“Bless the Maker and His water. Bless the coming and going of Him. May His passage cleanse the world. May He keep the world for His people.”
The opening of the film starts with the standard Warner Bros. and Legendary logos. Our very first shot is a sand dune at sunset, with the wind whipping across the surface. Chani, a Fremen warrior played by Zendaya, begins to talk in a voiceover about her home planet, Arrakis, and its natural beauty. This leads us into a second shot of a close-up on a Harkonnen soldier standing in the desert, with a large machine operating behind him. He holds a large weapon in his hand and is covered from head to toe in a uniform that seems designed for the harsh Arrakis elements. The third shot pulls back to reveal a group of soldiers standing on a dune, with the massive, glowing machine in the background revealed to be a spice harvester.
This moment immediately brought tears, as the lighting and designs looked as spectacular as any of the countless fan arts designs seen over the years. It was very much like a painting, and quite different from anything else we have seen cinematographer Greig Fraser tackle before. I have seen many comparisons between “Dune” and his work on “Rogue One,” but it is surface-level, at best. His collaboration with Villeneuve has birthed something wholly unique.
We are then shown a number of Fremen hiding nearby, with a rifle-looking weapon trained on the Harkonnens and held by Jamis (Babs Olusanmakun). Chani lays prone alongside him, with her voiceover lamenting the exploitation of Arrakis and its natural resource, spice melange, which is required for interstellar travel. This is intercut with the massive shot from the IMAX event teaser video of Beast Rabban Harkonnen (Dave Bautista) leading Harkonnen soldiers out of their fortress and out to a field of Harkonnen mining ships. Cutting back to the harvester scene, Fremen suddenly leap out of the sand and surprise attack the Harkonnens with bladed weapons, while Jamis fires a laser from the rifle and destroys the harvester.
It is made entirely clear that the Fremen are an oppressed people, and that the Harkonnens are ruthless, cruel rulers. Then one day… the Harkonnens are gone, recalled from Arrakis by the Emperor and forced to give up their fiefdom. This is where we get the very first sense of the unbelievably massive scale that Villeneuve and co. have achieved. There is an airfield with a truly gargantuan ship and an expansive ramp lowered to the ground. Before it stands thousands upon thousands of Harkonnen troops, who are simply dwarfed by the ship that has come to collect them. It was a jaw-dropping set of imagery, including a follow-up shot of the Harkonnen ships in orbit above Arrakis and departing the planet, which was shot as if captured from a telescope at an incomprehensible distance. As they return to their home-world, Chani wonders who will be their next oppressors…
Cut to Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) waking up in bed, stirred by dreams of a mysterious girl, bathed in golden light of a faraway place. Rain patters on the window as he rises, and some superimposed text tells us this is the Atreides homeworld of Caladan, and the year is 10191 AG. We get to see him sit down for breakfast with his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). The banter between the two is warm, affectionate and feels like it could be set on Earth in the present day. Also, the set is simply gorgeous, from the windows to the table and nearby furniture. It is difficult to even take in all the details, but not because the frame is busy. There is simply so much more craft on display for such a simple scene compared to most other big-budget films, with a sense of history behind every item.
They discuss the impending arrival of the Spacing Guild before Jessica asks Paul to practice using The Voice. For the uninitiated, The Voice is not much unlike the verbal Jedi tricks you have seen in “Star Wars” – as long as you keep in mind that Dune was published 12 years before “Star Wars” was released. It is a special ability that takes immense time to master and is typically only used by the Bene Gesserit, a secretive organization that Lady Jessica is a part of. She tells Paul to make her give him a glass of water. Now, the voice has had rough translations from the page in the past, but this is a unique and evocative take on the power. As he utters the words, we cut to close-ups of items around the room, and the sound mix goes haywire. We only see his mouth moving, but can’t hear it. A moment later, an almost warped, bass-heavy version of the line comes over the track, and it seems like it has worked. But as she passes him the water, she says she isn’t under his control, but he is getting close.
High above the atmosphere, a goliath Spacing Guild heighliner ship has arrived. It’s elongated, with an opening on the end. A tiny orb, like the size of a pinhead, floats out of its gaping mouth and descends through the clouds. It arrives at Castle Caladan, where the entire Atreides army seems to have amassed in formation and dress uniform. On a stage, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) stand alongside Paul and Jessica. The guild ship lands, revealed to be another enormous ship, which gives scale to the vastly larger heighliner it launched from. The ramp descends and Guild representatives walk down, with all of them seemingly masked or helmeted except for one.
Leto tells Gurney to smile, who promptly replies that he is in fact smiling, despite a weathered scowl on his face. On the other side, Leto requests some inventory-related information from Thufir. As a Mentat, Thufir is responsible for all computation and works as a sort of human computer. Thufir’s eyes roll back in his head as he lists out the info and comes to his tally, his eyes rolling back out as he finishes. In just a couple small moments, you quickly get a strong sense of individual character personalities, as well as their relationships with one another.
The Guild representatives are an effectively terrifying bunch, with some tremendous costume designs throughout the group. The most notable designs of those are individuals who just might be some form of Guild Navigators, the individuals responsible for facilitating interstellar travel. They are wearing white outfits and holding gold staffs, which is a regal look, but their heads are entirely contained by what can only be described as an oversized helmet or even comparable to a fish tank. It is filled with an orange gas, which would likely be the spice melange that gives them their navigating abilities. Many of these distorted Guild members are captured in close-ups, which are unsettling. Among them are also some veiled women, no doubt Bene Gesserit, and their presence seems to unsettle Jessica. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) looks to be among them, but it was unclear through the veils.
The central Guild member is a Black man, who announces a decree that he reads off of a paper scroll. This ceremony is to recognize that the Emperor has ordered the Atreides to vacate Caladan and take over as rulers of Arrakis. Leto doesn’t have much of a choice and agrees, which leads the Atreides soldiers into a chant as Leto descends from the stage and walks to the Guild member. He agrees to the contract and seals the hot wax with the ducal signet ring that he wears on his hand. This marks the end of the opening 10-minute sequence we were shown.
But wait, there’s more! We were treated to a sneak peek at one of Villeneuve’s personal favorite sequences, which involves a damaged spice harvester. It begins with a perspective shot flying over the dunes toward smoke in the distance. The ornithopter is manned by Leto, with Gurney, Paul and Liet Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) also onboard. They observe from above as Kynes explains that a worm is likely to attack due to the vibrations, but that another aerial vehicle will arrive shortly to lift it to safety. Before anyone else can spot it, including designated spotters, Leto calls out that a worm is on approach. Kynes checks with binoculars and is impressed by the Duke.
The interior is very rugged and utilitarian, without much in the way of futuristic flourishes. The gauges and controls all look well-worn, and everyone on board wears headsets to hear each other speak, just like people on helicopters do now. It is a very grounded take on the ornithopter, and it looks well done. As the vehicle arrives to save the harvester from the worm, one of its latches fails, meaning it can’t carry the harvester into the air. Leto and Paul quickly calculate how many men each of the thopters can hold (two more fly alongside Leto as escorts) and decide to land. They will pull the men from the harvester and try to take off before the worm arrives. In the distance, it moves closer and closer beneath the sand dunes as Gurney and Paul step off and into the desert.
It is a significant moment for Paul. This is his first exposure to the deep desert of Arrakis, as well as spice. He kneels down and grabs a handful of sand, with the red spice mixed in. Running over to the harvester, he calls for the workers to jump out and divide evenly. Suddenly, a gust of wind coats Paul in the spice, causing him to trip out. As the worm is about to descend, Paul kneels next to the harvester in a stupor. Gurney goes back and rushes up behind him, yanking Paul onto his feet. The two are sprinting for the thopter when the sandworm breaches the surface and knocks them down. They get back up and barely make it to the ramp as Leto and the other pilots take off, leaving Paul and the audience to look down as a behemoth worm opens its mouth and swallows the harvester whole.
An experience beyond anything you could ever imagine, this event was yet another reminder that “Dune” was made with IMAX and for IMAX. If you can, seek it out in that format. If nothing else, be sure to visit a theater this fall and witness this film on the big screen. This is a level of scale and spectacle that has never before been brought to life.
“Dune” releases internationally on September 15, 2021 and in the U.S. in theaters and on HBO Max on October 22, 2021.
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."