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First Look: Breaking down the “Dune” photos

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The official “Dune” logo. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

If you’re a film fan like I am, the pandemic has affected you in more ways than one. Movie theaters are closed and news has been sparse, as productions around the world have halted for the foreseeable future. Luckily for us, one of the most anticipated films in recent memory has revealed itself through articles and images over at Vanity Fair.

“Dune” is the upcoming sci-fi epic from Academy Award-nominated director Denis Villeneuve, and has been eagerly awaited ever since the filmmaker assembled an all-star cast in late 2018. The project has been shrouded in secrecy, with no hints of costumes, sets or character designs, despite being an adaptation of a fifty-five-year-old novel. 

Thankfully, the wait is over.

As a fan of the book, I’ve been desperate to see one of my favorite fictional worlds brought to life. But “Dune” is an incredibly dense universe with dozens of characters to keep track of, so it can be intimidating. So, let me be your guide as we breakdown all of the gorgeous images released this week!

First Look: "Dune"
Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in “Dune.” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Paul Atreides is played by Academy Award-nominee Timothee Chalamet, seen here in the film’s debut image. The photo itself has seen its fair share of online ridicule, with people criticizing it for being too drab and moody – I couldn’t disagree more. The aesthetic and atmosphere of the image is the perfect fit for what is surely an emotional moment in Paul’s life. Where is the desert? Why does he look so sad? 

Well, this is Caladan, the homeworld of House Atreides. “Dune” begins with the Atreides being ordered by the Emperor of the Known Universe to depart for the planet of Arrakis. Paul’s father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) is charged with overseeing the mining and export of the universe’s most valuable commodity: spice. In this image, transport ships can be seen taking off overhead, helping the Atreides relocate. Paul is saying goodbye to the watery, lush Caladan – the only home he’s ever known. I reckon I’d be looking a little dour if I were in his shoes, too. It’s important to note this image is the only one released that is an actual still from the film, with the aspect ratio, color grading and composition that we can expect from this scene. I can already tell Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Greig Fraser (“Rogue One,” “Lion”) is going to shine. The Norway coastline is an inspired choice for Caladan, and I’m thrilled to see the project utilizing so many real-world locations.

First Look: "Dune"
Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica on set in Jordan for “Dune.” (Chiabella James/Vanity Fair)

The headline image of Vanity Fair’s second article is a lot more in line with what people were expecting. It’s bright, sandy and Paul and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) are decked out in alien-looking attire. The two are wearing stillsuits, Dune’s most iconic outfit. These are suits designed by Arrakis’ natives, the Fremen, and they allow for survival in the desert landscape. Stillsuits come with nostril plugs, face masks and a skin-tight fit, all which allow for zero moisture loss and protection against the sand and sun. The suits recycle everything in the body (including sweat, urine and yes – poop). A human wearing a stillsuit could survive without water in the desert for multiple weeks. The design here looks fantastic, and all of the proper pieces are present and true to the novels. The breathtaking backdrop of Wadi Rum in Jordan is just the cherry on top. 

First Look: "Dune"
Zendaya as Chani in “Dune.” (Chiabella James/Vanity Fair)

I won’t go into many character details for Chani, but she is one of the key Fremen characters, seen here wearing her stillsuit and standing in the desert. It’s worth noting that she too is wearing a headscarf of sorts, just as Lady Jessica was in her stillsuit photo. I don’t recall this being directly mentioned in the novel, but it could be Villeneuve making an additional reference to Arabic culture, much of which “Dune” is inspired by. I have not seen Zendaya in much, but she is a stunning visual choice for Chani, and I trust her acting under Villeneuve’s direction. Notice that her eyes seem to be unnaturally bright blue… Hmmm… 

First Look: "Dune"
Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, Stephen Mckinley Henderson as Thufir Hawat, Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides, Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides, Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck and Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho in “Dune.” (Chiabella James/Vanity Fair)

This is one of my favorite photos because it gives a little more insight to the film’s design, on top of putting many of my favorite characters in one frame. Paul appears on the left. To the right is Thufir Hawat (Stephen Mckinley Henderson). In the world of “Dune,” all computers and similar thinking machines have been destroyed, so certain humans have been conditioned to perform their computative tasks. These are known as Mentats. Hawat serves as the Mentat for House Atreides, as well as Master of Assassins. He is responsible for all security, espionage, and political and military strategy, as well as training Paul in these arts. To the right is Duke Leto and Lady Jessica, standing together. Next to Jessica is Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), the Warmaster of House Atreides. He is a fierce warrior with a tragic background and known for having a wicked inkvine scar on the left side of his face, which is faintly visible here. He is responsible for training Paul in the art of combat and is the closest of his mentors. Finally, in the foreground stands a clean-shaven Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, Swordmaster of House Atreides. He is widely regarded as the greatest fighter in “Dune,” and he serves a critical purpose for Duke Leto once they arrive on Arrakis. I am incredibly excited to see all of these portrayals, but Momoa in a Villeneuve film might just be the coolest thing ever. The set itself seems large enough to fit Duke Leto’s entire staff and could be the setting for one of the film’s key scenes. I particularly love the suspensor lamps above the conference table, which are floating lights.

First Look: "Dune"
Director Denis Villeneuve on the set of “Dune” with Javier Bardem as Stilgar. (Chiabella James/Vanity Fair)

Here we get our first and only look at Villeneuve himself on location, directing actors between takes. Next to him stands Academy Award-winner Javier Bardem as Stilgar, the leader of the Fremen. In the background and foreground, we can see other actors wearing stillsuits, so this seems to be a Fremen gathering. The rocky formation they’re in is part of Wadi Rum in the real world, but Arrakis has plenty of these formations where Fremen typically take shelter. Bardem is a pitch-perfect choice for Stilgar, and I’m excited to see him command the screen in a genre that he’s never attempted.

First Look: "Dune"
Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck in “Dune.” (Chiabella James/Vanity Fair)

Here we finally get to see some of the Atreides armor. It. Looks. AMAZING. I could not be happier with this decision and the design. In the book, armor is not typically part of the warrior’s attire. Instead, the fighters of the Atreides often use high-tech shields to protect themselves. For reasons I won’t go into here, shields are impossible to safely use on Arrakis, so perhaps this armor will be used as a replacement. This futurist, heavier armor acts to create an aesthetic contrast with the earthy, form-fitting stillsuits of the Fremen. We can also see that he has a short sword on his left hip. In “Dune,” guns are rarely used because of the incredible explosions that occur when they hit shields. Sword fighting and hand-to-hand combat are incredibly important skills in this universe, and I am eagerly anticipating the action scenes that will come as a result. Finally, the background features a ship donning the Atreides emblem. This is almost certainly an ornithopter, the most popular air vehicle in the series.

First Look: "Dune"
Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides in “Dune.” (Chiabella James/Vanity Fair)

Jessica is shown here in a very simple but elegant portrait. Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a secretive and powerful organization of women who influence events across the universe. Bene Gesserit also have powers that inspired those of the Jedi in “Star Wars” (which was released 22 years after the first “Dune” novel), so the hooded look here feels like a bit of a nod to that franchise.

First Look: "Dune"
Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides in “Dune.” (Chiabella James/Vanity Fair)

This is my new phone background. This image shows everything that I want from Duke Leto. The solemn gaze, the greying beard and hair, the attire of a warrior leader preparing for battle. His armor is virtually the same as what we already saw with Gurney, but from this angle, you can see the layers and material a little clearer. It looks like brushed steel and certainly reminds me of Arthurian knights. In the background, we also see Gurney, as well as another soldier with a longer sword and a helmet. The smaller details of the designs speak volumes about how meticulous this production is. There are small Atreides symbols on each blade and sheath, and the helmet even has some hawkish features to it. I suspect this image could be before one of the film’s action sequences, but difficult to say for sure since we don’t know what has been added or removed from the novel. Either way, the sight of three armored Atreides standing in a dropship has me giddy.

First Look: "Dune"
Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho in “Dune.” (Chiabella James/Vanity Fair)

As I said, Duncan Idaho is one of the deadliest and most skilled fighters in the entire universe. He is also something of a ladies man. Could anyone other than Jason Momoa have been more perfectly suited for this role? His hand-to-hand combat experience from “Game of Thrones” and “Aquaman” make him an exceptional addition to the cast, and I already know he’s going to bring his incredible, natural intensity to the role. Duncan looks a little roughed up in this picture, crouching with a blade in hand and blood on his face and clothes. Who could possibly cause this much damage to him? Find out in December!

First Look: "Dune"
Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet Kynes in “Dune.” (Chiabella James/Vanity Fair)

Sharon Duncan-Brewster is revealed to be playing Dr. Liet Kynes, a half-Fremen ecologist – or planetologist – which is the character’s preferred title in the novel. The article notes that the character has been portrayed by white men before, such as Max von Sydow in the 1984 movie. “Dune” is heavily dominated by male characters, and Duncan-Brewster says in the article that Villeneuve wanted to write the role for a woman. This is an inspired choice for a character that sees Arrakis as a child in some ways, something that needs to be nourished and protected from outside interests. Kynes also has to amicably oversee the interactions between the Imperium, the Atreides and the Harkonnens – the mortal enemies of House Atreides and former custodians of Arrakis. This is sure to be a breakout role for the British actor. 

Overall, the last few days have been a whirlwind of excitement and joy for myself and many other film fans and “Dune” fans around the world. I am beyond pleased with how this film is shaping up. These simple character photos garnering this much buzz is even more impressive, because I know just how much more lies beneath the surface. The Harkonnens have yet to be revealed, as well as countless sets, props, vehicles, creatures and more. I’ll be right here waiting to watch and analyze the first trailer, which is sure to drop in the next few months. 

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Johnny Sobczak View All

Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."

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