Originally slated for release in November 2020, director Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic Dune finally arrives in theatres next month. The first entry in a planned two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 novel, Dune’s epic trailers and early rave reviews have more than just hardcore fans excited – even non-fans are eager to jump on the hype bandwagon, too. If that’s you, check out this handy primer which covers everything you need to know about Dune – its story, characters, themes and more – before the movie arrives on 22 October.
What is Dune about?
Dune is set roughly 20,000 years from now, in a world where humanity has colonised the universe and established a feudal society (think Game of Thrones, only in space). When the story kicks off, the Padishah Emperor has appointed Duke Leto of House Atreides to rule over Arrakis, a barren desert world and the universe’s sole source of Melange – a miraculous spice coveted throughout the empire.
Although the appointment offers House Atriedes the chance for even greater wealth, it’s secretly a trap cooked up by the Emperor (wary of Leto’s growing influence) and Baron Harkonnen, Leto’s chief rival who has sworn to wipe out his entire lineage. Leto suspects treachery but can’t refuse an imperial request, and so he relocates his entire household – including son and heir Paul – to Arrakis, where they encounter fierce nomadic tribes and gigantic sandworms capable of swallowing spice-harvesting vehicles whole.
Meanwhile, the plot to destroy House Atriedes comes ever closer to fruition, while Paul begins experiencing visions of a future far more terrible than what even his father’s enemies have planned…
Who are the major characters in Dune?
A sweeping epic, Dune has a suitably sprawling network of characters and organisations. In Part One, some of the major players we’ll meet include:
- Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet): Dune’s protagonist and the 15-year-old ducal heir of House Atreides. Trained from an early age in warfare, Paul also possess superhuman physical and mental abilities. Because of this, he is a highly proficient combatant despite his youth and slight build, although he shuns excessive bloodshed – making the dark destiny he’s glimpsed in his prophetic visions all the more troubling.
- Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac): the Duke of House Atreides and newly appointed ruler of Arrakis, Leto is an honourable man devoted to his concubine Jessica and their son, Paul. His inherent decency and compassion have earned him the respect of the other noble houses and loyalty of his men.
- Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson): a member of the mysterious Bene Gesserit religious order, Lady Jessica’s lifetime of physical and mental conditioning grants her superhuman abilities others consider witchcraft. She is Duke Leto’s only concubine (effectively, his wife) and Paul’s mother.
- Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin): House Atreides’ Warmaster, fiercely loyal to both Leto and to Paul, whom he mentors. Equally adept at hand-to-hand and armed combat, Gurney is also a talented musician who entertains the Atreides household with his guitar-like baliset.
- Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård): Baron of House Harkonnen, sworn enemy of House Atreides, and former steward of Arrakis. Baron Harkonnen is grotesquely obese – he requires an anti-gravity harness to support his weight – but what he lacks in physical prowess, he makes up for in intellect, cunning and ruthlessness.
- Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson): a long-time servant of House Atriedes, Thufir is a Mentat – a human conditioned to function as a living computer (since the Empire has outlawed artificial intelligence in the Dune universe). He is Leto’s Master of Assassins and one of his closest confidantes, and he also teaches Paul the Mentat disciplines.
- Chani (Zendaya): a young woman from one of Arrakis’ native Fremen tribes, Chani appears to Paul in visions he experiences before leaving for the desert world. She is the daughter of Doctor Liet-Kynes, a prominent figure on Arrakis, and shows an aptitude for the same physical and mental powers that Paul and his mother share.
- Doctor Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster): the Imperial Planetologist and Judge of the Change on Arrakis, Liet-Kynes is both a leading ecologist and the person in charge of facilitating a smooth transition of power between the Harkonnens and the Atriedes. Unlike in the novel, Liet-Kynes is a woman in the 2021 Dune adaptation.
- Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa): a peerless swordsman and one of Duke Leto’s staunchest allies, Duncan Idaho is also responsible (along with Gurney Halleck and Thufir Hawat) for Paul’s martial training.
- Stilgar (Javier Bardem): a rugged Fremen tribal leader, Stilgar is Liet-Kynes brother (or according to later books in the series, brother-in-law) and Chani’s uncle.
- Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista): branded “the Beast Rabban” by Arrakis’ populace owing to his brutal treatment of them, Rabban is Baron Harkonnen’s nephew. He shares his uncle’s sadism but not his smarts, failing to realise that he’s merely a pawn in the Baron’s wider schemes.
What are the key themes in Dune?
A big part of Dune’s appeal is the book’s thematic richness. Herbert uses the story’s sci-fi trappings and adventure story tropes to explore weighty topics like ecology, religion, politics, and philosophy. Expect Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation to follow suit by incorporating the main themes from the novel, including:
- Environmentalism: This is a key theme in Dune, represented by the Fremen tribe’s conservationist efforts versus the callous consumerism of the Empire which ravages Arrakis for Melange without considering the environmental consequences. The growing tension between these two opposing philosophies becomes a driving force in the story, which feels timely in a post-Extinction Rebellion era.
- Extremism: Dune flips the typical portrayal of religious and political extremism on its head by making its protagonist (not its villain) the head of a fanatical movement! While Villeneuve will likely develop this more fully in Part Two, expect the director to plant the seeds for Paul’s gradual transformation into a messianic figure in Part One. As the story progresses, Paul’s followers will elevate him to the status of infallible hero, which – as in our own world – will have serious consequences for wider society.
- Gender politics: Although Villeneuve has gender-swapped at least one male role for his take on Dune, this shouldn’t eliminate the gender dynamics that are central to the novel. The world of Dune is built upon a patriarchal society, which means that individuals like Jessica and Chani or organisations like the women-only Bene Gesserit must go to extreme lengths to maintain (much less advance) their place in the overall pecking order – a status quo that’s likely to resonate with female viewers.
Do I need to watch the 1984 Dune movie first?
Nope. The 2021 Dune movie isn’t connected to David Lynch’s widely panned 1984 adaptation and is effectively a reboot of that film, not a sequel to it. The 1984 version of Dune made several changes to the source material and Lynch himself has since disowned it, so those looking to familiarise themselves with Herbert’s sci-fi epic before Villeneuve’s adaptation arrives would probably be better off picking up a copy of the novel, instead!