Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel “Dune” has been credited for inspiring half a century of the biggest works of science fiction and fantasy storytelling, from “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” to “Alien” and “Game of Thrones.”
What the novel hasn’t inspired, however, is a filmed version that quite lives up to its monumental sense of scope. At least, not yet.
Warner Bros., Legendary, and director Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival,” “Blade Runner 2049”) are both hoping that will change with the filmmaker’s adaptation of Herbert’s seminal story, about young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), scion of the noble House of Atreides which has been tasked with overseeing the barren desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune.
The new trailer for “Dune,” released on Wednesday, makes plain Villeneuve’s ambition for the film, with explosive battle scenes, stunning landscapes, and a good long look at the massive sandworms that populate Arrakis and guard the most precious resource in the universe, known as the spice.
But there’s a reason Herbert’s novel — a wildly imaginative epic adventure that’s also dense with heady concepts of metaphysics, human consciousness and ecological morality — has stymied all previous attempts to adapt it. David Lynch’s 1984 feature film starring Kyle MacLachlan was panned as a plodding, impenetrable mess, while the 2000 Sci Fi Channel miniseries (though a ratings success) didn’t really have the resources to bring Herbert’s imagery to vivid life. (The most well regarded attempt at adapting “Dune,” by avant grade artist and filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, never actually got made, but it did inspire a fabulous 2013 documentary about the effort, “Jodorowsky’s Dune.”)
To bolster the bona fides of Villeneuve’s adaptation of “Dune” — from a script by Jon Spaihts, Villeneuve, and Eric Roth — Warner Bros. supplemented the trailer with a panel moderated by apex geek Stephen Colbert, and featuring Villeneuve and many of the film’s stars, including Chalamet, Oscar Isaac (who plays Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides), Rebecca Ferguson (Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother and a member of the powerful female religious order the Bene Gesserit), Josh Brolin (Gurney Halleck, Paul’s mentor), Zendaya (Chani, Paul’s love interest and a member of the Fremen, the native people of Arrakis), Jason Momoa (Duncan Idaho, one of the top warriors for House Atreides), Javier Bardem (Stilgar, the leader of the Fremen), and Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Liet-Kynes, Chani’s mother and the top planetologist on Arrakis).
Variety previewed the full panel before the trailer premiere — here are five major highlights:
Matching the Length and Sweep of Herbert’s Vision
Villeneuve, a devotee of Herbert’s book from when he was a young teenager, knew immediately that in order for a feature film adaptation to be successful, “Dune” could not just be one movie.
“The story is so rich and complex that, in order to be faithful to the book, we’ll need to make at least two movies,” he said. “That was a deal right at the start.”
Colbert is such a fan that he couldn’t help but remark that that the novel has a natural point in which the story starts anew, but he hushed up once he realized he was starting to edge to a spoiler for anyone who hadn’t read the book. (Much like the recent two-part adaptation of Stephen King’s “It,” Villeneuve has shot only the first half of “Dune,” and will need to mount a second production to complete the story; he did not address a timeline in the Q&A for when that could happen.)
Villeneuve also stipulated that he needed to be able to shoot on location — in this film’s case, in the enormous desert landscapes of Jordan.
“My argument was that they didn’t shoot ‘Jaws,’ in a swimming pool,” he said. “The title is ‘Dune’ — we need to be in the real environment.”
A Blockbuster With a Lot on Its Mind
The film is set in a distant future in which computers and robots are forbidden, which allowed Villeneuve to focus instead on the characters and their journey.
“It’s a great human story,” he said. “Technological elements are there — in the background. That’s why I’m attracted to this.”
The focus not on technological advancements, but the physical and psychological advancement of humanity is one of the most intriguing and unusual aspects of “Dune.” That was at the forefront of how many of the actors discussed the project.
“The key is higher consciousness,” said Isaac. “How do you keep pushing towards that?”
At the core of that approach is Herbert’s philosophy, spoken by Paul, that “fear is the mind-killer, fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”
Chalamet relished the chance to elaborate on that concept, so he could redeem himself from when Colbert asked him “what is fear” right after he’d been cast in “Dune” in 2018.
“When conflict is so overwhelming that to try to attack it with action or words or a plan of action is itself so overwhelming that that designation of anxiety or fear is actually a wild primal reaction,” Chalamet said in the panel. “It does you no good, and if you can center that fear … there is a middle ground a sort of Zen like calmness that helps you through the eye of the storm.”
Keeping to the Spirit of the Book, If Not Every Word
One of the biggest changes from the novel was the decision to change the gender of Liet-Kynes, a crucial character who navigates between the Houses warring for control of Arrakis and the native Freman fighting to retrieve it from utter ruin.
“This is somebody who understands all these worlds and moves in between each and every one seemingly with one agenda but, as things go, we start to understand that there is more game playing or survival of preservation for the good of certain people, individuals or beings,” said Duncan-Brewster (“Years and Years”). “As far as Denis was concerned, it was all about concentrating on the essence of this person not the fact that this person was a man.”
The Biggest Set Piece on “Dune” Was Not What You Might Expect
Much was made during the panel of the tremendous size of the production surrounding “Dune,” which led Isaac, who shot the film after completing “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” to make a rather startling observation.
“Well, I’ll just say that, you know, no set piece, no X-Wing, no Millennium Falcon could compare to the sheer scale of Josh Brolin’s head,” said Isaac, barely suppressing a smile. “It was massive, both literally and figuratively. And it really made me feel like I was in an alien planet.”
Not to be outdone, Brolin later used his efforts to learn how to play the baliset, a fictional instrument from the novel played by his character, to tease his musically inclined costar.
“When [the baliset] was brought to the set, it was immediately grabbed out of my hands by Oscar Isaac and played incredibly,” Brolin said. “Which threw me into like this awful kind of vulnerable state that I would never get it right.”
The Beautiful Agony of Action in “Dune”
While everyone involved with “Dune” was clearly thrilled to be a part of the production, no one was more excited than Jason Momoa.
“I just want to say I’m tripping out that you just said my name, Javier and Josh in the same sentence,” Momoa said after Colbert introduced him, Barden and Brolin to the Q&A. “I’ve never worked with a director on this scale. Denis is a cinematic genius. … I’ve never seen something so beautiful in a fight scene. Generally, the things that I do don’t look that good.”
As the spectacularly named warrior Duncan Idaho, Momoa shouldered a great deal of the most intense action scenes in the film, including a scene in which Villeneuve tasked Momoa with running to Chalamet in the desert.
“I’ve never run this much in my life,” Momoa said. “The sun was setting and so we had to get the shot. I had to run through this windstorm to Timothée, and I couldn’t see where I was going. I just didn’t want to fall on my face and I didn’t want to disappoint [Villeneuve]. But I’m not the best runner … and the amount of the chafing and the sweat that had built up, and I was like, I’m not gonna give up, I’m not gonna give up, but inside, I was crying like a little baby. There’s no way I want to be the black sheep in this thing, man.”
Not that Momoa was complaining about his experience. Far from it, actually.
“This film set the bar on how I want to have my career go,” he said. “Working with Denis and this level of actors, I learned so much every day. I don’t ever want to go back to not being treated that [way]. I felt beautiful in this film. It’s a very hard thing to say, but I felt very beautiful.”