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Trailer Analysis: Denis Villeneuve does the impossible in ‘Dune’

Alright, everyone. Let’s all take a deep breath! The official trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” has finally arrived, and it delivered in pretty much every possible way. Once again I’m here to give you all an in-depth, spoiler-free breakdown of the three minutes of footage – which simultaneously felt like far too little and still so much more than my brain could process. Let the thoughts flow:

It kicks off with a voiceover from Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), and he doesn’t sound like he’s having a very good time. He speaks of something “awakening” in his mind that he “can’t control.” The novel is strongly rooted in the idea of prescience, or visions of possible futures. That seems to be carrying over strongly into this adaptation, and these dreamy shots of the Fremen warrior Chani (Zendaya) just may be a sampling of those visions. The sequence concludes with a kiss that will be sure to send fans of the two actors into a social media frenzy.

Zendaya as Chani, standing on the rocky surface of Arrakis. Real or Vision? (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Paul wakes up, and we get a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it look at his bedroom on Caladan. It’s insignificant in the grand scheme of the trailer, but it’s our first real look at the intricate level of detail and care put into the film’s set design, led by Oscar-nominated production designer Patrice Vermette (“Arrival”). Paul’s headboard is wonderfully ornate and has a golden, metallic finish to it. It seems to depict marine life, with fish and bubbles floating about, which makes sense, considering the Atreides’ longtime home is a blue planet lush with greenery and mountains.

Paul wakes up on the Atreides home world of Caladan. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Voiceover from Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) starts, and her interaction with Paul fittingly feels like an interrogation. “What do you see?” she asks. “There’s a crusade coming,” Paul responds, as we see a long shot of flames, smoke and massive ships in the sky. Two characters standing in the foreground appear to be Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson).

This takes us into the iconic Gom Jabbar scene that was the centerpiece of the theatrical teaser trailer that recently played in theaters with “Tenet.” We see another vast, layered set, with bookshelves covering the walls and a beautiful rug. She reveals the pain box and puts the Gom Jabbar to his neck. A piercing sound rings out as Paul yells in agony. Based on all the footage I’ve seen from this so far, this is sure to be one of the film’s most intense sequences, especially when it comes to Chalamet’s performance.

As the Reverend Mother continues to demean and criticize him, we get our first footage from the training room. It’s another beautifully lit and designed space with enough room for Paul and his mentor Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) to test their combat skills. Caladan’s land is covered with forest and the interior here reflects that. Carvings on the wooden walls draw the eye into the depth of the set, and the cozier aesthetic here will contrast nicely with the dark, brutalist look of Arrakeen.

Paul and Gurney spar in the Atreides training room. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

The pair move lighting-quick and show off their proficiency with bladed weapons. Gurney is arguably the most lethal fighter in the “Dune” universe and is trying to pass on his talents to Paul. This sequence also introduces shields for the first time, the devices that protect the wearer from direct, fast-moving attacks. In order to pierce a shield, the blade needs to be moving in a slow and calculated way. In the novel, these shields are worn on a belt and activated with the push of a button, but they seem to have moved to the wrist for this adaptation. They also seem to appear only when in combat, giving the visual effects team a break from having to constantly render a live shield onto a performer. I don’t have any problem with these changes and quite like the look of the shields. The shimmery quality is a nice touch and enough to get the point across to audiences without being too distracting.

Next, the Reverend Mother calls out Paul’s ancestors, including his father. We get a few great looks at Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), as well as a beautiful long shot of the Atreides castle on the coastline. The production team went to Norway to film parts of the Caladan scenes, so it’s possible this is CG buildings inserted into a real location, not unlike what “Wonder Woman” did when going to Italy and digitally inserting parts of Themyscira there. It’s an enormous compound, built into the cliffs and with lots of trees and shrubs on the grounds, and it reaches down to the oceanside. It’s a paradise, but we won’t be there for long…

Castle Caladan (Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures)

Another short pair of shots that stood out a whole lot to me are this interior look at Castle Caladan. Lady Jessica stands by, looking emotional, as servants pack their belongings for the move to Arrakis. The set is stunning, with aged and stained stone making up the walls. Despite “Dune” being set thousands of years in our future, the Atreides can trace their linage back to Ancient Greece. The set design and dressing here reflects that, with large Greek-inspired vases in the foreground and a proscenium-type arch appearing, which is a conceit that comes from Ancient Greek theatre. Once again, cinematographer Greig Fraser utilizes deep focus to take the eye back through the arch and into the far wall, which is covered with books.

The ancient interior of Castle Caladan as the Atreides prepare to say goodbye. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Duke Leto walks up behind her and places his hand on her neck, which she grabs. The relationship between these two is going to be a major part of the film’s beating heart, so I’m thrilled to see affection and respect between them already being highlighted here. This image is appropriately dissolved by a sweeping shot over the sands of Arrakis, their new home. The Atreides landing ship opens up, and the blistering sun shines in on what looks to be Lady Jessica with other Atreides women standing behind her. The fabric is wonderfully translucent and makes for a very striking image, enhanced by an incredibly ornate headpiece that she is wearing underneath that glistens in the sunlight. Every aspect of design in this film looks Oscar-worthy.

“Dune” looks to be working its way into the Best Costume Design Oscar race. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

The haunting cover of Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse” kicks in at this point over an epic shot of these enormous Atreides landing ships, and it looks like there are thousands of Atreides troops on the tarmak. The ships are hulking with strong angles, fitting to Villeneuve’s brutalist aesthetic. As for the trailer’s song, I had no idea what it was while watching the trailer for the first time, but I thought it fit really well with the edit and sounded great on its own. The fact that it’s called “Eclipse” fits in perfectly with the eclipse motif we have seen in the film’s logo and other marketing elements so far. On top of that, Pink Floyd were in negotiations to do the soundtrack for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune” in the 1970s, so it’s a pretty cool call back, as well.

Paul walks alongside Gurney and Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Hawat is the Atreides’ Mentat, a human computer who helps plan and strategize in a universe where thinking machines (read: computers) are extinct. He carries a parasol to shield himself from the sun and has a dark stain on his lower lip. This stain is a result of Sapho Juice, a liquid extract that Mentats consume to enhance their abilities. This leads into one of the happiest moments of the trailer where Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) reunites with Paul. In the novel, Idaho is sent to Arrakis early by the Atreides to scout the planet. Seeing Momoa creep toward Paul with a smile and lift him into the air with a big bear hug, it’s not hard to see why Villeneuve wanted him for this role. He’s bursting with a swashbuckling energy that carries over well from his role as Arthur Curry/Aquaman. I’m excited to see him flex his dramatic muscles and go toe-to-toe with some of his esteemed cast mates, though.

Once again, this tarmac looks massive and ornithopters are parked all over it, with an enormous wall looming in the background and Atreides troops marching to and fro. Some are wearing basic uniforms, while a few don specialized armor. The armor is not in the novel, so it’ll be interesting to see why they wear it here. Sure looks badass, though.

“Arrakis is a deathtrap.” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Enter the villains. We get a couple epic shots of what looks like several legions of Sardaukar, rising from a kneeled position and preparing for battle. This is considered to be the deadliest fighting force in the galaxy, and they play a pivotal role in the plot – which I won’t reveal here. The scale of these shots are immense and juxtaposed well with the following closeups of the Harkonnen figure heads: “Beast” Rabban (Dave Bautista) and Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skårsgard). The Baron looks pitch perfect in this small glimpse, with his fat face drooping and a bald head that matches Rabban and their troops. I was hoping to see his full-body look, but this is promising.

We get a look at one of my favorite images from the novel: the burning palms. Fraser and Villeneuve did this imagery justice, with real trees, real fire and what seems to be a hundred or more troops walking in the background. You can see several more palms burning in the back of the shot, as well. This is a significant and symbolic moment in the novel that I’m so pleased to see realized on screen.

The Sardaukar return for one of my absolute favorite visuals in this three minutes. We get our first good look at them as several drop into formation from the sky. They approach in a slow-motion shot, and I am a big fan of the design I’m seeing with the mask, swords and light uniforms that don’t appear too heavily armored or padded. The logic of the novel suggests they are so fast and lethal that armor would just get in the way. A close-up reveals a neat port on the helmet that covers the mouth and presumably allows for breathing and clear speech. They also seem to be wearing a sort of cap over their skulls inside the helmet, like real-life astronauts do. It manages to be retro, futuristic and utilitarian all at once.

Death from above. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Next, we finally get our first look at some legitimately epic combat that is nothing like we’ve ever seen from Villeneuve before. Duncan Idaho appears to execute a sneak attack on a Sardaukar, knocking them down with ease just as the best fighter in the universe should. What’s most telling in the next few shots is the uniforms and the way the shields visualize combat, damage and even lethal blows.

We see dozens and dozens (probably hundreds) of Harkonnens troops in formation and running up stone steps. They are wearing the same black, beetle-like armor that they wear later on in the trailer. This design is reminiscent of the Harkonnen armor from the David Lynch film, but certainly more dark and menacing. It’s difficult to make out the design of their helmets, but they run into the Atreides troops, who seem to be trying to hold the line with spears or some sort of elongated weapons.

Harkonnen troops charge the Atreides line. (Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Now, for the shields. They emit two different colors in the trailer. They are shown to be blue when they are first activated and when they come in contact during battle. We see this in the sparring session between Paul and Gurney. However, it isn’t until Duncan fights the Sardaukar and the Harkonnen engage the Atreides that we see orange-red light from the shields. My theory is the color is emitted when a blade actually pierces the shield and wounds or even kills the person wearing it. Not only would this be a smart way of letting the audience know when someone is actually in danger, but it’s a way of showing lethal combat without too much blood in order to avoid an R-rating. Much of the combat also happens at night, so this will be extra helpful in that regard.

Lethal combat comes to Arrakis. (Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Now, all hell breaks loose at this point as the music crescendos. Massive explosions go off in the distance, ships fly overhead and troops scatter across the ground. We get a bunch of quick character shots, including the Baron Harkonnen rising out of some black liquid. You can slightly see his upper body, which is very thick and fat through the chin, shoulders and neck. It isn’t absurd and looks fairly realistic, which is what you’d expect from Villeneuve. We also get a shot from one of the novel’s most exciting sequences and peer down into a sandworm’s mouth from Paul and Gurney’s perspective as they hang out of an ornithopter. Chang Chen as Doctor Wellington Yueh is also shown being escorted by Harkonnen troops, who aren’t wearing helmets here.

An ornithopter takes flight as a massive explosion goes off in the background. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

We get a nice shot of Paul and Jessica inside an ornithopter flying through a sandstorm, with Paul slamming the thruster. This design looks different from others we have seen in the trailer and in set photos, which indicates we will see a variety of ornithopter designs for different purposes or groups. I also love the close-up shot of Paul grabbing a handful of sand and looking at the spice sprinkled throughout it.

The trailer’s grand finale is of course a big sandworm reveal. Two characters run through the desert as the sand near them rumbles and shifts. The sound of the beast and the way is framed reminds me of “Godzilla” (2014). This is the highest compliment as Gareth Edwards did a tremendous job of framing Godzilla in that film and giving him appropriate scale. There is a tremendous view of the mouth rising and opening behind the person as they sprint away from it, and we get a close look at the sandworm’s texture as it rises into the air in front of them. It’s not a terribly large worm like the one we see earlier in the trailer, which should give you an idea of just how much these creatures can vary in size.

As many have pointed out, it’s teeth look like baleen that you’d find in a whale’s mouth. This detail really brings home the point that Villeneuve and Patrice Vermette spent a year working on this design and trying to make it feel as real and “prehistoric” as possible. These teeth would be suitable for not just eating, but actually filtering the spice from the sand as its open mouth moves through the dunes.

The sandworms of Arrakis are equally beautiful and terrifying. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Wow. That’s all, folks! I have been hyping this film up for years now, and finally you can all see why. This is an epic space opera the likes of which have never really been successfully brought to the big screen before. Lynch’s adaptation was a poor attempt at the source material, and “Star Wars” was never designed to tell stories that even come close to the complexity of Frank Herbert’s classic novel. It’s always been called the impossible adaptation for a reason.

It’s starting to look pretty damn possible.

“Dune” is set to hit theaters December 18, 2020.

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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