What do you get when you combine a visionary director, two young rising talents on screen, and a popular sci-fi novel? Dune: An incomprehensible mess of a film, the only interesting thing about which is the question of how such a movie winds up being released.
Dune, for all those unfamiliar with the franchise—which includes me; until two weeks ago all I knew about Dune was there was a big worm in it—is a novel by Frank Herbert, published in 1965 and the sort of hard sci-fi that truly devoted nerds bring up when they talk about how popular sci-fi movies like Star Wars aren’t “true” science fiction. It’s dense, it’s complex, and it was widely considered unfilmable, a presupposition Dune the movie does nothing to end.
The basic plot is this: The emperor of the universe plots to end the rise of a political rival, Duke Leto Atreides, by giving him control of the planet Arrakis, home to the universe’s only supply of Spice, a drug that grants prescience to users, which allows for dangerous space travel shortcuts to be used safely. Arrakis had previously been controlled by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the emperor’s collaborator in a plan to kill Atreides when he arrives on Arrakis. Atreides is murdered, while his wife Jessica and his son, Paul, escape into the hostile desert.
Jessica is a member of a sisterhood of space witches who have been manipulating bloodlines for generations to try to create a superbeing, and it seems that Paul may be that being. When they escape the Harkonnen forces, Jessica and Paul are taken in by the Fremen, Arrakis’ indigenous population who live largely in secret away from the eyes and control of the colonial forces on their planet. They identify Paul as their long-prophesied messiah, and Paul, under the new name Paul Muad’Dib, trains the Fremen to fight against Harkonnen and take back their planet. Space battles, giant sandworms, and political machinations ensue.