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Dune: What to know about the sci-fi epic before it hits theaters

By Matthew Jackson

This October, one of the most-anticipated sci-fi films in recent memory will finally arrive for audiences everywhere to enjoy, nearly a year after its original planned release. For the past several years, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve has been working on his dream project, an adaptation of Frank Herbert's legendary novel Dune. A sci-fi saga unfolding on a mysterious desert planet, rich with prophecy, scope, and meaning, Dune remains one of the most influential works in the history of science fiction, and though it's been adapted for the screen before, fans have been waiting years to see a new, big-budget vision from one of genre's most gifted filmmakers. Now, it's finally almost here.

So, to prepare for Dune's long-awaited release, here's everything you need to know about the film, from a rundown of its story, to when and where you can watch it, to what might come next in the franchise.

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When will it be released?

Development on a new version of Dune goes back more than a decade, but this particular incarnation really picked up steam in 2017 when director Denis Villeneuve signed on, fresh off making Blade Runner 2049. Once the film pushed ahead with development, Warner Bros. Pictures set a release date of Nov. 20, 2020, then delayed things slightly to Dec. 18 of the same year. Then everything got complicated, as Dune became one of the many blockbusters to be rescheduled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic; its release was pushed back by nearly a year. We were originally set to see the film at last on Oct. 1, 2021, but Warner Bros. pushed Dune back yet again to what is hopefully its final release date: Oct. 22.

And of course, like every other major Warner Bros. film this year, you'll be able to watch Dune two ways: On the big screen in a movie theater, and on your couch via HBO Max.

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What's the story behind Dune?

Dune is, of course, adapted from the legendary novel by Frank Herbert, published in 1965. It tells the story of members of the Atreides family as their lives are subject to treachery, upheaval, and redemption against the backdrop of the iconic title planet amidst a massive galactic Empire. As the story begins, Duke Leto Atreides has moved his family –– including son Paul and mistress Lady Jessica, Paul's mother –– from the ocean planet of Caladan to the desert planet of Arrakis, where Leto has been tasked by the Emperor with assuming control of harvesting operations for the spice melange, an addictive substance within Arrakis' sands that grants users enhanced abilities and makes starship piloting at faster-than-light speeds possible.

Even as he feels honor-bound to take the Arrakis assignment, Leto is well aware that something more is afoot. Arrakis is one of the wealthiest and most important planets in the entire Empire, but it could also be a trap laid by his rivals, including the planet's previous rulers, the malevolent Harkonnen family. As the political maneuvering on Arrakis continues, Lady Jessica and Paul are embarking on a period of discovery of their own. Jessica's devotion to the Bene Gesserit –– an all-female order with mysterious motives and extraordinary mental gifts –– has led to certain abilities manifesting in Paul, including dreams that appear prophetic. Paul, who's been trained both by his father's men and by his mother's own instincts, walks between two worlds as he hopes to help Leto and discover a potential greater purpose through Bene Gesserit testing.

Then, as betrayal and tragedy strike on Arrakis, everything converges on young Paul, who must combine his fighting skills with his emerging mental gifts and escape into the deserts of Dune. There, he'll meet the native Fremen of the planet, learn their ways, and discover a new destiny for himself and, potentially, the entire galaxy.

Who's who in Dune?

The massive scope of the story of Dune requires an equally massive ensemble cast to tell that story, and Villenueve has assembled an instantly impressive collection of big names for his epic. In the Atreides family, Timothee Chalamet is the potential Messianic Paul Atreides, while Oscar Isaac plays his father, Duke Leto, and Rebecca Ferguson plays his mother, Lady Jessica. Aiding House Atreides in their duties are Josh Brolin as weapons master Gurney Halleck, Stephen McKinley Henderson as the house Mentat (a kind of human computer) Thufir Hawat, Chang Chen as house doctor Wellington Yueh, and Jason Momoa as House Atreides' swordmaster, Duncan Idaho.

Opposite the Atreides family, Stellan Skarsgard plays the barbaric leader of House Harkonnen, Baron Vladimir, while Dave Bautista plays his nephew, Glossu Rabban, and David Dastmalchian plays the Harkonnen house Mentat, Piter De Vries.

Elsewhere in Dune, Zendaya stars as a young Fremen woman named Chani, who forms a connection with Paul, while Javier Bardem plays the Fremen leader Stilgar, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster plays Chani's mother, Dr. Liet-Kynes. Throw in legends like Charlotte Rampling as the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, and the film becomes an even more impressive assemblage of great genre actors ready to play out one of the great science fiction sagas of all time.

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What's next for Dune?

Dune is a massive work on its own, building a universe across hundreds of pages, but it's just the beginning of an even larger saga. Frank Herbert kept returning to the universe to continue the story throughout his life, eventually writing five Dune sequels on his own. Herbert's son Brian has since teamed with writer Kevin J. Anderson to continue the story in a series of prequels, spinoffs, and other companion books, which means there's no shortage of source material to adapt when it comes to putting Dune on the screen.

With that in mind, there are already at least two major Dune franchise projects in development beyond the first film. Villeneuve has made no secret of the fact that Dune is actually Dune: Part One, and only adapts roughly half of Herbert's first novel, clearing the path for a sequel that he's already confident he'll get to make. Then there's the small screen side of things, where showrunner Diane Ademu-John is at work on Dune: The Sisterhood, a prequel series that will focus on the women of the Bene Gesserit, their gifts, and how their order seeks to influence the political maneuverings of the Empire in years to come, including the events centered on the Atreides family. That series should eventually arrive on HBO Max, providing even more depth to a potential Dune cinematic universe.