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New to Dune and Worried the Movie Will Be Too Confusing? Don’t Be.

Paul (Timothee Chalamet) holds up a knife above his head in a scene from Dune.

With Dune opening this weekend, longtime Frank Herbert fans are likely wondering if Denis Villeneuve’s film can do justice to the source material, while the uninitiated are probably wondering if they’re going to be completely lost.

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You don’t have to know much about Dune to know that it is overwhelming in scope–just an absolute mountain of lore. David Lynch’s 1984 version famously came with a two-page glossary of terms provided to select audiences. I’ve heard from a lot of people who want to go see this new adaptation but are worried they don’t have enough of a primer to understand what they’ll see. I had the same concerns, as Dune has managed to remain a giant hole in my sci-fi knowledge. The only version I’m at all familiar with is the phenomenal documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, about an unsuccessful attempt to adapt the books, which only reinforces the idea that this material is completely impenetrable.

So as someone who went in with only a vague idea of Dune as being an unfilmable space epic about spice and sand and sandworms that also look like buttholes, I can tell you that that is plenty.

What Villeneuve has created stands on its own. It’s a visually opulent masterpiece and the adaptation never left me wondering what I was missing. Even the elements that must have been considered nearly impossible to adapt–invisible energy shields and pseudo-psychic oratory control mechanism known as “The Voice”–are entirely effective onscreen.

The film does have its issues when it comes to pacing and structure. Based on other reviews I’ve read, some of those pacing issues are an adaptation problem–although because of that, I think they probably bothered me less than they did those who were familiar with the source material.

The biggest problem with the movie is its ending (no spoilers, I promise!), which as Princess Weekes noted in her review, leaves the film feeling unfinished. While this movie was always meant to be the first installment of a larger series, Dune: Part One does not feel like a complete installment on its own. It ends on a fairly tepid act break rather than any sort of satisfying resolution or even a cliffhanger. That, plus those other pacing issues leading up to it, makes this feel less like a full film than the first few episodes of a series–which would, arguably, have been a much better medium for this material. (The script director Alejandro Jodorowsky came up with back in the 1970s was about 14 hours long and he refused to cut it–one of the main reasons it was never produced. If only prestige TV had been a thing then, maybe we could have had it all.)

I’m not usually a fan of the “here’s my take as someone who has no knowledge whatsoever of the thing I’m reviewing” genre of review. But this isn’t a review–Princess already covered that and she did with all the knowledge of a longtime Dune fan.

What I can offer is hopefully comfort in knowing you don’t need to read the books or memorize a glossary of terms to enjoy this movie. You do need to pay close attention to the beginning of the film, as an intense amount of lore is laid out right up top and, like pretty much any sci-fi or fantasy property, there’s a ton of world-building to absorb. Seriously, if you’re running even about a minute late to this movie, it’s best just to trade your tickets in for the next screening. But if you’re paying attention, all the information you need is right there.

There you go: Don’t be late and don’t expect a satisfying ending, and you’ll be fine. If you do want more of a plot and character primer, here’s a good one, but also know that you’ll be fine without it.

(image: Warner Bros.)
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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.

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