Warner Bros. debuted the first trailer today for Dune, director Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious (could it be anything else?) adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sprawling epic novel. It was preceded by a livestreamed event in which Late Show host Stephen Colbert interviewed Villeneuve and several cast members: Timothée Chalamet (who stars as Paul Atreides), Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, Jason Momoa, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster.
Dune is set in the distant future and follows the fortunes of various noble houses in what amounts to a feudal interstellar society. Much of the action takes place on the planet Arrakis, where the economy is driven largely by a rare life-extending drug called melange (“the spice”) that also conveys a kind of prescience. There’s faster-than-light space travel, a prophecy concerning a messianic figure, giant sandworms, and lots of battles, as protagonist Paul Atreides (a duke’s son) contends with rival House Harkonnen and strives to defeat the forces of Shaddam IV, Emperor of the Known Universe.
That brief synopsis hardly does justice to the sweep and enormous cultural influence of Herbert’s novel. When it was first published, the Chicago Tribune called it “one of the monuments of modern science fiction.” Astronomers have used the names of fictional planets in Dune to identify various topographical features on Saturn’s moon Titan. Herbert wrote five sequels, and the franchise also includes board games, computer games, and numerous prequels and sequels written by his son, Brian Herbert, with Kevin J. Anderson.
Earlier this year, Vanity Fair gave us our first look at the film, including several photos of some of the main characters. Dune is notoriously difficult to adapt—as David Lynch discovered when he directed his critically panned 1984 film adaptation—but Villeneuve found the trick was to split the novel in half. This first film will cover events in the first half of the novel, with a second installment planned to cover events in the second half.
“I would not agree to make this film adaptation of the book with one single movie,” Villeneuve told Vanity Fair. “The world is too complex. It’s a world that takes its power in details.”
Chalamet plays the scion of House Atreides, Isaac plays Duke Leto Atreides, Ferguson plays Lady Jessica, Momoa plays Duncan Idaho, and Zendaya plays the mysterious Chani. Brolin plays Paul’s other mentor, troubadour/warrior Gurney Halleck, while Bardem plays Stilgar, the leader (naib) of the Fremen tribe—original inhabitants of Arrakis who naturally view House Atreides as invaders. Villeneuve tapped Stellan Skarsgård (in full-body prosthetics) to play Baron Vladimir, head of House Harkonnen. In a departure from the book, the character of Liet-Kynes, an Imperial planetologist on Arrakis, has been gender-swapped to be a black woman, played by Duncan-Brewster.
Ars staffers were mixed in their reactions to the trailer. I found the 1984 Lynch film almost comically unwatchable (see Sting’s space Speedo), so Villeneuve’s take looks appealing to me. And I’m generally pretty tolerant of creative adaptations and thus not as heavily invested in how much the new film adheres to the details in Herbert’s novels. I think it was wise of Villeneuve to split the film into two parts; in fact, a big-budget prestige TV series might be even better, given the span and complexity of the source material.
On the other hand
But creative director Aurich Lawson thought Villeneuve’s vision was “inferior” to the 1984 Lynch movie and aesthetically disappointing. “The still suits look wrong,” he said. “They’re over designed, and that’s in direct contradiction with the Fremen aesthetic. They look like form over function.” He also didn’t care for the reverend mother’s veil or Chalamet’s casting and bad voiceovers. (Given that Chalamet is the lead, that’s a big issue.) “I’m just fundamentally running into this vibe of ‘these people don’t get it,'” Lawson added.
Jonathan Gitlin, automotive editor, gave the trailer low marks, too. “It’s Blade Runner 2049, but Dune. And Hans Zimmer sandworms,” he noted. “Based on this three minutes, I haven’t seen anything that makes me think this will be a lot better than the Lynch film, which I really like. The spaceships looked better in 1984.”
Kate Cox, tech policy reporter, was more forgiving and thought the trailer did a good job playing down the annoying “Chosen One” aspects of Herbert’s narrative. However, “I think I’ve just realized that at this point in my life the story of Dune is not one I’m that interested in anymore,” she concluded. “I’d rather see it retold as primarily about Jessica and Chani, if anything.”
The upshot: whether or not this trailer works for you might just depend on whether you’ve read the book(s)—and how recently—and how much you liked the Lynch version. Dune is scheduled to hit theaters on December 18, 2020 (coronavirus willing).
Listing image by Chiabella James/Warner Bros.