Dune Trailer Breakdown: Everything You Need to Know About Paul Atreides, Sandworms, and Spice

Written by on September 9, 2020

Gather round, Duneheads. After months as dry of Dune news as the planet Arrakis itself, the moment we’ve all been waiting for is finally here: the first Dune trailer. Directed by sci-fi mastermind Denis Villeneuve, starring a murderer’s row of Hollywood luminaries, and adapted from the bestselling science fiction novel of all time, Dune promises to be a dazzling sci-fi epic for the ages. Just take it from Dune superfan Stephen Colbert; in a short featurette accompanying the trailer, he described Villeneuve’s adaptation as “absolutely perfect.” Fans of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi franchise will delight in this first glimpse of familiar faces and familiar landscapes, but for the uninitiated, it may be a lot to take in. Have no fear—whether you’re steeped in Dune lore or brand new to the wild world of Arrakis, there’s something for everyone to love in this trailer. We took the liberty of breaking down a few key elements of the trailer so that, when Dune lands in theaters this December, you’ll be fully up to speed.

Paul Atreides is Going Through ChangesThe trailer opens with an introduction to Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet), the fifteen-year-old scion of an aristocratic family who, for twenty-six generations, have ruled the oceanic planet of Caladan. Tormented by a nightmare, Paul narrates in voiceover, “There’s something happening to me. There’s something awakening in my mind. I can’t control it.” In his dream, Paul is haunted by visions of a mysterious young woman. Fans of the novel know this to be Chani (Zendaya), a member of the Fremen people who inhabit the inhospitable desert planet of Arrakis. When House Atreides is ordered to take control of Arrakis and a series of political events leads to Paul’s capture by the Fremen, Chani becomes his guardian and later his lover. In the featurette accompanying the trailer, Chalamet spoke about Paul’s unforgettable character journey, saying, “Paul Atreides is a young man facing extraordinary circumstances and extraordinary struggles, trying to act with integrity, with honor, with faith in the traditions of House Atreides and of Duke Leto. Paul sees that there’s potential that he’s on a path greater than he understood—that perhaps he’s not simply a regular man.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

There’s Something Rotten on ArrakisPaul is the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). His path to Arrakis begins when the galactic empire orders House Atreides to take control of the planet and its lucrative natural resources, ousting the family’s longtime enemies, the Harkonnens. But the Harkonnens don’t take this lying down; in fact, led by the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard), they mount a conspiracy ending in Duke Leto’s murder. In the trailer, Paul describes this “an extermination,” saying, “They’re picking my family off one by one.” Villeneuve, speaking about the family’s journey to Arrakis in the featurette accompanying the trailer, said, “At the very heart, [Dune] is a tragedy about the family going into the new environment.” He described Skarsgard as his “secret weapon,” implying that Baron Harkonnen will play an outsize role in this film.
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Bene Gesserit Who?Much of the trailer is devoted to mysterious wisdom imparted by Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit. The Bene Gesserit are a secretive, matriarchal order with superhuman abilities, whose powers include mind control, hyperawareness, and collective memory, among extraordinary talents. In the wake of Duke Leto’s murder, Paul and Lady Jessica (herself a member of the Bene Gesserit, mentored by the Reverend Mother) are forced into hiding with the Fremen, who soon identify Paul as an emerging messiah destined to lead the planet in a battle for independence from imperial control. In the trailer, the Reverend Mother hints at Paul’s destiny, saying, “One day, a legend will be born. All of civilization depends on it.” However, Paul has much to learn in the meantime. “You inherit too much power,” the Reverend Mother warns him. “You have proven you can rule yourself. Now you must learn to rule other people—something none of your ancestors learned.” The Desert Waits for No ManThe trailer features breathtaking desert visuals, with Paul and Chani navigating an inhospitable landscape in Herbert’s famous “stillsuits,” which recycle moisture from the body and convert it into potable drinking water. Villeneuve made a sticking point of filming in the deserts of Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, where Chalamet said that temperatures regularly topped 120 degrees. “One condition I had was that I wanted to shoot the movie in the real desert,” Villeneuve said in the trailer featurette.Film conditions were reportedly grueling. Jason Momoa, who portrays swordmaster Duncan Idaho, went so far as to say in the featurette accompanying the trailer, “Denis had me running across the desert. Inside, I was like, ‘I’m not going to give up. I’m not going to give up.’ But inside, I was crying like a baby.”

Some literary scholars see Dune as an early pioneer of climate fiction, given its focus on planetary climates and ravaged natural resources. That sentiment is echoed by Rebecca Ferguson, who said in the featurette accompanying the trailer, “The desert is so big. It’s basically mother nature engulfing you and going, ‘You mean nothing.’ It takes away the ego.”Sandworm PaloozaIn voiceover, one character describes Arrakis as a “death trap.” Fans of Herbert’s novel know that this character isn’t mincing words. This brutal, barren world isn’t just dangerously short on water—it’s also home to menacing wildlife. Late in the trailer, we see Paul fleeing on foot from what appears to be an enormous sandstorm, but eagle-eyed viewers will see that the sandstorm is in fact a gargantuan sandworm. Sandworms move through the dunes of Arrakis like “dragons on the floor of the desert,” Herbert writes, threatening to kill any human unlucky enough to come into their clutches. Fans of the novel will remember that, in one of Paul’s transformative trials to become the ruler of Arrakis, he must learn to ride a sandworm.
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Spice, Spice, BabyArguably one of the most meaningful images in the trailer is a fleeting shot of what appears to be reddish sand sifting through the palm of someone’s hand, glistening as if shot through with crystalline shards of mica. However, this isn’t mere sand—this is melange (colloquially known as spice), the rare and staggeringly valuable natural resource at the heart of the galactic empire’s economy. Formed deep in the desert sands of Arrakis as a byproduct of sandworm larvae and guarded fiercely by the sandworms, spice is a mind-altering drug with fantastical properties: it produces heightened awareness and extends users’ lifespans, while some humans even develop clairvoyance through frequent usage of the drug. Spice is also integral to interstellar travel, as large quantities of the drug enable navigators to identify safe trajectories through space-time. Spice is a highly addictive substance; those who overuse it see their eyes turn electric blue, while a host of other frightening physiological changes overcome their bodies. The Fremen people, who strive to live in harmony with the desert landscape of Arrakis, are often characterized by their electric blue eyes. To withdraw from the drug is to face certain death. Dune hits theaters on December 18th. Remember: Villeneuve has split Herbert’s sprawling, doorstopper novel into two feature films, so this segment of Dune is just the beginning of an unforgettable interplanetary saga.

Assistant Editor
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.

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