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Dune Part One (2021) Explained: Plot, Themes, And Ending

Dune Part One (2021) Explained: Plot, Themes, And Ending

Dune explained

Now what’s the most daunting aspect of bringing Frank Herbert’s renowned sci fi masterpiece, “Dune,” to life? World building? Sure! But what’s even more intimidating is to adapt it to film, considering the novel itself was a trailblazer for all space empire sagas. Fortunately, Denis Villeneuve’s rendition surpassed what we anticipated. 

Dune delves deeply into a variety of themes ranging from imperialism, faith, political showmanship, and ecology. In short, the centuries-spanning story deals with the great burden of power and the sacrifices it constantly demands. 


Related: Dune 2 (2024) Explained

It’s set in the year 10,191 when the Known Universe is ruled by an autocratic Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV. Though a sovereign ruler, the Emperor’s power depends on the backing of the Great Houses. The Landsraad serves as the collective representation of these noble Houses. Its High Council, forming the core of Landsraad, mediates conflicts among the Houses. The story largely unfolds on the desert planet Arrakis, centering around the Atreides Family from planet Caladan. It opens with the Emperor giving control of Arrakis to the genial Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac).

The unforgiving desert planet is the only source of melange, aka spice, the universe’s most precious material. This magical substance not only extends the human lifespan, it’s also crucial for intergalactic travel. To harvest the spice, House Harkonnen – Arrakis’ previous rulers – employed brutal tactics, particularly to control the native population, the ‘Fremen.’ 

The Duke knows that the Emperor’s command to oversee Arrakis and its spice production is far from a benevolent gesture. Yet, he finds himself with no alternative but to play the galactic chess game. Central and unexpectedly pivotal to this conflict of power is Duke Leto’s son, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet). Dune features his journey as he navigates through betrayal, prophecy, and love.




A Chronicle of Dune Adaptations

The intricate world-building in Dune, replete with layers and hidden meanings, presents a formidable challenge for cinematic adaptation. The original novel heavily relies on internal monologues to convey substantial information, a storytelling method that, when translated to film, demands innovative handling to maintain clarity in the narrative. David Lynch first adapted Herbert’s novel in 1984. In fact, discussions about film adaptation had been underway since the 1970s.

The documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune meticulously portrayed Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unsuccessful attempt to bring the novel to the big screen. Unfortunately, Lynch’s adaptation struggled in its transition to film. It was a commercial and critical disaster.

Despite the challenges, the allure of adapting Dune remained strong. Two three-part mini-series were made in 2000 and 2003, respectively, which adapted the first three Dune novels. They were a significant step up from Lynch’s adaptation. Hollywood’s fascination with the ‘unfilmable’ Dune persisted. Following the success of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, the acclaimed Canadian director Denis Villeneuve embarked on his passion project. His plan to split the novel into two parts is, in my opinion, a wise choice. It allows the audience ample time to immerse themselves in the intricate world of Dune. 

So, let’s examine the narrative structure crafted by Villeneuve and his co-writers John Spaihts and Eric Roth. And in the process, also understand how the script has translated the grandeur of Herbert’s Dune to screen.



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Dune opens with a message conveyed in a Bene Gesserit’s Voice:

Dreams are messages from the deep

The Bene Gesserit, a covert, mysterious, matriarchal order, has nurtured the allegedly superstitious prophecy of Kwisatz Haderach, also known as The One. They use the Voice, a form of mind control. The crux of Dune’s narrative is Paul Atreides’ bizarre dreams, which position him as the prophesied figure. Hence, the ‘deep’ in the message may mean Paul’s subconscious. Or it could refer to Planet Arrakis, a recurring element in Paul’s dreams.

Interestingly, the screenwriters open the narrative from the perspective of the ‘Fremen.’ The Fremen, a formidable indigenous group, inhabit Arrakis. Their home is the harsh desert wilderness, far from the settled cities and towns of Arrakis. We’re guided by a pensive voice-over of Chani (Zendaya), a young member of the tribe. She speaks of the alluring ‘spice’ and the resulting havoc brought upon by House Harkonnen. She contemplates with a sense of foreboding about the Emperor’s decision to pull back the Harkonnens. And who their next designated oppressor is going to be?


House Atreides and the Imperial Decree

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As the chapter opens, House Atreides from the ocean world of Caladan is already gearing up for their journey to Arrakis. The initial chapters of Herbert’s book are tinged with an unavoidable sense of impending doom. This atmosphere is preserved in Villeneuve’s adaptation, as Duke Leto is acutely conscious of the political dangers that await any misstep potentially triggering disaster. Paul Atreides continues to see the possible future in his dreams.  Some are cryptic, like his repeated visions of an Arrakeen girl, while others, such as the demise of Atreides’ swordmaster Duncan Idaho (Jason Mamoa), are unmistakably ominous.

Alongside Paul, Lady Jessica, Leto’s concubine, emerges as a key figure in this segment. She belongs to the Bene Gesserit order. Her defiance of her order’s directive to bear a daughter instead of a son in an effort to manipulate bloodlines and balance power among the Great Houses ignites the ensuing conflict and propels the prophecy into motion. Earlier, we see Jessica training Paul in the Bene Gesserit methods, which encompass not only mind control but also a unique martial arts style for combat.

Duke Leto formally accepts the Imperial Decree to take over Arrakis in a ceremonial event, offering a peek at the Spacing Guild, a crucial power after the Emperor and the Great Houses. Aware of the trap in Arrakis, Leto sends Duncan Idaho on a scouting trip to meet with the Fremen, knowing their alliance is vital to counter the threats from the Emperor and the Harkonnens. We then briefly encounter the obese Baron Harkonnen on his home planet, Giedi Prime, his menacing presence confirming Leto’s worst fears. 

Before Paul moves with his family to Atreides, he faces one critical test. He meets the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam. Despite Jessica’s reluctance, she tests whether Paul has what it takes to be The One. Is Paul the prophesied outsider who will liberate the Fremen from the intergalactic evil? Villeneuve, Roth & Spaihts’ adaptation, just like the novel, sounds too thematically complex for such a simple interpretation.


Key Takeaways:

A nexus of powerful forces, including Baron Harkonnen and possibly the Emperor, are conspiring against House Atreides.

Paul’s premonitory dreams and Bene Gesserit Order’s prophecy place him at the heart of the imminent developments on Planet Arrakis.

Duke Leto wishes to thwart his rival’s plans by hoping to covertly form an alliance with Arrakis natives. 

The evil Baron Harkonnen’s laid-back attitude to the Imperial Decree suggests a sinister plan underway.

It’s interesting how the three screenwriters skillfully condense Herbert’s expansive story to its core elements, particularly in the succinct use of dialogue to reveal the characters’ motivations and their inner emotions.


The Arrival and the Test of Strength

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Duke Leto, his son Paul, and Lady Jessica arrive at Arrakis and are welcomed by their massive military force. One admirable aspect of Villeneuve’s oeuvre is the sheer astounding scale of his staging. The finely drawn emotions work perfectly in tandem with Villeneuve’s sweeping landscapes. As the Atreides make a grand arrival on Arrakis, a sense of unease ripples through the local populace. Whispers of ‘Lisan al Gaib’ reach Paul’s ears. Boarding a thopter – resembling a dragonfly-like aircraft – Jessica explains to Paul that Lisan al Gaib means ‘Voice from the Outer World.’

But this doesn’t strengthen the prophecy. Rather, as Jessica points out, the Bene Gesserit have been subtly instilling this belief in the Fremen. The family is transported to the secure Arrakeen town. The town protects the outsiders and their spice-harvesting equipment not only from the harsh climate but also from the giant sandworm. Known as Shai-Hulud in the Fremen language, the giant sandworm is a native life-form of Arrakis. 

More grim news awaits Duke Leto. The spice harvesting equipment is largely sabotaged by the Harkonnens. So, it might take some time to achieve the huge production levels, also made possible by Harkonnens fiercely oppressing the Fremens. Meanwhile, Lady Jessica has a tense encounter with Shadout Mapes (the head housekeeper), in which she gives Jessica a crysknife, Fremen’s sacred weapon. Duncan Idaho returns from his scouting trip with a Fremen leader named Stilgar (Javier Bardem). Stilgar is initially skeptical of the Duke. Yet it becomes clear that Fremen could prove to be an invaluable ally for House Atreides.

At the same time, Baron Harkonnen’s move against Duke Leto is all set. Apparently, the Emperor’s truth-sayer, Mother Gaius, oversees the plan. As a Bene Gesserit, she asks the Baron to spare Jessica and Paul. In Arrakis, a great test of strength awaits Leto. He, his son, and their men wade into desert territory to witness the perils of harvesting spice. They are joined by Kynes, the Imperial ecologist and Judge of Change. Though an appointee of the Emperor, Kynes is a mysterious figure, also respected among the Fremen. She teaches the Atreides men the significance of a Fremen Stillsuit —in order to survive the harsh desert.

A Crawler harvests spice in the desert field. Its rhythmic sound attracts a giant sandworm. Duke Leto springs into action when the usual protocol to rescue the crawler fails. During the rescue operation, Paul wanders around, inhaling the spice in the air. Later, we learn that this has led Paul to see a foreboding vision of the future. Nevertheless, Leto and his men emerge unscathed and save the spice-harvesting crew. In the process, they get a spine-chilling glimpse of the magnificent Shai-Hulud. Later, we see Paul explaining his vision to his bewildered mother.


Key Takeaways:

Duke Leto’s apprehension about the grim prospects in Arrakis is confirmed

The Duke makes little headway with the Fremen, yet he is proved right about the desert warriors’ untapped potential

The prophecy surrounding Paul gets more complex; his vision has gotten more intense when exposed to spice melange. However, the Fremen lore about Lisan al Gaib looks like an implant of the organized religion

We learn about the ingenious Fremen creations, including the sand compactor and Stillsuit that are essential to survive the harsh conditions of Arrakis

Kynes’ true identity remain shrouded in secrecy. She fulfills her role as the Imperial ecologist, yet her association with the Fremen makes us wonder about her allegiance. 

The elusive Shai-Hulud is not fully revealed, but its enormous size and its potential to disrupt spice harvesting in Arrakis’ remote areas are evident. 

The tension surrounding the giant sandworm’s appearance sets the stage for the story’s first big action set piece. However, this moment is also used to highlight Duke Leto’s strength of character, especially how he risks his life to rescue the Crawler workers.


The Betrayal and the Displacement

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Later, we’re introduced to the world of Salusa Secundus, the prison planet and birthplace of the Sardaukar, the Emperor’s formidable military force. House Harkonnen enlists the Sardaukar’s help for their plot against House Atreides on Arrakis. Essential to their plan is an internal betrayal. Dr. Yueh, the head physician of House Atreides, becomes a key player in the Harkonnen scheme.

Yueh facilitates the Harkonnen attack and lays a trap for Duke Leto. Shot by a poison dart, Leto is immobilized but conscious. Though a traitor, Yueh has his reasons for betraying the Duke. Hence, he gives the man a chance to bring down his rival. The doctor replaces the Duke’s tooth with a poisoned molar, giving him a chance to seek revenge on the vile Harkonnen. Meanwhile, the Sardaukar and Harkonnen forces’ surprise attack thoroughly destabilizes the Atreides. 

Duncan narrowly escapes in a thopter; Paul and Lady Jessica are caught by the Harkonnens. The mother and son use the Voice to kill their enemies and safely land in the desert. Duke Leto finally kills himself and, in the process, attempts to take down his rival too. But Baron Harkonnen, aided by his antigravity suit, evades the poison gas from Leto’s fake tooth. In the desert, Lady Jessica mourns Leto’s demise, spending the night in a tent with Paul.

Paul confides in his mother about a disturbing vision of a holy war in his name. He is frightened by the fanatical legions and the rise of a warrior religion rallying under the Atreides banner. In the morning, Paul and Jessica reunite with Duncan. Accompanying Duncan is Kynes. Despite working for the emperor, Kynes takes them to a secret Fremen base. When the Sardaukar finds the base, Duncan sacrifices his life to save Paul, as foreseen in Paul’s vision. Kynes also takes down the Emperor’s men with her, finally declaring her allegiance to the Fremen. 

Paul and Jessica flee the Fremen base. They board a thopter and are chased by Harkonnen aircraft.


Key Takeaways:

The fear surrounding Duke Leto’s fate is confirmed. He is trapped and killed by a traitor from within. 

We understand the Emperor’s Sardaukar forces’ major role in destroying House Atreides.

We see the Bene Gesserit Voice in action and what a powerful killing weapon it can be

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Kynes and Duncan Idaho’s deaths stand out as monumental sacrifices, pivotal in aiding Paul and Jessica’s escape from their adversaries. 

The accuracy of Paul’s premonition regarding Duncan raises questions about the potential realization of his other visions, particularly those concerning war and mass killings. 

Lady Jessica’s role as both a mother and skillful teacher appears to be a key factor in shaping Paul’s ultimate fate.


Rite of Passage

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Paul guides his thopter into a massive sandstorm while being pursued by the Harkonnen forces. Flying against the storm, it seems the thopter might disintegrate. It’s then that Paul envisions a Fremen, later identified as Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun). This figure could soon become Paul’s mentor, aligning with his destiny among the Fremen. In Paul’s vision, Jamis says:

The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve. But a reality to experience. A process that cannot be understood by stopping it. We must move with the flow of the process.

Hearing the prophetic words, Paul ceases his struggle against the storm. Deactivating the thopter’s blades, they crash-land safely beyond the storm. To elude sandworms, they hasten to the rocks, donning Fremen Stillsuits. Exposed to the spice melange, Paul’s visions involving the Arrakeen girl and Jamis continue. As night falls, Paul and his mother are still searching for the Fremen ‘sietch,’ their term for community. Inevitably, their presence draws a sandworm, revealing its staggering size for the first time.

The sandworm, Shai-Hulud, is pivotal not only to the spice but also to Paul’s journey. Their encounter is haunting, to say the least. A thumper diverts the sandworm, and a Fremen tribe rescues them. Paul remembers Stilgar. Yet the Fremen don’t have any noble intentions to rescue both. As Stilgar questions,

What wealth can you offer beyond the water in your flesh?

In the ensuing conflict, Jessica easily overpowers the Fremen, including Stilgar. And Paul meets the mysterious girl from his dreams – Chani

Since Jessica has overpowered Stilgar, Jamis – the man in Paul’s vision – challenges Stilgar’s leadership. Jamis calls for the Tahaddi challenge. Paul – on behalf of his mother – fights Jamis, who can replace Stilgar if he wins. Chani hands Paul a crysknife, expressing skepticism about his messianic role and doubts his victory over the formidable Jamis. During the duel, Paul gains the upper hand and offers Jamis mercy, but the Tahaddi demands a fight to the death. Ultimately, Paul fatally wounds Jamis, earning the Fremen’s respect and acceptance.

Part one of Dune ends with Paul approaching a sietch. In the distance, Paul sees a Sandrider — a Fremen capable of riding the giant sandworm. Chani proclaims, 

This is only the beginning.

Paul has taken a first step into a larger world where more adventures await him. Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation covers just over half of Herbert’s 500-plus-page novel. While the ending lacks full closure, it sets the stage for a grander narrative payoff.


Watch: Dune 2 Explained


Key Takeaways:

We are puzzled by the nature of Paul’s visions. His dreams have now materialized into reality, with the appearance of the girl who’s been haunting them. However, there’s uncertainty over his vision of Jamis as an Arrakeen guide. In the vision, Jamis appears to be a mentor, yet ironically, he is fated to die at Paul’s hands. This suggests that Paul’s visions aren’t always accurate.

Nevertheless, we can’t entirely dismiss the shades of truth in Paul’s vision as he’s now part of the Fremen community. He also correctly predicted Duncan’s death and his mother’s pregnancy. 

Freewill does play a role in Paul’s vision coming to fruition.

The messiah trope is cleverly subverted here too, particularly in Chani’s perception of Paul. Recall Mother Gaius’ words, “On Arrakis, we have done all we can for you. The path has been laid,” it becomes evident that there’s a hidden and complex political game at play in establishing the ‘Lisan al Gaib’ lore and Paul living with the Fremen.

We also get a glimpse of Jessica’s combat prowess. Following the intense confrontation with Jamis, Jessica’s position among the Fremen and her relationship with Paul are set to become crucial elements in part 2.



After being pushed from its original Nov 2023 release due to actor strikes, Dune 2 finally released on March 1 this year. The sequel also featured Florence Pugh, Christopher Walken, Austin Butler, and Lea Seydoux. With the success of Dune: Part Two, Villeneuve and his team are all set to adapt the second novel in the series, Dune: Messiah. The two books collectively chronicle the full journey of Paul Atreides. The prospect of a trilogy is exciting, especially with Villeneuve at the helm. 

But all said, Villeneuve’s Dune finally marks the end of Hollywood’s long-standing challenge to create a successful adaptation of Frank Herbert’s monumental sci-fi work! 

What are your thoughts on Dune? Let’s talk in the comments below.

Where to Watch Dune: Part One: Netflix

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  • This was really helpful. Never read the book or saw the first movie. When I sat down to watch this I was really confused. So I paused, hit Google, and found your review. Thanks so much!

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