We have been anticipating director Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune since its announcement in 2016 and now Vanity Fair has released the first exclusive look at the film with several photos of some of the main characters.
Set in a distant future, the story follows the fortunes of various noble houses in a feudal interstellar society, with most of the action taking place on the planet Arrakis where the economy is driven by a rare life-extending drug called melange (“spice”). We follow our protagonist Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet, as he contends with rival house Harkonnen and strives to defeat the forces of Shadam IV, emperor of the known universe.
It’s hard to encapsulate the sweeping grandeur and enormous cultural influence of Herbert’s novel, it has paved the way for most modern sci-fi films and most interestingly has had multiple attempts to adapt the material for the screen that has left fans divided over of its success. David Lynch’s 1984 film was a box office flop (though it has received a cult following in the proceeding years) and John Harrison’s TV miniseries in 2000, though more faithful to the source material, was limited by the constraints of its television budget and found only a modest audience.
Nevertheless, the cast and crew of Dune ventured deep into southern Jordan for shooting during the summer (Australia’s winter) of 2019 to depict their iteration of Arrakis. Chalamet commented, “It was really surreal. There are these Goliath landscapes, which you imagine existing on planets in our universe, but not on Earth”.
The production also moved to remote regions outside of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates for additional locations where temperatures echoed the source material. “I remember going out of my room at 2:00am, and it being probably 100 degrees”, Chalamet describes. During the shoot, he and the other actors were also costumed in what the world of Dune calls “stillsuits” – thick, rubber armour that preserves the body’s moisture, even using breath exhaled through the nose for precious water.
The suits plagued the actors in the intense weather conditions, Chalamet said, “The shooting temperature was sometimes 120 degrees. They put a cap on it out there, if it gets too hot. I forget what the exact number is, but you can’t keep working”. However, Chalamet admitted ‘in a really grounded way, it was helpful to be in the stillsuits and to be at that level of exhaustion”.
Chalamet’s character, Paul, believes he’s just a boy struggling to find a place in the world, but he possesses the ability to change it. Chalamet details his character is on “an anti-hero’s-journey of sorts”, who journeys to Arrakis to study his father and learn how to become a leader “before he comes of age, hopefully, a decade later”. Once Paul accompanies his father and mother, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), they find themselves in conflict with the criminal, politically connected House Harkonnen, led by the monstrous Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgard). The baron, created with full-body prosthetics, looks like a rhino in human form. Villeneuve describes the predatory character, “As much as I deeply love the book, I felt that the baron was flirting very often with a caricature. And I tried to bring him a bit more dimension. That’s why I brought in Stellan. Stellan has something in the eyes. You feel that there’s someone thinking, thinking, thinking-that has tension and is calculating inside, deep in the eyes. I can testify, it can be quite frightening”.
Villeneuve has also expanded the character of Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, into a major component in the story. A member of the Bene Gesserit (a group of women who can read minds, control people with their voice, and manipulate the balance of power in the universe) in the screenplay, which Villeneuve wrote with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts, has become even more fearsome than before.
Lady Jessica must deliver a saviour to the universe-and now has more agency “She’s a mother, she’s a concubine, she’s a soldier” says Ferguson. “Denis was very respectful of Frank’s work in the book, [but] the quality of the arcs for much of the women have been brought up to a new level. There were some shifts he did, and they are beautifully portrayed now”.
Villeneuve also updated Dr Liet Kynes, the leading ecologist on Arrakis and independent power broker. Although previously depicted as a white man, the character is now played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster, a black woman. “What Denis had stated to me was there was a lack of female characters in his cast, and he had always been very feminist, pro-women, and wanted to write the role for a woman. This human being manages to basically keep the peace amongst many people. Women are very good at that, so why can’t Kynes be a woman? Why shouldn’t Kynes be a woman?” said Duncan-Brewster.
People familiar with the story will also know about the wider array of characters within the story, in particular, the “mentats” – augmented humans with computerlike minds – who mentor Paul, these characters named Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck are played by Hollywood elite Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin. Dave Bautista plays the sinister Harkonnen enforcer Glossu Rabban, and Charlotte Rampling has a key role as the Bene Gesserit reverend mother. The incredible cast doesn’t stop there, with Javier Bardem, portraying the leader of the Fremen tribe Stilgar, and Zendaya costars as mystery woman named Chani, who haunts Paul in his dreams as a vision with glowing blue eyes.
Villeneuve intends to create a Dune that has, as he believes, only existed in the imagination of readers. The key, he says, is to break the sprawling narrative in half. When Dune hits theatres, it will only be half of the novel, with Warner Bros. agreeing to tell the epic tale in a second instalment.
The scale of Dune is what has made it so difficult to adapt in previous versions and breaking the story into two halves appears to be the most logical way to combat this. “It’s a book that tackles politics, religion, ecology, spirituality-and with a lot of characters” says Villeneuve. “I think that’s why it’s so difficult. Honestly, it’s by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Villeneuve stated “I would not agree to make this adaptation of the book with one single movie. The world is too complex. It’s a world that takes its power in details”. For the director, the film is not about a planet being mined to extinction, it’s a prophecy. “No matter what you believe, Earth is changing, and we will have to adapt. That’s why I think that “Dune”, this book, was written in the 20th century. It was a distant portrait of the reality of the oil and the capitalism and the exploitation – the overexploitation – of Earth. Today, things are just worse. It’s a coming-of-age story, but also a call for action for the youth”.
Unlike almost all other major films this year, its release date remains the same. This is due to the production wrapping last year and being well into post-production before the coronavirus pandemic took hold and caused the mass rescheduling of major film releases and cinema closures. Villeneuve has commented, “Dune was made by people from all over the world. Many of these people are like family to me, and they’re very much in my thoughts. I’m so proud to showcase their hard work. I look forward to a time when we can all get together again as Dune was made to be seen on the big screen.”
Dune is scheduled for release on December 26, 2020.