A beginning is a very delicate time. Know then, that it is the year 2021, and after several delays Dune is finally preparing to hit cinemas. Denis Villeneuve’s epic adaptation of the legendary sci-fi story is set to be one of the year’s biggest blockbusters – a mind-blowing feast of Spice, Sandworms, and seriously impressive performance from Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson and more. But if you’re a total newcomer to the sprawling mythology and space politics – and don’t have the time to read Frank Herbert’s novels, or watch David Lynch’s oft-maligned ‘80s adaptation – you might want to do a little brushing up first. Let the Guild Navigators of Empire guide you through everything you need to know.
What is Dune?
Fundamentally, Dune is a 1965 science-fiction novel by Frank Herbert – a hugely influential tome whose space operatics and dense mythology can be felt in everything from Star Wars to Game Of Thrones. But Dune is also a sprawling franchise. Herbert himself wrote five sequels between 1969 and 1985, and his son Brian Herbert has written a further 14 prequels and sequels in collaboration with Kevin J. Anderson since 1999. There was also a 1984 movie and a 2000 TV mini-series, plus numerous games of both the video and board variety. That’s… a lot of Dune.
What you really need to know if that it’s now also a massive new movie from director Denis Villeneuve. And possibly the beginning of a sprawling multimedia franchise that includes TV series as well as movie sequels. At least, that's if all goes as originally planned...
What’s the plot of Dune?
The broader franchise spans millennia, but for our purposes, the story of the new Dune film relates only to Frank Herbert's original novel. It takes place in the distant future, in an intergalactic feudal society presided over by various noble families and one all-powerful emperor. Duke Leto Atreides, ruler of the ocean planet Caladan, accepts a relocation to the harsh desert planet of Arrakis – known colloquially as Dune – to oversee the mining of the all-important spice Melange, of which Arrakis is the only source. Melange is the most powerful substance in the universe, and the means by which space travel is possible. The spice must flow, but mining it is a dangerous business thanks to Arrakis' massive indigenous sandworms.
Leto's son is Paul. Paul's mother is Leto's concubine, the Lady Jessica, who is a member of the mysterious and sorcerous Bene Gesserit sisterhood. But the Arrakis gig isn’t what it initially seemed to be, the paranoid Emperor Shaddam IV is in dealings with the corrupt House Harkonnen, and the indigenous Fremen people of Arrakis are through with the Empire’s meddling. To say any more would unleash massive spoiler-worms – which are even worse than sandworms.
What’s Denis Villeneuve’s take on the story?
Since David Lynch’s ‘80s version is widely regarded as a not-so-successful adaptation of Frank Herbert’s book (especially by the director himself), Villeneuve has split the story in two. Effectively, Dune is Dune: Part One – it’s half the story, acknowledging that you need really significant screen time to fit the whole tale in. The (potential) problem is that while Part Two is officially planned, it hasn’t been filmed yet – and its ultimate creation is entirely dependent on Dune being a hit. Pre-book your tickets now people!
Villeneuve is a stellar choice for this one, though – he has form for making big, brilliant, brainy sci-fi movies, from Blade Runner 2049 to Arrival (as well as thrillers like Prisoners, Sicario and Incendies). He's brought Arrival and Sicario's production designer Patrice Vermette with him, and the cinematographer is Greig Fraser, who shot Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Zero Dark Thirty.
Who’s in the Dune cast?
Everyone, more or less. Denis Villeneuve has assembled an extraordinary cast of impeccable actors for this one. Here’s who’s involved.
Timothée Chalamet is Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto and Lady Jessica, a lad with a future on the planet Arrakis even he doesn't fully understand.
Rebecca Ferguson is Lady Jessica: Paul's mother, Leto's concubine, and member of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood.
Oscar Isaac is Paul's father Duke Leto Atreides, erstwhile steward of the planet Caladan, lately reassigned to Arrakis.
Josh Brolin is Gurney Halleck, the weapons master of House Atreides and Paul's mentor. He also plays a mean baliset.
Jason Momoa (shorn of his trademark wildman beard) is Duncan Idaho, House Atreides' master of swords. Idaho is, through various shenanigans, a major player throughout all of the Dune novels, so Momoa could be in for the long haul here.
Sharon Duncan-Brewster is Liet Kynes, the Arrakis-based planetologist and ecologist who acts as the Atreides' liaison with the Fremen. With Herbert's novel not exactly replete with great roles for women, Kynes has been gender-swapped for the film.
Javier Bardem is Stilgar, leader of the Fremen tribe.
Zendaya is Chani, Paul's Fremen love interest.
Stellan Skarsgård is the evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Duke Leto's arch enemy.
Dave Bautista is Glossu "The Beast" Rabban, the Baron's monstrous nephew and henchman.
Chang Chen is Doctor Wellington Yueh, a senior medic of House Atreides.
Charlotte Rampling is Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, the Emperor's "truthsayer" and Lady Jessica's Bene Gesserit mentor.
David Dastmalchian is Piter De Vries, a Harkonnen “Mentat” (someone who has been trained to think and compute at a superhuman level; computers and "thinking machines" having been outlawed in Herbert's Dune-iverse).
Stephen McKinley Henderson is Thufir Hawat, the Atreides' Mentat and master of assassins.
What are the previous adaptations of Dune?
Alejandro Jodorowsky, in cahoots with French producer Michel Seydoux, first schemed an adaptation of Dune in the 1970s, with HR Giger, Jean "Moebius" Giraud, Dan O’Bannon and Chris Foss among his band of "warriors" behind the camera. Salvador Dali would apparently have played Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, with Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen. Pink Floyd were doing the music. As outlined in the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune, this version ultimately collapsed – and given Jod's mad vision, it was probably unachievable anyway.
Many of Jod's crew went on to Ridley Scott's Alien, and Scott was himself attached to Dune for seven months in the early 1980s for producer Dino De Laurentiis. When Scott abandoned the project in favour of Blade Runner, De Laurentiis persuaded David Lynch to take it on. Lynch's Dune – starring Kyle MacLachlan, Sean Young and Sting – reached screens in 1984. It underperformed at the box office and was, artistically, not an unqualified success. But its reputation as a complete disaster has been reevaluated to some extent in the decades since. Lynch has called the whole experience "a huge, gigantic sadness in my life", but his film has its admirers.
SyFy (the Sci-Fi Channel as it then was) produced TV mini-series versions of the first three Dune novels between 2000 and 2003. More recently, studio Paramount were trying to get a new Dune off the ground for several years, with names like Peter Berg and Pierre Morel attached at various points. Paramount's Dune rights lapsed in 2011, and Legendary picked them up in 2016. The new film, with Denis Villeneuve as the director, was confirmed the following February. Legendary's deal with the Frank Herbert estate allows the development of both films and TV shows. More on that below…
Who’s written this version?
Dune’s credited screenwriters are Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth. Spaihts wrote Passengers and the original drafts of Doctor Strange and Prometheus. Roth's previous work includes A Star Is Born, Munich and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, and he won an Oscar for Forrest Gump.
What’s the proposed Dune spin-off series?
As if the massive film project wasn't enough, Villeneuve has also been developing a spin-off TV series for Warner Bros.' new streaming service HBO Max. Set before the film, Dune: The Sisterhood will focus on the mysterious and powerful Bene Gesserit order, pursuing the secretive plans that will ultimately lead them to Arrakis. "The Bene Gesserit have always been fascinating to me," Villeneuve said in a statement. "Focusing a series around that powerful order of women seemed not only relevant and inspiring but a dynamic setting for the television series."
Villeneuve will shift focus to the show once the film has wrapped. Currently, he's on to direct the pilot from another Jon Spaihts screenplay, maintaining the visual identity from the big screen to the small. After that, Villeneuve and Spaihts will serve as executive producers for the rest of the series, alongside Brian Herbert.
Who composed the Dune score?
Hans Zimmer is doing it – not only that, but he turned down working on his old friend Christopher Nolan on Tenet because he couldn't bear to miss out on Dune. "I have to do it,” the prolific film composer told The Playlist. “Chris understands I have to do it. Dune is one of my favourite books from my teenage years and I love Denis Villeneuve, obviously. I never saw the original (David Lynch) Dune movie, so I’m coming at this in a fresh way, just from the book."
What is Dune’s release date?
After a long delay, Dune is currently scheduled for release on 22 October this year, preceded by a Venice Film Festival premiere on 3 September. In the States, it will simultaneously be in cinemas and on HBO Max – a source of consternation for Villeneuve, who has gone on record saying he thinks it'll hurt the movie's chances at the box office and endangers the chances of making the planned second film. Fingers crossed he gets to make his full vision – and we’ll see you on Arrakis. Watch out for the sandworms!
READ MORE: Zendaya On Dune: 'Chani Is A Fighter'