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The Ending Of Dune Explained

With a star-studded cast, a suitably massive budget and one of the modern era's most celebrated auteurs behind the camera, the new film adaptation of Frank Herbert's "Dune" has finally arrived. In most ways that matter, this version is bigger, more ambitious, and more palatable to mainstream audiences than David Lynch's 1984 version was — and unlike that cult classic, it has yet to be disowned by its director. In fact, Denis Villeneuve seems pretty satisfied with how hard he went with this new outing, especially considering he went into it not knowing if he would even get to finish this story. 

"Dune," titled onscreen as "Dune: Part One," covers roughly the first half of Herbert's book, ending on something less than a cliffhanger. Up to that point, it's a thrilling, daring and impressive adaptation of one of science fiction's most influential sagas. But in the end, it's a movie bursting at the seams with passion and ruthless invention in the hopes that it will be successful enough to get a "Part Two." Along the way, there is a lot of plot to unpack and a lot of detail that's easy to gloss over due to the onslaught of visual and aural prowess on display. 

But beyond the gorgeous cinematography, Hans Zimmer's oppressive score and the sheer number of characters and locations to keep track of, there's a rich and engrossing story being told. It's also one we all hope we get to see the other end of, one way or another. In the meantime, let's talk about where "Dune" leaves off, and how we got there in the first place.

When is a gift not a gift?

"Dune" begins with a bit of gift-giving that incites everything that follows in the film. At the outset, in a far-flung future deep in space, the planet Arrakis is the center of an intergalactic empire due to its natural resource "spice," a sought-after substance integral to interstellar travel. When the film begins, that planet and its spice mining industry is lorded over by House Harkonnen and their sadistic head Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård). But the Emperor (never seen onscreen in "Dune: Part One") gives this prestigious station to House Atreides, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), leading their entire family to move from their home planet Caladan.

But when they arrive on Arrakis, Leto discovers that the entire operation has been internally sabotaged. The Fremen, Arrakis' native inhabitants, still seek to overthrow the imperial power structure that oppresses them. The machinery necessary to mine spice effectively all lies in various states of disrepair. And of course, the Harkonnens left behind an assassin entrenched in the palace walls to make an attempt on the life of Leto's son Paul (Timotheé Chalamet).

The only promising element of Leto's plans for the new planet under his charge is in his hopes to form an alliance with the Fremen, whose numbers on Arrakis far exceed even the most liberal of the Harkonnens' estimates. In a meeting with Stilgar (Javier Bardem), the leader of a sect of Fremen infiltrated by House Atreides master swordsman Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), Leto's goal of working with the natives and not simply subjugating them, though flawed, seems possible. 

But fate has other plans...

The fall of House Atreides

Baron Harkonnen, in collusion with the powerful religious and political sisterhood known as Bene Gesserit and the Emperor himself, hires the Sardaukar, the Emperor's elite fighting force, to attack House Atreides. The Sardaukar attack under cover of night and perform a hard-fought massacre on the soldiers of House Atreides, led by Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), with the Harkonnens' forces, led by Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista), bottlenecking them from the other end. The Baron also kidnaps the wife of Leto's doctor Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen) in an effort to blackmail him into helping with this coup.

Dr. Yueh drugs Leto and, true to his word, brings him to the Baron, but out of loyalty, he gives the Duke a poison pill to hide in a hollowed-out tooth so he can bite down on it and take out the Harkonnens with his dying breath. When the Baron finally gets his hands on Leto, he kills Dr. Yueh, like he already did his wife, with Leto miscalculating his poison pill such that it kills the Baron's advisor Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian) and only wounds his nemesis.

But before this, Dr. Yueh also helps Leto's son Paul and Paul's mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), to escape the carnage, but they are captured by the Harkonnens anyway. They are not, however, killed. As a complication from the Baron's alliance with the Bene Gesserit, Jessica, part of the sisterhood herself, and her son, who they have plans for, are to be spared.

But the Harkonnens hope to abandon them in the middle of the desert, knowing there's no way for them to reasonably survive its harsh terrain. Lady Jessica and Paul are able to escape their grasp, but still find themselves stranded with only a pair of stillsuits, Fremen inventions necessary to recycle the body's lost moisture, to keep them alive in the heat of Arrakis.

A prophecy fulfilled?

As they struggle to find shelter for the night, reeling from the knowledge the rest of their family and friends have been slaughtered, Jessica and Paul have to reckon with the visions he has been seeing throughout the film. Paul, being taught in the ways of the Bene Gesserit by his mother, has been secretly raised through his training to be a mythical chosen one, a powerful being prophesied by the sisterhood's lore. He's basically, unwillingly, a years-long eugenics experiment with nascent superpowers destined to rule the universe one day. This is not news Paul wants to contend with while mourning his dead father and stranded in the desert with his mom drinking their own sweat filtered back to them.

But his persistent visions — of a beautiful Fremen woman (Zendaya), of a massive war, of untold loss and catastrophe — will not cease. Luckily, they're reunited with Duncan Idaho, Paul's mentor and friend, who has miraculously survived the attacks. He helps them get away in search of a Fremen sect to recoup and strategize with. Once there, they meet up with Dr. Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), the ecologist assigned by the Emperor to oversee the regime change from Harkonnen to Atreides. Dr. Kynes knows they have been utterly screwed and that something pernicious is afoot, but can't get more involved than absolutely necessary, ultimately pledging fealty to the Fremen and neither imperial external force.

Paul, wielding his father's ring, has to accept that he is the head of House Atreides now, and pledges to see through his father's plans for the Fremen, thinking he can work with them under the promise of freeing them from the empire.

But the Harkonnens have other plans...

Duncan Idaho's last stand

The Harkonnens descend on this temporary hiding place ready to finish the job on the Fremen and the remaining Atreides survivors, but Duncan Idaho locks Jessica, Paul and Dr. Kynes behind a stronghold door, intending to fend off the wolves at the gate by himself to save them. Throughout the film, as lost and adrift as Paul has seemed at times within the larger machinations of the plot and all the potential in his bloodline, Duncan has been his one true friend (with Momoa and Chalamet's chemistry being one of the film's strongest emotional bonds). Now he must run away yet again, with his mother and Dr. Kynes, as Duncan does what Duncan does best: beat some ass.

Duncan goes "one vs. many" on the invading hordes, taking out plenty of men before succumbing to mortal wounds, with one last prideful hurrah coming after what initially seemed like his death to buy Jessica and Paul the necessary time to get clear. It is a valiant, swashbuckling self-sacrifice that is as heartbreaking as it is exhilarating. But it leaves Jessica and Paul back on the run, where Paul continues to struggle with his visions, seeing troubling glimpses of a future with the Fremen he cannot understand or decipher.

But with no remaining friendlies on Arrakis and no other options, they have to soldier on in the desert hoping to find Fremen who may or may not be sympathetic to their cause.

First, a test...

Jessica and Paul encounter Stilgar's sect of Fremen, who initially see them as little more than bodies of moisture to covet. The Fremen, after all, couldn't care less about what rich foreign dignitaries the Emperor has decided rule their fate this week. Stilgar and Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun) are both in favor of just killing them and taking the water from their bodies, but Stilgar, remembering his meeting with Leto, sees some merit in sparing Paul's life. He just doesn't see that same merit in saving Jessica's.

Tensions rise to a boil when moves are made to harm Jessica, who gets the upper hand on Stilgar, leading to a standoff where Paul has the drop on the leader, not realizing another Fremen, Chani, has the drop on him. She's the same woman he has been seeing in his visions this entire time. But Jamis can't leave this infraction alone. By besting their leader in combat, Jamis has to challenge Jessica to retain true control over their sect, so he challenges her to fight, with Paul having to step in as her champion.

Paul's visions have seemingly been building to this moment, specifically surrounding him being handed a crysknife, a ceremonial dagger important to the Fremen as it is fashioned from a tooth of Shai-Hulud, the sandworm of Arrakis. In his visions, this weapon leads to his own death, but he doesn't yet understand the concept of taking a life, and how doing so is like killing a part of yourself. 

Paul and Jamis fight, with Jamis clearly the more ruthless combatant. At multiple points, Paul has Jamis dead to rights, just like in the fencing style sparring sessions he has with Halleck in the film's first act, but this is no duel. The only way to win is to kill — something Jessica points out, in all his training, Paul has never had to do. Until now, that is, when he buries the crysknife into Jamis, taking his life, and winning in combat. 

This marks Paul crossing over into his destiny, finally abandoning his youth with all the tragedies that have brought him to this moment. Jessica wants Stilgar to help them get off world so they can return to Caladan and expose the Emperor's duplicitous ways, but Paul sees that their future lies here, with the Fremen.

Visions of the future...

As Paul, Jessica, and the Fremen traverse the desert on the way back to their stronghold, he continues to be plagued by these visions, only now they're more clearly teases for a "Dune: Part Two" we may or may not receive in the future. He sees his eyes glowing blue, like Chani, like the rest of the Fremen, and sees himself leading a Fremen force in a war against the rest of the Empire, including his own home world. It's tinged with messianic imagery that could be seen as triumphant, given how much he and his family have lost in this film thus far. But more than anything, it also reeks of portent, like a good thing gone too far, a path he may now be too far down now to ever avert.

Whether we will actually see the other side of this epic tale, of Paul's arc from boyhood prodigy to reluctant messiah, remains to be seen. But it's been said Villeneuve and company are hard at work nailing down the screenplay to "Part Two," so all that's left is for as many people to see it theatrically as possible. Otherwise, Warner Bros. may give up on giving us any kind of closure.