Warner Bros. today released the first trailer for Dune, director Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious (could it be something 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 set in the distant future, it follows the fate of several noble houses in what amounts to a feudal interstellar society. Much of the action takes place on the planet Arrakis, where the economy is largely powered by a rare life-prolonging drug called melange (“the spice”), which also exudes a kind of foresight. There’s faster-than-light space travel, a prophecy of a messianic figure, gigantic sandworms, and plenty of battles, as protagonist Paul Atreides (a duke’s son) battles rival House Harkonnen and seeks the forces of Shaddam IV, emperor of the known universe.
This brief summary hardly does justice to the scope 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 has written 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 shots 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 two. This first film covers events in the first half of the novel, while a second part is planned for events in the second half.
“I wouldn’t agree to make this one-movie adaptation of the book,” Villeneuve told Vanity Fair. “The world is too complex. It is a world that derives its strength from 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 Stilgar, the leader (naib) of the Fremen tribe – aboriginal inhabitants of Arrakis who, of course, regard House Atreides as invaders. Villeneuve tapped Stellan Skarsgård (in full body prostheses) to play Baron Vladimir, head of House Harkonnen. Notwithstanding the book, the character of Liet-Kynes, an Imperial planetary scientist on Arrakis, has been gender-swapped to be a black woman played by Duncan-Brewster.
The Ars staff 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 view strikes me as appealing. And I’m generally quite tolerant of creative adaptations and so haven’t invested that much in how much the new film adheres to the details in Herbert’s novels. I think it was wise for Villeneuve to split the film into two parts; in fact, a big budget prestige TV series could be even better given the size and complexity of the source material.
On the other hand
But creative director Aurich Lawson found Villeneuve’s vision “inferior” to the 1984 Lynch film and aesthetically disappointing. “The suits don’t look good,” he said. “They’re over-designed and that’s in direct contradiction to the Fremen aesthetic. They look like form over function.” He also didn’t care about the Reverend Mother’s veil or Chalamet’s casting and bad voiceovers. (Since Chalamet is starring, that’s a big deal.) “I’m just basically getting into the ‘these people don’t get it’ vibe,” Lawson added.
Jonathan Gitlin, auto editor, also gave the trailer low marks. “To be Blade Runner 2049but Dune† And Hans Zimmer sandworms,” he noted. “Based on these three minutes, I haven’t seen anything that I think will be a lot better than the Lynch movie, which I really like. The spaceships looked better in 1984.”
Tech policy reporter Kate Cox was more forgiving and thought the trailer did a good job of downplaying the annoying “Chosen One” aspects of Herbert’s story. However, “I think I’ve just realized that at this point in my life the story of… Dune isn’t someone I’m more interested in,” she concluded. “I’d rather it be about Jessica and Chani first, if at all.”
The result: Whether or not this trailer works for you might just depend on whether you’ve read the book or books — and how recently — and how much you liked the Lynch version. Dune is scheduled to hit theaters on December 18, 2020 (coronavirus prepared).
Frame image by Chiabella James/Warner Bros.