star wars?

What Even Is Dune?

Does any of this make sense to you? Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

Dune. Dune! Dune? Everybody is talking about Dune — and has been for years, partially because the coronavirus pandemic pushed back the movie’s release date by a whole 12 months. But now, the big day, D-Day (Dune Day), is finally upon us, meaning the time has come to answer the single largest question regarding this movie’s debut: What even is Dune anyway?

In short, Dune is a sci-fi reboot with a gratuitously complex plot, based on a 1965 novel by Frank Herbert that was published in two parts. It is famously very hard to understand — Rolling Stone calls the source material “notoriously impenetrable”; Insider calls it both “sprawling” and “dense” — therefore, people who have managed to digest it often settle into a palpable smugness over that achievement. Dune is very important, they will tell you; a pillar of the science-fiction genre, even if the original attempt at making it into a movie (by David Lynch in 1984) failed to reflect that greatness. Some people seem to view Dune as comparable to The Lord of the Rings, though as a person who loves and has a memory for The Lord of the Rings, I find the parallel grating: (1) because LOTR came first (and, in his own words, J.R.R. Tolkien “dislike[d] Dune with some intensity”), (2) because LOTR is fantasy, and (3) because its story line is actually pretty straightforward. Whenever I attempt to get a grip on the details of Dune, however, they pop out of my hands like little wet soaps, which is to say it’s like they’re doing it on purpose and to spite me.

But then our colleagues at Vulture posit that whether or not you like the movie actually isn’t the point — the point is atmosphere and, in the case of this specific remake, that so many big names (Timothée Chalamet! Zendaya! Oscar Isaac!) signed on as actors. Why would they do this? What is so special about Dune? What even is Dune? All reasonable questions, some of which I will attempt to answer. Let’s go.

Timmy looking the way I feel when I try to understand Dune (hopeless). Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

What’s Dune, precious?

A hero’s journey in which a Chosen Son (Chalamet in the 2021 iteration) overcomes adversity in the form of looming enemies, leaning into and thereby conquering his adolescent fears so that he can embrace his destiny and, eventually, rule. (Dune Wiki provides a more intricate overview if you have a taste for word salad.) It is set in space but also in the desert. In its original format, Dune is a two-part book, though it has previously been adapted as a movie: First by David Lynch in a widely panned imagining Vulture describes as “a beautiful sci-fi disaster” and now by Denis Villeneuve. Heads up: The coming Dune will only cover the first half of the book; if it does well, a sequel will follow.

Some other key points, as outlined by Vulture’s Nate Jones, who got to see this shit early:


• “Everything in this movie is either incredibly big or incredibly small.”

• “Much of the story is devoted to sci-fi bureaucracy. Which elites have import/export rights in which provinces? What are the specific bylaws governing a leadership transition? If someone wants to lodge a complaint, which regulatory body must they contact?”

• “Every few minutes, the movie’s plot stops for a series of perfume commercials featuring Zendaya wandering around the desert.”

Is a picture forming?

Something going BOOM. Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

A hero’s tale set simultaneously in space and the desert; is Dune actually Star Wars?

Though I have seen neither film, I do not think Dune is Star Wars. I know it is not Mad Max: Fury Road because I have seen Mad Max: Fury Road, and le petit Monsieur Chalamet never showed his finely chiseled face. But suffice to say, Dune combines the dustiness of the latter with the spaciness of the former. Apparently, Dune had some influence on Star Wars, so you will be forgiven for believing the two franchises are one and the same; if it helps you to think of them this way, that is fine with me.

If Dune is not Star Wars, then … what is it? I do not feel this question was sufficiently answered above!

Let us consult the footage. Consider trailer one:

What I am getting from this reel is Timothée Chalamet is in flux and is maybe also a witch; certainly, he is vexed by the sandstorm inside his brain. “There’s a crusade coming,” and in order to win it, he must be able to withstand all the pain in the box; he must also get better at sword-fighting. Li’l Timmy Tim feels extreme pressure because people keep handing his father planets, better and better planets, only Daddy keeps ruining them. Unfortunately, because of the hereditary nature of power in stories like these, the sins of the father will fall upon our boy’s cherubic head. Some bald villain intends to pick off Timmy’s family members like rats in a trap and then! Then there is the butthole worm.

Nope, that’s not doing it for me. Let’s try again. Roll the tape, please:

Okay, things feel clearer this time thanks to Zendaya generously walking us through the scene. Location: the planet Arrakis (“beautiful when the sun is low,” ravaged by cruel outsiders thirsty for sparkly resources) but also the interior of Timmy’s brain. Tim-Tam dreamed up Arrakis, and Zendaya, in what we can safely assume is a vision of the world to come. Timmy belongs to House Atreides, a seemingly noble family whom some emperor has charged with bringing peace to Arrakis. Here, Timmy meets Zendaya and his glorious fate. There will be war, specifically with the inhumane–slash–possibly inhuman Harkonnens (the balds), who want to eliminate the Atreides. However, it seems Timmy has been marked for greatness — predestined for power, even — and if he can accept that about himself, then he can win this fight. (He seemingly has a bunch of fiery planes at his disposal, which should help.) But, yes, there will always be the butthole worm to contend with.

Now, I think, we are getting somewhere.

Why does this horrible butthole worm keep coming up?

Oh my God. I know. I hate the worm; I hate it so much; I absolutely loathe how uncannily it evokes both a butthole and a lamprey at the same time. Get it away from me!!! Who decided to make it such a central component of Dune’s advertising? Or, agh, is it better to have this advance warning on the worm — because can you imagine sitting in the theater, trying to sift through the barrage of inexplicable imagery and eat your popcorn quietly, then wham, BUTTHOLE WORM?!? Horrible, simply horrible.

Anyway, according to my research, what we have here is one of the giant sandworms that inhabit the eponymous dunes of Arrakis, whence the native population and the colonizers derive a tremendous psychedelic called “spice.” (Alternatively known as “melange,” it smells and tastes like cinnamon, allows humans to bend space and time with their minds when consumed in high doses, and is valuable enough to function as currency despite being produced from — please brace yourself — poop from the butthole worms’ larvae. “Imagine a substance with the combined worldwide value of cocaine and petroleum and you will have some idea of the power of melange,” The New Yorker advises.) The butthole worms are revered, but they are also dangerous, enormous beasts with enormous teeth. Though some people ride them around, the butthole worms retain an incredible capacity for destruction, which means they will never be tamed. Rhythmic vibrations summon the butthole worms to the sand’s surface, which makes me especially nervous about the sheer volume of explosives contained in the trailers above.

This is spice!!! Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

Rewind, please: Dune is a colonialist story?

Based on my reading: Yeah, seems so. The families who lord over Arrakis are all transplants dispatched by an emperor, and at least in one case, they view the Indigenous Fremen as “backwards savages,” per Polygon. These families also snap up the planet’s most valuable resources; that’s the whole reason the emperor is interested in Arrakis. Chalamet’s character appears to be a more benevolent ruler, which is to say something of a white savior. And it has come to my attention that Herbert pilfered a bunch of Arabic and Persian words, embedding them in the architecture of his sprawling Dune world, a practice known today as appropriation.

Regarding those trailers: What’s that little tube on Zendaya’s face?

Please note that the tube is NOT for snorting spice straight from the air, as I initially assumed; it is for consuming the body’s secreted water, filtered by a “stillsuit” and rerouted back through the nose, allowing the wearer to survive in a punishingly dry climate. Just FYI!

Timmy Tim passively reabsorbing his excreted bodily fluids :). Photo: Chia Bella James/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Who are all the famous people in Dune?

Wow, how much time do you have? I’m pretty sure all the famous people are in Dune, at least for a little bit, but here are the names that jumped out at me:

• Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, a.k.a. protagonist No. 1/the chosen one?

• Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides, a.k.a. Paul’s daddy and yours ;)

• Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, Isaac’s witchy concubine and Paul’s mom

• Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, what a name

• Stellan Skarsgård as the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, obviously a villain

• Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck (?)

• Javier Bardem as Stilgar (¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

• Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Mohiam, an elder stateswoman of the powerful witchy sisterhood to which Lady Jessica also belongs

• … and, drumroll, please: Zendaya (duh) as Chani, Paul’s love interest and the person invading his dreams

In short: whole buncha hotties!

A love interest, eh? Does that mean … is Dune sexy at all?

Though Paul and Chani do eventually get together and have at least one kid, it’s unclear to me how much of that relationship will come up in the course of this first movie. The trailers above have these two on the brink of kissing, but … I don’t know how much we’ll get to see. Apparently, Zendaya doesn’t feature heavily in this movie despite carrying a lot of the promotional material.

Plus, the butthole worm is extremely unsexy, to the degree that it could easily suck the horniness out of everything in at least a two-hour radius.

Oooh la la. Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

Do the people who have seen Dune like Dune?

The reviews are predictably mixed! Variety says, “Spectacular and engrossing … until it isn’t.” IndieWire calls Villeneuve’s Dune “a massive disappointment.” By contrast, the Guardian raves, “Blockbuster cinema at its dizzying, dazzling best,” while The New Republic says “the new Dune is the adaptation Frank Herbert’s novel deserves.” In a diplomatically even review, describes it as “a more-than-satisfactory movie” version of a labyrinthine book. (3.5 stars!)

To me, it sounds like the central problem of making a Dune movie comes down to the confounding nature of Herbert’s fictional universe, which simply doesn’t lend itself well to clear, concise storytelling. But anyway, a number of critics agree that real Dune fans will really like Villeneuve’s effort, meaning there’s no hope for me.

When does Dune come out?

You can watch Dune in theaters or on HBO Max starting on October 22 … if you want to?

What Even Is Dune?