Denis Villeneuve’s Dune Part 1 Explained for Dummies

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune Part 1 Explained for Dummies
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Having just walked out of an opening night IMAX showing of Dune, what are my thoughts on Denis Villeneuve’s Dune Part 1 for dummies? In a word, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune was transcendent. The cinematography. The Design. The costume design. The set design. The acting. The music. The CG. The entirety of the experience was just utterly epiphanic.

And after you are finished with this post about DUNE Part 1 – check out my DUNE Part 2 explanation and walkthrough!

Now, I am not sure how it will land with the public at large. The book is incredibly complicated – and the movie conveys that complexity extraordinarily well, without sharing the deep inner workings of the political machinations that are so deeply ingrained in the story itself. Rottentomatoes right now has it as an 83% critic rating, and a fan score of 93%. Can’t imagine that will hold. But, I’m actually pretty surprised that the scores are that high. I went with some friends and they sort of seemed to say that they liked it… but I was obviously fan-boying, and wasn’t leaving room much in the way of dissent. But it deserves it. This Dune definitely deserves it. And you can watch it right now here…

Probably six months ago, knowing that Dune was coming – and being an enormous Denis Villeneuve fan (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, but it was Incendies that totally lit my hair on fire for the guy) – I decided I would reread the book, having read it back in high school 82 years ago. The deeper I got into the book, the more I realized just how impossible this material would be to film. Sure, David Lynch attempted it (I was not a fan), but sticking that landing? Man, that would be difficult. There are so many layers to the book. You have the spiritual order of the Dune universe. The power conflict of the Dune universe. The political order of the Dune universe. And the t-boning that happens of all the various layers constantly, and relentlessly, throughout the entirety of the book is just really pervasive from beginning to end. And to just sit and narrate the book is just not feasible. So the actors, the flashbacks, the screenplay, all had to do double and triple duty to convey the deeper meanings, and insinuate as to the other things that were going on simultaneously. Which probably was really my only negative for the film… which was that to the uninitiated, the nuances of the acting, and the character development, it comes off as a little weird probably. Or exceedingly weird even. But for me it all worked in conveying the multiplicity of layers and nuances going on here.

The friends I was with were shocked when the movie ended in the middle of the story. “Wait, what is the ending, what happens? When does the next one come out, and how many will there be?” “Um, it’s not clear that there will be another one actually… Denis has said that it will depend on how this one does… that they’d have to see what the audience’s response to the film is.” “Wait, WHAT? They may not even make a second movie? You didn’t answer, how many will there be?!? IF they make another one??” “Two.” “So that is the half way point then?” “Something like that.” “Why didn’t we watch once both were made and done?” “Well, then you couldn’t watch them both in IMAX, that’s for sure, but you could have done that.” “No, I couldn’t have done that, because you didn’t tell me that this was just part one!” And on and on it went.

The Story of Dune Explained for Dummies like me… heh.

The key to the story of Dune is in the Houses… and in the Bene Gesserit’s spiritual powers. If you keep this in mind, you’ll do just fine in figuring it all out.

When the story opens, the House Atreides – the good guys – are assigned to be the new ruler of the planet Arrakis (the sand planet), by the Emperor. (Different Emperor). They live on an ocean planet, but now they are going to the open extreme. And yet, they willingly go and serve the Emperor in this new role, but they are aware of the danger that they are stepping into. To disobey would be to be hunted down like dogs by the Emperor. What is so important on Arrakis? Well, the planet is home to the universe’s melange, or spice. Spice is a priceless drug, that can only be found here on Arrakis. The drug extends life, and is a giver of visions of the future to others. And it gives guild navigators who take it extreme insight. After the House Harkonnen is booted from Arrakis by the Emperor, they plot Atreides’ demise.

Enter the head of the House Atreides’ concubine, Lady Jessica. She is an acolyte from the order of the Bene Gesserit. The what now? They are the ‘witches’ that hold spiritual power. But they also have very specific political aims and goals. So much so that they have been spreading myths and prophecies about the coming of a Messiah like feature. Now, the order of the Bene Gesserit are exclusively women. They are able to pick the gender of their offspring, and she has deliberately chosen to give the head of the house Atreides a male heir – Paul. Oh, and by the way, maybe also the coming Lisan al Gaib. You know, the one that meets the prophecies, and who would stand to rule the universe. Well, Lady Jessica’s superior, the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, she comes to test Paul’s abilities. And to do so, she subjects Paul to the gom jabbar, a horrific test of pain that she ramps up well beyond the normal levels.

Moving to Arrakis, the family takes over the ex-homes of the House Harkonnen. Leto finds out quickly of the dangers involved in mining the spice by seeing the giant sand worms first hand. Leto is aware that to really be successful, he will need to partner with the native people of the planet, the Fremen. You know, the desert people that commune with sand worms and live in vaulted caves deep within the desert? Those guys. But soon after House Atreides’ arrival, Harkonnen troops attack. Now, within the world of Dune, this is a massive betrayal. The Houses aren’t allowed to do this – and this aspect of the story was lost in the movie… We watch as some people try to make it out, and communicate to the Emperor what is going on… but, there was no sense of why he would even care. Or why it mattered. But in the book, this attack’s secrecy was enormous to the machinations of the book. Better yet, to dive another level deeper, Harkonnen has negotiated 3 legions of Sardaukar troops… which are the Emperor’s berserkers, but they’ve been disguised, and this truth must be hidden at all costs.

So does that make sense? The Emperor doesn’t allow infighting within the Houses. He tasks Atreides with taking over the most important planet in the universe, only to allow, secretly, the Harkonnens to attack. Not only does he allow it, but he has “rented” his Sardaukar out for the job. And this is all to level judgement against the Atreides. But why? Great question. Hold that thought.

House Harkonnen has weaseled their way into House Atreides, and flipped the house Suk doctor, Wellingon Yueh, and convinced him to give up Leto. Which he does by bringing down the shields. But, he has also enabled Leto to get revenge against Harkonnen as he dies… by implanting a fake tooth that is filled with poison. And he has also provided a way of escape for Lady Jessica and Paul in the desert where they are presumed dead and lost to the storms of the planet. Another detail that is enormous in the book, but only a minor detail in the movie, is the population of the Fremen. It is quite shocking to learn just how many survive on the untamable planet. It’s assumed that everyone dies beyond the wall. Sure, there might be a handful of hidden people that barely scratch out an existence. But they are weak, and lucky. It is this idea from House Atreides that an alliance with the Fremen is fairly revolutionary. Why would you do that? They are uselessly battered by sand worms and desert heat. But Leto believed that this was the correct political move for their family on Arrakis.

Leto fails in his attempt to murder the Baron of House Harkonnen. He is injured badly, but still alive. He does kill De Vries, and others in the room… but not his chief target, the Baron. Another key detail here that was different, is that the Baron forces Hawat to take over De Vries’ operation on Arrakis, which was to take over the planet, and pump all the melange out of the planet that he could as ruthlessly as he could. Maybe this will be a critical theme in part 2? We will see. But in the book, Hawat actually works actively, and secretly to undercut the Harkonnens there on Arrakis. So we will see how that plays out in the second movie.

Now, flip back to the Bene Gesserits, Lady Jessica, and this breeding scheme of theirs. For centuries they have been breeding girls in an attempt to strengthen the order. (Women are stronger Bene Gesserit spiritualists, for lack of a better term. They are stronger and more powerful.) But it has been prophesied, and foretold, across the galaxy, that one day, out of the Bene Gesserits, would come the coveted Lisan al Gaib. This al Gaib would be able to see past, present and future. He would have enormous metal capacity for seeing all using the powers of the Bene Gesserits. So the spice, coupled with this spiritual breeding scheme, has crafted an individual who is highly susceptible to the melange. So immediately after being exposed to the spice (which, in the book happens right after arriving on the planet… why? because the spice is in absolutely everything. The food, the water, the air. It’s everywhere. But in the movie the simplified things by equating it to the desert sands.) he begins to have visions, more powerful, and more all encompassing visions. These visions show him living with the Fremen, leading the Fremen, having children, and training the people of the sand.

SPOILER – the book reveals a detail earlier than the movie, so if you’d like the surprise to remain until Part 2, jump to the next paragraph, and I won’t refer to it again. In the book, we learn that Lady Jessica is actually the daughter of Baron Harkonnen. It was hidden from her and the Bene Gesserit. Her birth was through a random mother, Tanidia Nerus, which is only noted on the breeding charts… but it’s significant in that she is heir to both the Harkonnen and Atreides Houses. Let alone, her Bene Gesserit connections. – END SPOILER

After Paul and Lady Jessica survive their crash, and are captured by the Fremen, they are accepted into the community of the Sietch Tabr. A challenge is made for the leadership of the Tabr. These challenges are always to the death, and the winner is given the loser’s water. Paul kills the challenger, saving his life, and his mother’s place in the tribe. Paul realizes that Lady Jessica is pregnant… with a daughter. And as the movie moves into the desert, it ends as we watch someone riding the back of a worm. Riding worms is a rite boys must learn in order to become men in the tribe. Thumpers are used to call the worms, and hooks are needed to pry open the scales of the worm. The worm, not wanting to expose its unprotected skin to the sand, rotates the open scale to the surface, and doesn’t dive.

The Rest of the Story?

Everyone wants to know, will there be a second Dune movie? Heck, will their be a third? Like I said above, it hasn’t been determined if there will be a Dune Part 2 yet. That will depend on box office receipts, and receipts for HBO’s viewings on their network. Want to vote for a second part? Click the link above to go to HBO MAX and watch there.

But Denis actually has plans for THREE movies. Two movies to tell the first Frank Herbert book. And another movie to tell book 2 of the 6 book Dune series. If you’d like to avoid spoilers for where the movies will go, maybe avert your eyes for now, I’ll make it clear when you can come back. Dune Part One, tells the story up to the point you saw in the movie… where Jessica and Paul head into the desert. It is around the halfway point of Book 1. Part 2 will tell the rest of the story of the first book. Part 3 would be the adaptation of the book Dune: Messiah. Denis has told Indiewire that he couldn’t imagine going further than part 3… that even these three parts would be “years of work.”

But When Will Dune Part 2 Be Confirmed?

While Warner Bros. has not given a greenlight to Dune Part 2 yet, it is interesting that we are given a number of hints that Part 2 will be coming. For example… oh, I don’t know, THE PART 1 IN THE TITLE?? Second thought, look at Chani’s quote at the end of the film… “this is only just the beginning.” She was referring to the power of her people of the sand, but she was also telling the audience, there is another movie to come. Denis has said in interviews that he is standing with one foot stuck in the air, as he awaits permission to make part 2. And yet, it could be that the studio’s decision to same day stream the movie on HBO MAX could really hamper the numbers. Who knows. IMAX is leading the charge with ticket sales (which, I can definitively say, the extra ticket price is well worth the experience. Large swaths of the film was filmed in the IMAX negative, and even the sound of the soundtrack, and the immersiveness just was all around worth it.) with upwards of close to 30% of the sales. Thursday night’s preview and Friday sales are putting it in the 18-22 million range – and depending on how the run continues, it will probably push to north of the 30 million, probably even 42 million. (Anything above $32 million will be a record opening weekend for Villeneuve.) For the pandemic, these are sterling numbers so far. Yes, not pre-pandemic… but the world has changed. Add in HBO MAX? I really think its a foregone conclusion that Warner Bros. will greenlight Part 2.

Final Thoughts on Dune Part 1

Go see it in IMAX. Go see it in IMAX. Go see it in IMAX. Go see it in IMAX. The… I… Sound…. Visuals… its… just incredible. Personally, I am an enormous – huge – Star Wars fan. But, if Villeneuve gets three movies made, with this level of brilliance… I think Dune could knock Star Wars off my pedestal. To create a space opera with this enormous canvas, and glorious design, music and sound? But the second part of the Book gets really weird. Like cool weird. But not mainstream cool weird! hahaha. So I am dubious that Warner goes past Part 2. We will just have to see.

Regardless, I’m here for whatever Villeneuve wants to show me. I go to all of Nolan’s movies in IMAX. I got to all of Villeneuve’s movies in IMAX. Just write me down in the ledger. Can’t wait to see what happens next in this Dune cycle. What were your thoughts on the movie? Did you think it too weird? Were you shocked to find that it didn’t tell the whole story in one sitting? Talk to me.

Edited by: CY