What Do You Need to Know About Dune Before You Watch Dune?

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The marketing for Dune promises that Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming sci-fi epic is for the fans, not the critics — though our critic did indeed like it. That is to say, the people who happen to have read Frank Herbert’s dense, multigrain-loaf-size sci-fi novel about a desert planet may get the details. The people who are going into theaters (or probably the glitchy frontier that is HBO Max) who are like, I know Timothée Chalamet is in this and nothing else, may miss a lot. Herbert’s book and its sequels are stuffed with details about the interplanetary conflicts that precipitate its plot as well as stray details about desert survival, a group of witches who want to manage the universe’s bloodlines, and the spice trade.

If you’re in the latter camp, you can experience the movie on a purely sensory level and just let the montage of concept-art-style tableaux and the blaring Hans Zimmer soundtrack wash over you (this may be better if you’re high), ignoring the specifics of the plot. Or you could read the book before watching it and get all the references. Or you could want to do that, run out of time and/or desire to do so, and read this helpful summary of the key aspects of the Dune universe you’ll want to understand instead. It’s all put together by me, someone who read Dune in advance of seeing the movie Dune last fall because I had a lot of extra time in 2020.

So who is our protagonist, Timothée, playing?

This dude named Paul. By “dude,” of course, I mean the heir to the House Atreides, which runs the planet Caladan as its fiefdom. Paul is the son of Duke Leto Atreides I, a.k.a. Oscar Isaac in space-daddy mode, and his official concubine, Lady Jessica, a.k.a. Rebecca Ferguson of lip-syncing that one song “Never Enough” in The Greatest Showman fame. In the beginning of the novel, Paul is turning 15 (Can Timothée still pass for a teen? Ben Platt seethes somewhere) and is nervous about assuming his familial duties and mastering the witchy skills he has inherited from his mother.

Sorry, this is a sci-fi universe and their names are Paul and Jessica?

Wait till you meet Duncan Idaho.

How important is the Atreides family in this universe?

They’re one of the “major” houses within Dune’s whole galactic empire, which is ultimately run by the Padishah Emperor, who’s the supreme head of the galaxy. The family and planet are sort of styled around Spain in Herbert’s writing: They like a good bullfight and have a lot of water. One of the inciting factors in the plot, however, is that they have gotten a little too good at running their planet and making alliances with various other houses, and that has made the emperor uncomfy. You never want your nobles to threaten your power as an absolute monarch; otherwise, you’re gonna get yourself a Magna Carta. So the emperor has decided to give them a cursed gift: the desert planet of Arrakis, which is crucial to the interplanetary spice trade.

Okay, what’s spice?

It’s this supercool invented substance found in the sands of Arrakis that’s incredibly valuable. It can cause hallucinations that let you see the future, exposure to it turns your eyes blue, and it’s highly addictive (no matter how much you have, it’s … never enough). But crucially, spice is used to execute faster-than-light travel across the galaxy because its mind-enhancing effects allow pilots to calculate their routes. (The Spacing Guild has a monopoly on that travel, but you don’t need to know much about it, other than it’s a neutral party that deals with all the various houses and wears cool domed helmets that are filled with spice dust.) Subtract the supernatural elements and basically spice is oil. As you may have noticed, Dune freely riffs on the historical colonization of and conflicts within the Middle East. Also, in the book, it’s known as the “spice melange,” but in the movie, they tend to just say “spice.” Too bad, melange is a fun word.

But if Arrakis is full of spice, that sounds like a great deal for the Atreides?

Well, yes, if they can run the planet well. But there are two key problems. First, the planet was previously owned by House Harkonnen, and if you weren’t tipped off by the ominous name and the fact that their leader, Baron Vladimir, is played by Stellan Skarsgård, yes, they are quite evil. When the emperor hands Arrakis over to Atreides, he’s basically guaranteeing a conflict between that family and House Harkonnen, who are none too happy about losing all that spice money. That conflict would weaken both families, which is nice for the emperor.

Second, Harkonnen has been running Arrakis with a focus on extracting spice above all and brutalizing the planet’s native inhabitants. That has, unsurprisingly, really pissed them off. Specifically, there are groups of Fremen who live out in the desert and are suspicious of any off-worlders who might traipse onto their planet. They’re not likely to help House Atreides out, but Duke Leto tries to win them over with a “look, we’re nice colonizers” campaign.

Jumping back a bit, Paul’s mom has witch skills?

Yup, she’s a member of the Bene Gesserit, a clique of nunlike women who operate within the Imperium with an agenda of their own. Dune leans toward harder sci-fi, so you don’t get too much magic. But these women have honed their abilities to do things like control people’s minds with their voices.

What are the witches up to?

Aside from planning out a lot of veil-forward looks for Charlotte Rampling, the current reverend mother, the Bene Gesserit are involved in a long-term selective-breeding program. They have spent centuries planning out marriages between different houses with the end goal of creating a Kwisatz Haderach, a male heir who would act as a sort of chosen one and have extra-super special powers, including the ability to see into the future.

So it’s full sci-fi. Are there robots?

Sort of. There’s a whole backstory the book references in which people rose up against actual robots that explains why Dune doesn’t have any androids. But there are people called Mentats who train themselves to think like machines. Stephen McKinley Henderson’s character Thufir Hawat is one, though the movie doesn’t explain that specifically. People who have read the book will get why his eyes flit up into his head when he has to do a calculation. People who have not? Well.

So is Paul the chosen one?

Maybe! The Bene Gesserit didn’t plan for Lady Jessica to have a son, but she decided to do it and be a legend in the hopes of pleasing her husband with an heir and seeing if she could birth the Kwisatz Haderach. When the novel begins, the reverend mother shows up to put Paul through one of the Bene Gesserit Kwisatz Haderach tests — that’s the scene with the box you see in the trailer — and the question of whether his passing the test means he’s really the chosen one hangs over the rest of the plot. Often, Paul seems like he might be a messiah, but other times he could just accidentally be following along on a path laid for him by outside forces with little free will of his own. It’s as if Luke Skywalker spent the whole movie being like Wait, am I Luke Skywalker? and Is it a good thing for a Luke Skywalker to exist in general?

Is there someone else who could be the chosen one?

To quote Star Wars, something heavily influenced by Dune, there is another: Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen also happens to be the product of Bene Gesserit breeding. But! He’s evil. In David Lynch’s film of Dune, Sting played Feyd-Rautha while rocking this look. Since this Dune is an adaptation of only part one of the novel, Feyd-Rautha hasn’t shown up yet, but I think Lucas Hedges should play him if there’s a sequel. Really play up the Lady Bird rivalry. Have Saoirse Ronan play Princess Irulan! (You don’t need to know who she is yet.)

How do the people on Arrakis feel about his whole “chosen one” quest?

Well, the Bene Gesserit have gone around to various planets through the centuries and seeded them with myths about chosen heroes that they can deploy to get the populace to help them with their own schemes. So when Paul arrives on Arrakis, a lot of people tend to think, Hey, is this the Muad’Dib? Which is their name for a messiah. That’s good for Paul in that it helps him survive, but it also gives him even more fraught feelings of responsibility toward the people of Arrakis. Muad’Dib is also the name for a little rodent that hops around their desert, which is why the movie has a lot of portentous shots of a cute mouse.

Why would it be bad for Paul to be a messiah?

Well, if Paul is the superspecial chosen one, a lot of people are going to start following him and wanting to spread the word of his greatness around the galaxy — probably violently — which is a lot of bloodshed for one guy to carry on his slim, little shoulders. Dune the book refers to this as a potential jihad. Dune the movie does not use that word, probably because of certain geopolitical developments that have taken place between 1965 and the present.

Really seems as if there’s a lot of appropriation of Middle Eastern and North African culture going on.

Yup! It’s a little weird that the leader of the Fremen, who have a culture based in large part on Bedouin tribes, is played by … Javier Bardem.

Also seems as though this is basically Lawrence of Arabia, with the whole “white guy ingratiating himself with a desert culture” vibe?

Frank Herbert did have that on the mind.

So it’s also just desert Avatar?

Hey, Avatar is just jungle Dune. Get the order of influences right! But yes, there’s a similar thread of ecology-focused sci-fi that runs between them. Herbert got his inspiration from reporting an article about efforts to manage sand dunes in Oregon.

Wait, I heard Zendaya is also in this movie. Where does she come in?

Zendaya plays Chani, a Fremen woman who Paul keeps seeing in his dreams. Mostly her job in this movie is to wander around in the desert as part of those dreams. She is very important in the back half of the novel, but for now, it’s mostly posing in the desert.

Any other key characters I should know about?

Keep an eye on Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho. He’s a proto Han Solo charming, roguish soldier dude, a fan favorite in the book series. Also Duncan Idaho is a cool name, like he’s a badass potato vendor at your local farmers’ market.

That’s not a badass name or profession.

You and I disagree.

Enough plot. Tell me about the sandworms.

Known individually and collectively as Shai-Hulud, the sandworms are these supermassive beings that plow through the deserts of Arrakis, consuming everything that dares venture unprepared into their territory. The worms are what make harvesting spice so difficult because they tend to eat whatever tools off-worlders use to mine it. They are also sacred to the Fremen, who seem to know ways to navigate around them, and, somehow, they’re linked to the creation of spice. Think of them as big honking metaphors for the sublime powers of nature that loom beyond human understanding, like a desert full of Moby Dicks.

Okay, but they do look like buttholes.

I’m ending this conversation.

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What Do You Need to Know About Dune Before You Watch Dune?