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Photo illustration featuring a montage of the main characters from the Movie DUNE on a dark background and a glowing planet Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: Warner Bros. Pictures

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What Dune is about, in fewer than 900 words

Digging into the story of the Timothée Chalamet-led blockbuster

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Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

The first Dune trailer is on the horizon, promising a first look at Denis Villenueve’s attempt to film one of the most unfilmable stories in the science fiction canon. Dune has generations of fans, but depending on how much the trailer shows off, some may be left scratching their heads at Timothée Chalamet and a basketball-team’s-worth of strong-jawed actors whipping around the desert with armor and swords. We wouldn’t blame anyone: Dune is dense.

Frank Herbert’s book is absolutely worth a read in advance of Dune’s December release, but for those who want a crash course, we’re going to do our best to sum up the vibe of Dune, if not the plot, right here in less than 900 words. But remember, of the great classics of sci-fi literature, Dune is the “this place has everything” one. It’s one third Game of Thrones, one third space, and one third a giant bong rip. Prepare yourself.

Where and when Dune takes place

HARON DUNCAN-BREWSTER as Liet Kynes in DUNE movie Photo: Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures

Dune takes place so many millennia into the future that it is essentially a fantasy universe. Humanity lives in a galactic empire that barely remembers Earth. Everyone has force fields that are impervious to fast-moving projectiles, so they have to fight with swords instead of guns. Spaceships can travel faster than the speed of light — but not because we built fancy engines. Instead, we discovered a drug so unspeakably dank that enough of it lets you fold space with your mind.

Power in the galaxy is a three-way balancing act between the Spacing Guild, who hold a monopoly on faster than light travel; the Padishah Emperor, who controls a fanatical army of Space Spartans (think 300, not Halo); and a system of alliances between hereditary noble Houses.

The invisible fourth pillar of this structure is the Bene Gesserit order. They don’t talk about how they’re pulling all the strings, but it’s obvious. Think of them as “all-female space Illuminati with witch powers.”

The major characters of Dune

Oscar Isaac as armored Leto Areides in the Dune movie Photo: Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures

Among those noble Houses of Dune are the Atreides, ruled by Duke Leto, your typical Good Noble in Trouble for Having Morals. His spouse in everything-but-actually-being-his-legal-wife is Lady Jessica, a Bene Gesserit adept and his assigned consort. She was supposed to conceive a daughter with him in order to form the penultimate generation of the thousand-year Bene Gesserit plan to eugenically produce a messiah, but instead they fell in love. And Leto wanted a son so bad (wow, Leto) that Jessica defied her orders and deliberately had one. Bene Gesserits can just do that.

Paul Atreides, their 15-year-old son, who might be the messiah. Or a boy whose best bet for survival is to take advantage of thousands of years of cultural manipulation in preparation for a messiah. Or both.

Paul has a lot of enemies, because Duke Leto’s morality just got his whole family unseated from their ancestral home and dispatched to the planet Arrakis. On paper, it’s a big promotion. In reality, House Atreides is being set up to fall.

Why everyone is headed to Arrakis aka the dune planet

Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya in Dune 2020 Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Arrakis is the eponymous planet of Dune, a desert wasteland populated only by hostile natives and even more hostile giant sandworms. Why does anybody fuck with this place? The dunes of Arrakis happen to be the only known source of Spice, the aforementioned drug that gives people the ability to yeet through space. (In small quantities it just gives you precognitive visions, some light psychic powers, and glowing, blue eyes.)

House Atreides has been sent to Arrakis to oversee the mining operations upon which the entire galactic society depends. The last noble house on the planet was the mustache-twirlingly evil House Harkonnen, hated rivals of the Atreides who oppressed and slaughtered the native Fremen tribes as “backward savages.” Leto is expected to move into the Harkonnen’s probably booby-trapped castle and maintain their rate of Spice production while keeping peace with the Fremen. If he fails, his whole House will probably be executed.

In other words, the the entire thing is a powder keg about to blow up, start a war, and begin Paul’s ascension.

Dune has been widely interpreted as an allegory for colonization. When I was a kid, the commentary was all about it’s parallels to the exploitation of the Middle East for its oil resources — enhanced by Herbert’s appropriation of Persian and Arabic terms like “padisha” and “jihad” to fill out his setting, and also by his own words.

But here in our modern day, some of Dune’s ideas have gotten dusty, independent of Herbert’s intentions. There are a lot of folks in the science-fiction community who are ready to move past stories that examine the exploitation of the colonized by presenting a member of the colonizing class as a savior.

But the reason we’re even still talking about Dune is because of how completely it captured the imaginations of science fiction readers and writers. The modern viewer will probably see Dune’s influence on Star Wars first, but you’ll also find it in book series like Game of Thrones and Wheel of Time; as well as movies like Tremors and Beetlejuice. Hollywood’s quest to make big money with a Dune movie has inspired or cultivated professional connections that crafted masterpieces like Alien, Contact, and Blade Runner.

And when it hits theaters, Villenueve’s version has a chance to become another brick in the foundation of science fiction.

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