frank Herbert created. And like Star Wars, some of that creation involved some heady new quasi-religious concepts. But unlike Jackson or Lucas, David Lynch had a tougher time conveying similar elements to his audience in the context of the film itself. Which left studio Universal with a quandary – How do they familiarize ticket buyers with this future setting? With a double-sided “Terminology Sheet” handed out to patrons, of course!
It’s not clear who came up with the idea at Universal, but in the history of motion picture promotion and ballyhoo, it is certainly one of the more head-scratching plans of all time. Handed out to ticket buyers at either a theater’s box office or concession stand, the Terminology Sheet listed thirty-seven planets, groups of people and pieces of technology that audiences would encounter in the film from Arrakeen to “Water of Life.”
The film’s dense narrative of political intrigue made many critics who were more used to the current vogue of Star Wars-like jaunty space opera refer to the film as “homework.” Being handed a list of basically vocabulary terms and being told to brush up on them in the few minutes before the film starts probably did not help to dispel that notion in the least.
Dune would not be a hit, either with critics or audiences. It would only bring in just under $31 million, far shot of even recouping it’s estimated production budget of $40 to 45 million. Needless to say, plans for a sequel were quickly shelved. And it would be fifteen years before someone would try to adapt Dune again, though this time it would be as a mini-series for the Sci-Fi Channel.
You can read the Dune Terminology sheet below, or download it as a PDF here.