Regarded as one of the most influential sci-fi books ever written, the upcoming adaptation of Dune (coming to cinemas in December) has a lot to live up to.
Well, we’ve recently received our first real look at Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, one of the most hotly anticipated films of the year (although, to be fair, it’s a sparse field) and it looks frickin’ sick. The grand sense of scale, the production design, the cast, the music: all add up to one of the most exciting trailers we’ve seen this year.
And that’s just speaking as a regular movie goer. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Dune fan—or, as we prefer to call ourselves, “irredeemably dorky nerd”—you’re gonna wet the bed over some of the details in the brief three minutes of far-future fantastical fun on display in the film’s most recent trailer.
Dune is a dense, detail-rich text, full of arcane language, outré concepts, complex political situations, weird technologies and more. Dune is so weird that when the old David Lynch film adaptation hit cinemas back in 1984, theatres handed out a printed glossary to each paying punter to help them navigate the strange universe they were about to be plunged into.
Luckily, modern audiences are much too genre-savvy to need such a blunt tool. Besides, Dune has influenced so much popular sci-fi over the decades that some elements will be instantly familiar (young man on a desert planet learns he has superpowers and a great destiny? Rings a bell or two).
But there are a few…well, I wouldn’t call them Easter eggs because that’s a meaningless term used by shills and grifters. But there are some elements in play in the trailer that make a Dune veteran sit up and take notice.
Spoilers follow, but c’mon—you should have read the book by now.
The film covers only half the book
Well, yes, we’ve known this for a while now, and the upcoming film is only the first of a planned two-part adaptation, but “half” is a pretty nebulous term in this context. Based on what we see in the trailer, we can now make a fair guess as to exactly how much of Frank Herbert’s novel we’re going to see in December.
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Assuming that the powers that be aren’t holding back too much, Villeneuve’s film covers the events of the novel up until shortly after the Harkonnens retake the planet Arrakis from House Atreides, when Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) is killed and his son Paul (Timothee Chalamet) and concubine Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) take refuge with the indigenous Fremen people in the deep desert. Crucially, one shot seems to show the scene from the novel where Paul has to fight a duel with a Fremen warrior called Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun) to earn his place in the tribe.
Fair enough—Dune’s a big book. But that means a few notable stars may not get as much screen time as you may expect. For example…
Don’t expect to see much of Zendaya
We are big fans of Zendaya, who plays Paul’s Fremen lover Chani in the film. The thing is, Paul and Chani only meet when Paul and his mother flee to the Fremen tribe led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem), which happens close to the end of the film. Paul’s emerging powers of prophecy means he has visions of Chani before he meets her in the flesh, as shown in the trailer, but Zendaya’s actual presence in the film probably isn’t as much as we’d expect from a star of her stature. Still, things do get changed up on the way from stage to screen. Like…
Jason Momoa’s role has been expanded
Big Jase plays Duncan Idaho, the Atreides swordmaster, a character who has historically received short shrift in screen versions of Dune (I think he gets two scenes in David Lynch’s effort). However, in Villeneuve’s film he’s played by one of the coolest men on the planet, and you wouldn’t want to waste Momoa’s considerable charisma on a cameo.
Momoa gets a lot of screen time in the trailer, carving his way through Sardaukar troops after the Harkonnens attack Arrakis (this sentence, by the way, demonstrates the need for a glossary). This sequence is Idaho’s big moment, and he falls in battle shortly thereafter. However, we also get a scene set after Leto’s death where Idaho hands Paul his father’s ducal ring and calls him “My lord Duke”, which could indicate that in this version he lasts longer than his canonical inspiration.
Dave Bautista’s Glosso Rabban is the big bad here
Of course, the real villains of the story are Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard), who is in only a couple of shots, and the Emperor Shaddam IV (casting TBA), whose political machinations put House Atreides in peril. But for the purposes of this film and judging by the focus the trailer places on him, the de facto villain in Villeneuve’s Dune is ‘The Beast’ Glossu Rabban, the Baron’s sadistic nephew, who is given governorship over Arrakis after the Atreides are deposed. Rabban is a real mean motor scooter—we even get a close-up of the whip he uses to torture his victims. That’s an inkvine whip, which leaves painful, lingering scars; Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) bears the marks of one.
We’re getting Ornithopters!
One of the reasons the Dune saga remains so enticing is that the universe it presents is simultaneously human and alien; although it’s populated with ordinary (and extraordinary) people, its culture and technologies are built on very different assumptions than most sci-fi. There are no computers in Dune; all computational tasks are handled by specially trained geniuses called Mentats. The use of force-field technology means that melee weapons like knives and swords are in common use, as slow-moving blades can penetrate shields that bullets would bounce off. Anti-gravity devices are common, as seen in the shot where a soldier glides into formation with the rest of his platoon.
But the most visible piece of exotic technology in the trailer, apart from the ubiquitous stillsuits, is the ornithopter. Don’t run to the dictionary—an ornithopter is an aircraft that flies by beating its wings like a bird, and no previous screen version of Dune has done the nimble aircraft justice. However, the trailer gives us a couple of shots of ornithopters in flight, looking like huge metal dragonflies, and it’s simply an amazing sight.
That’s a hell of a sandworm
They save the money shot for last. The single most iconic element of Dune overall is the great sandworm, the dominant species on Arrakis—impossibly huge, incredibly dangerous, and mysteriously linked to the spice mélange whose incalculable value drives the whole plot. The Fremen call them Shai-Hulud and, being crazy-tough, ride them into battle, because of course they do. Now, we’ve seen the sandworms in every iteration of Dune before, but we’ve never seen them like this…