Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), head of the Atreides family and ruler of the planet Caladan, is ordered by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV to replace Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) as the fief holder of Arrakis, a desert world which produces Spice, a psychotropic drug which bestows powerful vitality and awareness. It is necessary for interstellar travel as it gives the Navigators of the Spacing Guild the ability to guide starships instantaneously through space. Shaddam wants House Harkonnen to seize Arrakis. With the help of his Sardaukar Troops, he seeks to destroy House Atreides. Duke Leto is suspicious of the Emperor but, believing that control of Arrakis is paramount, he seeks to make an alliance with the mysterious desert-dwelling Fremen.

Leto’s concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), is an acolyte of the witch-like Sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit. As part of their centuries-long breeding program, they order her to bear a daughter whose son would be the Kwisatz Haderach, a messianic superbeing with the clairvoyance necessary to guide humanity to a great future. She disobeys and bears a son named Paul (Timothée Chalamet) who will be heir to the House Atreides. He is trained by Leto’s aides—Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), Suk Doctor Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), and Mentat or mind-reader Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson). And his mother trains him in Bene Gesserit Mental Powers.

Paul tells Jessica and Duncan about his dark visions. The Reverend Mother and Imperial Truthsayer Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) visits the planet Caladan and gives him the Gom jabbar test to determine his humanity and impulse control, and he passes with flying colours. Secretly meeting on the planet Giedi Prime, Mohiam insists that Baron Harkonnen spare Paul and Jessica when he engages in his coup. He agrees, but with duplicitous intent.

The House Atreides arrives at Arrakeen, the palace fortress on Arrakis. Duncan’s party has contacted the Fremen, who revere Paul and Jessica because of the Bene Gesserit’s long history. Leto negotiates with the chieftain of the Fremen, Stilgar (Javier Bardem), and meets the Imperial Judge of the Change, Doctor Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), a planetologist who lives with the Fremen. Kynes warns them about the dangers of Spice harvesting and the giant sandworms. They rescue a stranded spice-harvesting crew from a sandworm. Paul is exposed to the Spice and has premonitions of the future.

An attempt is made to assassinate Paul with a hunter-seeker, but it fails. Yueh betrays the Atreides and disables the Arakeen Shields, allowing the Harkonnens and the Sardaukar to invade. Leto is incapacitated by Yueh and is to be exchanged for his wife, who is the Baron’s prisoner. Yueh replaces one of Leto’s teeth with a poison-gas capsule so the Duke can assassinate the Baron. The Baron double-crosses and murders Yueh. Leto releases the gas, killing himself and the Baron’s Mentat, Piter de Vries (David Dastmalchian), but the Baron survives. The Baron orders Paul and Jessica to be dropped in the desert to die, but Yueh has given them a Fremkit and survival supplies. Jessica uses “The Voice”, a Bene Gesserit technique that overpowers and kills their captors. They journey overnight in the desert and Paul has Spice-induced visions of a holy war in the universe in his name.

Baron Harkonnen makes his nephew Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista) commander of the conquered Arrakis and orders him to resume Spice production. Paul and Jessica are tracked down by Duncan and Kynes, and Paul announces his plan to marry one of the Shaddam’s daughters to avert civil war. They are found by the Sardaukar but Duncan sacrifices himself so Paul and Jessica can escape. Kynes is mortally wounded and lures a sandworm to devour her and the Sardauker. In the deep desert, Paul and Jessica find Stilgar’s tribe, including Chani (Zendaya), the girl in Paul’s visions. The Fremen warrior Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun) opposes Paul and challenges him to a duel, which Paul wins. Despite Jessica’s wishes, Paul joins the Fremen to bring peace to Arrakis.

The film was directed by Quebec director Denis Villeneuve, already lionized for Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, which he directed so he could get his hands on Dune. Villeneuve co-wrote the screenplay with John Spaihts and Eric Roth. It will be the first film of a trilogy based on the beloved 1965 novel by Frank Herbert. Previous attempts by David Lynch in 1984 and a 2000 TV miniseries were criticized by fans and are considered failures. It was filmed in Budapest, Jordan, Norway, and Abu Dhabi. Scheduled for a 2020 release, it was delayed by the Covid Pandemic and premiered at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival, then released that year and streamed on HBO Max.

It was a box-office success and well received by critics, with praise for Villeneuve’s directing and screenplay, the visual effects, costume design, Hans Zimmer’s score, and its faithfulness to the source material. It was nominated for ten Oscars and won six of them, including Best Picture. History is replete with big movies that were announced as the first picture of a series that never materialised, but Villeneuve did not announce a second film until the first was a success, nor a third until the second was just as successful. Dune had been thought unfilmable, but he proved it was just waiting for the right director. David J. Peterson, who created the languages for Game of Thrones, did the same for Dune. Many of the actors accepted roles from Villeneuve before reading the script. Villeneuve turned down the Bond film No Time to Die because he had loved the Dune novel since he was twelve.

Originally, the Fremen’s blue eyes were to be created with contact lenses but, realizing that the actors would be constantly bombarded with blowing sand, they decided to do it digitally in post-production. The Great Houses originally came from Earth, which explains the use of ancient Greek and Arab names and designs. The word Gesserit, according to Frank Herbert’s son Brian,  is based on the word Jesuit. The martial arts in the film were based on an ancient Mongolian style. Much of Star Wars was influenced by the Dune novels. The film resulted in Hans Zimmer’s 11th Oscar Nomination. It was he who played the bagpipes in the film. Charlotte Rampling dubbed herself for the French language release. The astonishingly great visuals drove those of the previous films right out of my mind and replaced my own memories of reading the Dune books. Even the ornithopters looked like they worked. And the actors were just as perfect, though I admit it was disturbing to see Jason Momoa without a beard.

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