“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. When the fear is gone… only I will remain.”
After months, nay years, of anticipation, poring over set photos and interviews and every rumor Twitter was willing to throw at us, the trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune has finally dropped.
(Well, not before a 15-minute puff-piece conversation with Stephen Colbert where Josh Brolin confirmed he was cast because he’s the only person on the planet who can play the baliset, and Jason Momoa said his stillsuit would “hold [him] like a bowl of soup” if he were to really visit the desert planet of Arrakis. But I digress.)
What we received was an epic, three-minute masterwork that gives us all the ambitious, ornately-designed space aesthetics we can count on from the director of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 to provide.
Over those three minutes, there’s a lot to unpack about what Villeneuve’s take will look like, how it’ll handle what we’ll actually see of Dune (this upcoming release only covers the first half of the book), what it adapts straight from the book, and what probably changes in the process of adaptation.
Not only that, but there are at least two other Dune adaptations to compare this one to when all is said and done. So, with that in mind, let’s strap on our stillsuits, recite the Litany of Fear, and power through what the Dune trailer can tell us.
Warning: if you’re a complete Dune neophyte, we’ll be giving away the plot of the first half of the book and both previous adaptations of the story, so spoilers ahead.)
We begin with Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), heir to the throne of the House Atreides, in the middle of what seems to be a prophetic dream. Him standing on the floor of a bright, arid desert, staring at a young woman (Zendaya’s Chani) who recognizes him and leans in for a kiss.
He wakes up in his ornate bedroom on (presumably) his home planet of Caladan, voiceover sharing his concerns over his dreams with what sounds like Charlotte Rampling’s Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam. “There’s something awakening in my mind, I can’t control it,” he says.
He warns of a crusade coming (should be jihad, which makes me worry we’re taking out all of the Arabic-inspired language in the adaptation); we see images of Paul and his mother, the Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) looking over at the smoldering ruins of House Atreides. Things are looking grim in Mudville, and from what we know of the story, these are more premonitions than dreams.
The Gom Jabbar
Of course, now we see Paul’s recounting these dreams to the Reverend Mother in his home, as she’s come to visit and give him the ultimate test of humanity — a plain black box. What’s inside it? “Pain.”
(Side note: loving the costume work on display in this trailer, especially Rampling’s black loose-knit veil, a lovely metaphor for the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood’s brief of working in the shadows to shape humanity’s future through selective breeding.)
And to make sure he doesn’t flinch and remove his hand from the box (thus proving he’s not ‘human’, as humans can rationalize their way through incredible pain instead of acting on animalistic instinct), she holds the poisoned gom jabbar at his throat. (Unlike previous adaptations of the text, this looks to be more like a stylized needle than a tipped thimble one wears on their finger.)
Caladan and the House Atreides
From there, we get a greater glimpse at Caladan, a mountainous, foggy moor peppered with floating airships (and moody boys in long black leather coats).
When he’s not saddled with dreams of doom and poisonous sewing equipment, Paul trains as a warrior with trusted Atreides confidant Gurney Halleck (Brolin), dueling with shields and knives (gunplay is rare in Dune; there are lasers, but their use is highly discouraged in the books because, when a laser hits a personal body shield like Paul wears here, the surrounding area tends to explode with the force of a nuclear bomb).
Over this, we hear Mohiam tell Paul, “You have proven you can rule yourself — now you must learn how to rule others. Something none of your ancestors learned.” Meanwhile, we see his father, the Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) placing his hand over what looks to be a gravestone of his father, the Old Duke, who died in a bullfight; there’s a throughline here about how Paul will have to break centuries, if not millennia, of his family’s history.
Paul pushes back against Mohiam, “My father rules an entire planet.” As we get our first full-on glimpse of Jessica, we hear that he’s “losing it.”
But of course, they’re moving elsewhere — the desert planet Arrakis, a “richer planet” that is the only source of the greatest commodity in the universe, the spice melange. “He’ll lose that one too,” Mohiam warns.
Coming to Arrakis
Here, we get our first big glimpses of Villeneuve’s vision of Arrakis, with all its Jordan-set location shooting and the beautifully angled space ships of the Atreides, complete with everyone’s favorite trailer cliche, the slowed-down epic cover of a popular song. (This one is Hans Zimmer‘s rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse”, which tracks, considering that Alejandro Jodorowsky wanted to hire the psychedelic rockers to score his abortive 14-hour adaptation of Dune in the ’70s.)
They’re not the first Atreides there, though; on touchdown, Paul’s greeted with an Aquaman-caliber howl from Momoa’s Duncan Idaho, master swordsman and soldier of the Atreides, who’s been warming up the planet for them. Aw, hugs.
It’s also here we get our first look at Javier Bardem’s Stilgar, leader of the Fremen, who are the native species on the planet. He wears a stillsuit, which captures and reclaims nearly all of your lost moisture to make sure you don’t die immediately in the planet’s harsh deserts. The blue-within-blue eyes come courtesy of their exposure to the spice, which is infused in everything from the food to the water to the air.
But how will Paul’s prophecy of doom come to pass? Why, courtesy of Atreides’ rivals, the House Harkonnen (whose legions of soldiers are seen here on the grey, lifeless world of Geidi Prime).
Leading them is The Beast Rabban (Villeneuve stalwart Dave Bautista), the hulking son of Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. No sighting of Feyd in this trailer, nor any casting news — though rumors circulate that Tye Sheridan might be playing him? Maybe he won’t show up until the film’s sequel, which covers the film’s back half.
Later in the trailer, we see the Baron himself, rising from a mud bath. We don’t know yet how they’ll handle the Baron’s size, suspensors (in the book, he uses anti-gravity devices to hold his girth as he walks, which previous adaptations have taken to mean he literally flies), and sexual proclivities (the Baron’s a confirmed pedophile in the books).
It looks like Skarsgard will be wearing a fat suit, which will open up a whole can of worms about the way fat people are coded as villains in properties like these (particularly when they’re queer-coded), but perhaps that’s an inevitable casualty of adapting a 60-year-old science fiction book. (Less excusable is the absence of Middle Eastern actors in an adaptation of a work so clearly based on Middle Eastern culture and white savior myths, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Attack on House Atreides
Fire, enemy troops, bloodshed and mayhem — “This is an extermination,” Paul says gravely, with cuts to Jessica and Chen Chang’s Dr. Wellington Yueh (whom the book and previous adaptations tell us is a traitor who will be the key to the Atreides’ downfall).
Of course, another betrayal comes courtesy of the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, ruler of the universe, who lends the Harkonnens his expertly-trained Sardukaur killers, some of whom we see drop into battle in the trailer.
But to get to Paul, they’ll have to get through Duncan first. “Let’s fight like demons,” he says, before delivering on that promise with incredible ferocity. Look at him go! (Also, between this and the shots of Paul and Gurney, it looks like the personal shields glow blue when they’re deflecting fast attacks, but will flash red when you go in slow, which allows you to penetrate the shield.)
Then we’re back at the pain box test, as the Reverend Mother reminds Paul he’s a human and not an animal. “An animal caught in a trap will gnaw off its own leg to escape. What will you do?” Then a flash to what we can presume is Paul and Jessica’s reunion with the Fremen after the Atreides fall, seeing Chani for the first time in real life. The prophecies are true. He has a destiny he can’t escape.
From there, the trailer gets us our usual montage of action shots, complete with Harkonnen dropships silhouetted by flame;
Duncan and Paul trading a blade-wielding Atreides salute;
We also get a look at the ornithopters, which finally look like the big floating bugs from the books! Previous adaptations have just made them look like blocky, diamond-shaped aircraft with fixed wings and rotating fans, but here we get the robot dragonflies old-school sci-fi nerds have been waiting for;
Among the chaos, we see Duncan facing down more Harkonnen trips without a stillsuit, Paul defending himself against some Fremen who may want to take his water, Paul and Jessica heading into a sandstorm to escape the Harkonnens, and more, all while he recites the Litany Against Fear. We also get a look at Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster, in a welcome example of gender-swapped casting), the Imperiol ecologist on Arrakis, who holds a surprising connection to the Fremen.
As Paul recites the Litany, we see him bring a fist down into the sands of Arrakis to reveal glints of gold dust in his palm among the grains. Funny enough, this might be the first time we really get to see the spice itself in any adaptation of Dune.
Then he closes it out as Duncan calls him “My Lord Duke” and bows to him; interesting that the trailer already knows we know that the Duke isn’t long for this world. Then Paul walking along with hands on his shoulders, a grim portent of the dark messiah he is to become to the Fremen and the universe at large.
Of course, we’re all waiting for Dune‘s most iconic image, the sandworms — Shai-Hulud, as the Fremen call them — which roam the planet’s surface and gobble up anything that moves. We get a brief glimpse of them in this shot, likely during Liet-Kynes’ tour around the spice production, where a worm eats up one of their spice harvesters. Even in this brief look, we get a sense of their enormous scale, and the thin needles that line their enormous maws.
But the trailer saves the goods for last, as we watch Paul and Jessica, in stillsuits, running from the explosively huge movements of the Great Maker himself, just barely making it to a rock face before showing us a wide shot of the worm in its full glory.
Villeneuve’s version looks amazing, rows of millions of barb-like teeth looking more like the baleen of a whale than the teeth of a great white. Where previous Dune tellings have given the sandworms jaws (Lynch’s get three, the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries’ get two), these look to just open up into a wide, flat circle — so basically, a butthole-mouth. Still, I gasped when I saw this shot, and I can’t wait to see more.
Overall, it’s an exciting trailer that offers us a lush, slightly more grounded take on the book. While it may seem to lack the more gonzo sensibilities of Jodorowsky or Lynch (Maker knows there won’t be any Pink Floyd in the real deal), it’ll be interesting to see how Villeneuve’s more sparse, downbeat approach will fare — especially given the split of the first book into two films.
By all accounts, this looks to confirm how we thought the split would go: Part 1 will chart the Atreides’ arrival on Arrakis and their downfall, and the second half will involve Paul and Jessica’s alliance with the Fremen, and the evolution of Paul’s destiny as he takes the planet back from the Harkonnens.
However it shakes out, we’ll be first in line to find out (as safely as we possibly can, of course. Here’s hoping Warner Bros. reverses their decision to make this theatrical-only).
Dune comes only to theaters (though let’s hope that changes) December 18th, 2020.