Depending on how much you are into science fiction, the release of Dune, the new film from acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve and starring Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya, is the biggest thing to happen in decades.
Based on the 1965 novel by Frank Herbert, which spawned five sequels, Dune takes place in the year 10191 in a distant galaxy populated by opposing houses who are fully dependent on the production of a precious mineral known as spice melange that is found only on a desert planet called Arrakis. The spice is just one of literally hundreds of different strands to the narrative which predominantly follows the heroic arc of young Paul Atreides.
This is the third time that Hollywood has attempted to bring Dune to the big screen. The first attempt came in the mid-1970s when surrealist cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky had set in plans to bring his version of the epic to life but the film was never made due to its spiralling cost (the cast included Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, Orson Welles as well as original music from Pink Floyd) and gargantuan run time, which was clocking in at around 14 hours.
Next up was the acclaimed avant-garde director David Lynch, who did manage to get his film made and released in 1984. However, Lynch's relationship with the film's producers and financiers rapidly deteriorated as the final cut was heavily edited and erased much of his artistic vision leading to Lynch disowning the film, despite it going on to earn a cult following in the years since.
Both of these versions of Dune struggled to tell the complex and vast story in one film, which is why Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival) has opted to only adapt half ofHerbert's first book for this film, which at 2 hours 35 minutes shows just how huge this story is. Perhaps more than Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, Dune contains a multitude of words, titles, weapons, creatures and roles that all play significant parts thus adding more and more layers to the story.
If you are interested in seeing Dune and want to get a headstart on what you need to know, we've highlighted a handful of the main figures, families, roles, terms and words, many of which have controversially been adopted from Arabic and Islamic culture, you might need to know before seeing the film.
Warning: This article might contain spoilers
Arrakis, also known as Dune, is the planet at the centre of Dune’s story. It has a vast and harsh desert landscape and is native to a human race known as the Fremen and gigantic Sandworms. It is also the only planet that produces the much sought after spice melange. Its capital city, Arrakeen, also becomes the seat of government for the Atreides Empire once they are sent to the planet to mine for spice. Naturally, being a desert, water is a scarce commodity on Arrakis but can be found deep underground.
The Atreides family or House of Atreides are the ‘good guys’ of this story. At the start of Dune, the Atreides are the inhabitants and rulers of the lush oceanic planet Caladan before being ordered by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV to go to Arrakis. The patriarch of the family is Duke Leto Atreides (Isaac), the father of Dune's 'hero' Paul Atreides (Chalamet), who he conceived with his wife, the Bene Gesserit concubine Lady Jessica (Ferguson). The Atreides have many loyal servants like Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Duncan Idaho (Jason Mamoa), Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and Dr Wellington Yueh (Chen Chang) who have tutored Paul in a variety of skills and techniques.
Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Mohiam Warner Bros. Pictures via AP
The all-female Bene Gesserit are amongst, if not, the most powerful group in all of the Dune mythos. The sisterhood, often referred to as 'witches' by some have been trained through mental conditioning to control others using their voice alone and to read minds. They have vast lifespans, can see the future and the 'truth', known as 'Truthsaying', and have developed their own martial arts technique, which becomes known as ‘the weirding way’. They also have the ability to control what sex their children will be, a power that causes a conflict within the group. The most advanced and highly trained of the Bene Gesserit are known as the Reverend Mother. In the 2021 cinematic adaptation, the Reverend Mother Mohiam is played by Charlotte Rampling.
If the Atreides are the good guys of Dune then Harkonnens are definitely the bad guys. Hailing from their home planet of Giedi Prime, a heavily industrialised world that has virtually been stripped of all vegetation and greenery, the Harkonnens are a brutal and powerful set of people that despise the Atreides and at the start of the story are in charge of spice mining on Arrakis. Their leader the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is a rather vile figure who requires an anti-gravity suit to move around due to his severe obesity. In the new film the Baron (played by Stellan Skarsgard) and is flanked by his brutish nephew Glossu 'The Beast' Rabban (Dave Bautista) and his twisted Mentat Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian).
The Fremen are the native people of Dune but have been heavily oppressed under the harsh rule of the Harkkonen’s but remain a fierce entity to be trifled with. They live in the uncompromising environment of the planet's deserts but survive due to the ‘still suits’ they wear, which harnesses the body's moisture and makes it drinkable.
Water is a vital part of Fremen life - so much so that when one of their tribe dies, rather than be cremated or buried, they are rendered down to water. Due to their long exposure to the spice melange, their bloodstream has mutated to give them entirely blue eyes. The Fremen call this transformation the ‘Eyes of the Ibad’. The Fremen also view the sandworms as godlike figures and hold dear a prophecy that a saviour - or a ‘Mahdi’ - will arrive and free them from the imperial elements imposed upon them in Arrakis.
The main Fremen tribe that we encounter in Dune is the Sietch Tabr whose leader is Stilgar (Javier Bardem). Other Fremen to be aware of are Chani (Zendaya), Shadout Mapes (Golda Rosheuvel) and Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun).
Javier Bardem as Stilgar, the leader of the Fremen Sietch Tabr AP
Gom Jabbar Test for Humanity
You might have seen in the trailer for Dune, young Timothee Chalamet screaming in agony while his hand is in a box and thought 'what's that all about?' Well, this is known as the Gom Jabbar Test of Humanity, which basically tests whether a person's awareness is stronger than their instinct. It involves a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother holding a poisonous needle to a person's neck while their hand is in the mysterious box, which is actually a nerve induction device. If they are aware of the needle it will override their fear (fear is referred to as the ‘mind killer’) and resist the instinct to withdraw from the incredible amount of pain they're experiencing in the box.
The test is only usually administered to the Bene Gesserit but the Reverend Mother wants to test whether Paul’s awareness levels are akin to that of the superbeing known as the ‘Kwisatz Haderach’. Here’s how the 1980’s Paul Atreides, Kyle MacLachlan got on when he had a crack at the test.
This is another Bene Gesserit term also known as 'One who can be many places at once' or 'The Shortening of the Way.' This is basically an all-powerful male being that the Bene Gesserit hope to create through their breeding program who could access 'The Golden Path' a special type of knowledge that is unattainable to women. If such a person is possible the man would be a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, Mentat, and Guild Navigator all at the same time.
You might notice in Dune, that despite being thousands of years in the future, the technology is quite primitive and there are no computers to speak of. This is because of a conflict called the Butlerian Jihad (which is conveniently barely mentioned in the original Dune novel) which leads to the complete destruction of all computers, machines, robots and AI in the universe. Due to this Mentats become more prevalent within the Great Houses. These specially trained individuals are basically human computers whose brains can mimic computers and can process complex calculations and store huge amounts of memory and information. They are mostly employed as political advisors to the house leaders and advise on strategies.
The Padishah Emperor
According to IMDB, there hasn't been anyone cast as the Emperor in the new Dune, but they are worth mentioning anyway. The Padishah Emperor is the title taken by the head of House Corrino, the rulers of the planet Kaitain, the Imperium and the Known Universe. In Dune, the Emperor is Shaddam IV, who concocts a plan to undermine and ruin Leto Atreides, due to the Duke's popularity, by reigniting a feud between the Atreides and the Harkkonens on Arrakis. Whether he will actually appear in this film remains to be seen but his devious plan is integral to the story.
Dave Bautista as Glossu ‘The Beast’ Rabban of House Harkkonen Warner Bros. Pictures via AP
These bad boys are, possibly alongside the Bene Gesserit, the most vital element of Dune’s story. These unbelievably huge creatures produce the highly sought after spice melange therefore if you can control the worms then you can control the spice. They exist in the sand seas of Arrakis and will attack all rhythmic vibrations, meaning they command a huge level of respect and caution, especially from the Fremen, who view them as gods. The bile from a sandworm’s stomach also produces the incredibly poisonous ‘Water of Life’ which a Bene Gesserit must take during their Reverend Mother ritual and is lethal to those that have not completed their training. Therefore a man has never successfully drunk the water.
The Sardaukar are possibly the toughest and most ruthless faction in all of Dune and definitely not the one's you want to mess with. They are essentially the Padishah Emperor's own personal army, an elite fighting force of supersoldiers that has never been beaten in a battle. They are bred on the harsh environment of Salusa Secundus, the former home of the Corrino Empire, now turned into a prison planet.
The Spacing Guild
To put it bluntly, the Spacing Guild are the top dogs in the Dune universe. The Guild Navigator's ability to navigate the galaxy through 'space folding' i.e. faster than light travel (which is a lot more complex than what you would see in Star Wars or Star Trek) gives them more power than any of the houses in Dune combined. All trade and transport between the planets give them an overwhelming monopoly on the economics of the galaxy and space travel. There is a slight drawback to this as the amount of spice that they have been exposed to (the mineral that allows them to fold space) slowly mutates them into ugly amphibian-like humanoids that can see through time and space.
Chang Chen as Dr Wellington Yueh Warner Bros. Pictures via AP
Much like the Mentat’s, each house in Dune has its own specialist ‘Suk Doctor’. These are trained medics who due to ‘Imperial Conditioning’ cannot take a patient’s life or betray those they serve, who are generally wealthy families. They are easily identifiable by the diamond tattoo on their forehead, which indicates their conditioning. The main Suk Doctor you will encounter in Dune is Dr Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), who is loyal to House Atreides.
That should just above cover everything you need to know. And to think, this is only half of the first book...