Dune director Denis Villeneuve breaks down film's eye-popping first trailer
It's finally here. After months of anticipation, the Dune trailer has arrived with visions of far-off planets and heroes from beyond the stars. The trailer throws a lot of images and faces at the viewer, teasing the many depths of a story that will be told across two movies. In order to decode these visuals, EW caught up with director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) to break down some of the key moments from the trailer.
Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), scion of a noble household, is prone to visions. Even before he arrives on the desert planet Arrakis, he has dreams of a beautiful girl in the dunes. As he will eventually find out, her name is Chani (Zendaya), and she is a member of the Arrakis natives known as Fremen. There are a lot of different things waiting for Paul in the desert, but in the end Chani may be the most important.
"I hold at your neck the gom jabbar"
An early scene from the original novel forms the centerpiece of the Dune trailer. The Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), leader of the powerful all-female secret society known as the Bene Gesserit, has come to the planet Caladan to test young Paul Atreides. The Bene Gesserit test isn't exactly a math quiz, though. Paul is forced to put his hand in a box while the Reverend Mother holds a poison needle known as the gom jabbar against his neck. His hand in the box is then flooded with unbearable psychic pain; if he flinches or tries to withdraw his hand from the box, she will kill him with the gom jabbar. Villeneuve acknowledges it as a "pivotal" scene that sets the rest of the story in motion, and tells us a lot about the unique world of Dune.
"Is the mental part of him stronger than the animal part? That was very important for [Dune author] Frank Herbert," Villeneuve says. "At some point in the Dune history, the human brain will reach a level of control where there’s no more computers in that universe, so the brain is trained to be able to make insane calculations and have control over your body. Paul, having some Bene Gesserit training, needed to be tested to see if he can use this power for the good of humanity."
This is a test rarely given to men, and one gets the sense that maybe the Reverend Mother wants Paul to fail. Unfortunately for her, though, the story's protagonist is not killed in the opening scene. He survives, becoming stronger and darker.
"Because he’s someone with a specific genetic background, the Reverend Mother goes a bit too far," Villeneuve continues. "It’s a test that is messing with the subconscious of the subject. By going so far, she unleashes some elements of Paul’s psyche, some things that will create a lot of problems later. It’s a very important scene."
All about my mother
Paul's connection to the Bene Gesserit comes from his mother, the Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). She is officially the concubine of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), but they love each other like husband and wife. It's too bad for her that the Duke benefits politically from remaining unmarried, so he can dangle a possible marriage as a reward to other royal houses. So great is their affection for each other that Jessica conceived a son, Paul, like Leto wanted, rather than a daughter like the Bene Gesserit had ordered her. Their genetic breeding program is carefully planned in order to one day produce a celestial messiah, and the Reverend Mother doesn't like her plans being upended.
Oscar Isaac's second major foray into the sci-fi canon once again involves a desert planet. But Duke Leto Atreides wasn't born in sand; his homeworld is Caladan, a planet of oceans and blue skies. The benefits of leaving Caladan for Arrakis are high (everyone wants that spice) but so are the dangers of leaving your home ground for such strange and dangerous terrain.
"These are people from the ocean, people that were raised on a lush planet where the climate is closer to Ireland," Villeneuve says. "It’s lush, it’s wet, and they will have to readjust themselves, the way they do their economy and even their warfare, because the physical laws of the planet are totally different. They will be uprooted; when they land on Arrakis, they will be vulnerable. Duke Leto knows at the beginning that he has a chance of success, but his chances are very narrow. There’s something very dramatic about this character who deep in his heart knows he might bring his people to a tragic ending, but he has faith. I was deeply pleased Oscar Isaac agreed to do this role, because he’s a romantic figure. He has that powerful charisma which you need with the Duke."
Sing us a song, baliset man
One of Leto's most loyal subordinates is Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), a man just as skilled at fighting as he is at playing music. He is one of Paul's primary mentors, and the trailer shows them sparring together. Why does a far-future world involve so much hand-to-hand combat? In a roundabout way, it's a result of technological innovation.
"In this universe there’s an invention: The Holtzman Shield. It's something that you can wear on your body, and will deflect something fast coming towards you. Only something slow can penetrate that shield," Villeneuve explains. "So, it made them use things like bullets less. Humanity went back to close combat, where you fight with knives and blades because it’s the only way you can kill someone through those shields. You can penetrate the shield slowly with the blade."
Villeneuve continues, "I developed with our stunt coordinator and choreographers a way of combat that is closer to a chess game than a fighting sequence. When you fight someone with a shield, the idea is to distract them with moves in advance. You want to distract them with a specific move so you can slowly bring the blade into their body. It’s a totally different way of fighting. It’s a way of fighting that is very fast. It's like a chess game, you have to plan in advance and distract the adversary. It’s a very specific, new art form of combat."
The pale Beast
The Atreides' opposite numbers are the rulers of House Harkonnen. When Duke Leto is granted rule of Arrakis, he takes it over from Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) and his nephew Glosu Rabban (Dave Bautista). This inspires quite a bit of jealousy and resentment on the Harkonnens' part, even though they are also strangers to Arrakis. Rabban is nicknamed "The Beast" for the brutal violence with which he has governed Arrakis in the past, but as you can see in the trailer, his monstrous aura is undercut slightly by how pale and sickly he looks.
"Geidi Prime, the Harkonnen planet, is one where the sun is obscured most of the time by heavy clouds of pollution. It’s an artificial world, it’s a world made out of plastic and cut off from nature," Villeneuve says. "Their skin is not used to sun, so they have to protect themselves from sunlight when they go on Arrakis. Their armor is almost closer to an astronaut suit than anything else. I tried, for each tribe coming from different planets, to see how they would use their technology to try and adapt. The Harkonnens are brutal colonizers, brutal invaders, but they are still vulnerable to the environment."
Beware the Baron
We only get a brief taste of Dune's primary villain in this trailer, but it's enough to unsettle.
"I didn’t want the Baron to be a buffoon or caricature, I wanted him to have the feeling of strength, a strategist," Villeneuve says. "I wanted the Baron to be seductive, someone who has a certain kind of sensuality to him. Most important, I wanted the Baron to have a deep intelligence."
Leader of men
While House Atreides and House Harkonnen struggle for control of Arrakis, the Fremen are the people who actually live and die on the planet. Their unique culture is a total adaptation of human society towards the harsh desert environment. One of their chief leaders is Stilgar (Javier Bardem). In the trailer you can see him and other Fremen wearing stillsuits, a Fremen invention (and one of the chief pieces of Dune iconography) that go to great lengths to conserve the body's water in the desert heat.
"One of the most beautiful characters in the book is Stilgar, the Fremen leader who has a lot of doubt about what they should do with these newcomers on the planet," Villeneuve says. "I wanted someone with a lot of charisma, someone that has a kind of generosity in his presence and a lot of humanity, where you can feel wisdom and a certain strength at the same time, and also some ambiguity. So I wanted Javier Bardem, who is one of my favorite actors. There was one name in my mind for Stilgar, so I went for it and to my great pleasure he said yes."
"I am a desert creature"
Stilgar is a Fremen chieftain, but there are many Fremen tribes across Arrakis. One leader they all pay homage to is Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan Brewster), the Imperial Planetologist who acts as a liaison between the Fremen and the rest of the universe. One of the major differences between this Dune and previous versions of the story is switching Liet-Kynes' gender from male to female. One thing's the same, though: Chani is still her daughter.
The greatest fighter in House Atreides' impressive retinue, and perhaps in the universe as a whole, is Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), who can be seen in the trailer taking down whole squads of enemies.
"Jason is a beautiful fighter. He’s like a ballet dancer. He loves it, and he’s so good at it," Villeneuve says. "He’s elegant, very precise, and he’s very generous. Duncan Idaho is a cross-mix between a samurai and one of the best knights in the galaxy, and also is known to be a beautiful man. So I needed all those elements. Jason also brought calm. It’s a Duncan who is very calm, very patient, with the deep soul of an explorer. He's someone where you feel that if s--- hits the fan, you want to be behind that guy! You know he will protect you."
Another important member of the Atreides household is Dr. Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), glimpsed briefly in the trailer. While Gurney and Duncan train Paul in the art of war, Yueh teaches him more academic and anthropological subjects. The black diamond on Yueh's forehead is a symbol that he is a Suk doctor who has undergone "Imperial Conditioning," making it impossible for him to betray the trust of his charges.
Spice is life
This is what it's all about, right here. The reason a harsh desert planet is so important to the most powerful people in the universe is because it's the only source of the spice melange. In Dune's computer-less future, melange is the only thing that makes interstellar travel possible; its prescient powers allow navigators of the Spacing Guild to calculate safe travel paths throughout the stars. But people also like taking it for the longevity and heightened awareness it bestows. If you intake the spice a lot (as the Fremen do, living among it) then your eyes become almost totally blue. You can see Fremen with these iconic blue eyes in the trailer, but Paul's not there yet.
Meet your maker
How far into the Dune trailer did you realize how it was going to end? If you've ever spent time in the sci-fi section of a bookstore, perhaps you've glimpsed this magnificent creature on the cover of Dune paperbacks. But all that was nothing compared to seeing the sandworm rise on screen in all its glory.
"I think that as soon as you say, 'okay, let’s make Dune,' you go back home and the first thing you ask is, 'okay, what about the worm?'" Villeneuve says. "It’s a fantastic central figure of Dune’s story, that massive creature that lives in the deep desert, so when we were creating the worm I tried to create a lifeform that you will totally believe can go and survive in this land. So of course it has to have some prehistoric quality to it, because it’s living in the most rough environment. It was a lot of dreaming. We took our time with it. I deeply love the worm we came up with. It was important for me to understand that this huge creature has a soul, to understand that it is revered as a god-like figure."
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