The first trailer for Dune begins much like the book on which it’s based: with Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) revealing he has dreams that often come true. “Do you often dream things that happen, just as you dreamed them?” asks the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling). “Yes,” he replies. She’s about to test his mettle. Holding a poison dart to his neck—an object known as the gom jabbar—she asks him to put his hand in a box filled with pain. He does. She’s testing his humanity; to work through the agony, he recites the Litany Against Fear. I must not fear. Fear is the mindkiller.
For longtime fans of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, hearing those words recalls vivid memories. Everyone who has ever read Dune imagined it in their own way, and took from it their own lessons. For some, it’s a lesson in politics; for others, a book of philosophy. Still others see it as a tale as old as time: a young hero on a journey into a foreign land to find himself and save a planet. It’s also, yes, a tome about overcoming fear. For director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049), who first read the story when he was a teenager and has been wanting to adapt it ever since, bringing it to the screen was a dream come true. In the metanarrative of Dune, he is the hero, taking on the Sisyphean task of adapting one of the most beloved (and jam-packed) sci-fi novels of all time. In the middle of a pandemic.
And it's not like there's much in the way of inspiration. The failure of Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s wildly ambitious attempt to adapt Dune was so momentous it inspired a documentary. David Lynch succeeded in making a Dune film in 1984, and while it was kind of a campy trip, it fell far short of the grandiosity of Herbert’s book. For his part, Villeneuve is looking to sidestep the places where both of those directors erred. Where Jodorowsky would’ve made an hours-long film to work in all of Herbert’s detail, Villeneuve is splitting the book into two movies. Where Lynch took liberties and tried to cram all of the ideas into one, Villeneuve is aiming for authenticity. “At its core, Dune is a powerful but simple adventure story, but it has so many rooms and so many themes,” the director said during a recent Q&A. “This book is so rich. And we tried to keep that richness in the movie.”
Judging by this first trailer, he’s achieved that. The vast desert planet of Arrakis, where most of the story takes place, feels like the beautiful but inhospitable place Herbert described. The struggle of warring families—House Atreides and House Harkonnen—is only glanced at here, but those two broods (led by Oscar Isaac’s Duke Leto Atreides and Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen) have the necessary gravitas. Similarly, the Fremen—the local people of Arrakis who are caught in a war over their planet’s most valuable commodity: melange, or “the spice”—have the power of Zendaya’s Chani and Javier Bardem’s Stilgar. There’s also the tech. The stillsuits—full-body gear that recycles sweat, urine, and feces into potable water—look real. Same with the ornithopters and, most of all, the sandworms. The almost mythological beasts of Herbert’s world are meant to be miles long and able to swallow whole mining rigs effortlessly. The trailer released today gives only a small glimpse, but their heft feels right, like a sarlacc pit that moves.
Put another way, Villeneuve’s Dune appears to be living up to the promise of what an adaptation of Herbert’s book could be. It also, without saying so, makes another promise: that one day you’ll be able to see it in theaters. The movie’s release date is set for December 18, and with that date comes the hope that movie theaters all over the world will be open to show it. That they’ll be able to be packed with fans seems unlikely, but there is an inkling that—after so many of 2020’s presumed blockbusters got delayed or sidelined by Covid-19—Dune could arrive and be one of the year’s only massive releases. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet has been testing the waters in recent weeks, and as fall wears on one can only hope that plans for a big theatrical release of Dune could be possible.
That’s a couple of fairly big coulds. Villeneuve could have found a way to adapt Herbert’s Escher design of a book. American cinemas could be in a position to have lots of people come see it when it does. Dune could appease the fans who have been waiting decades to see their favorite book done justice on the big screen. Yes, all these things could happen—just as they dreamed them.