If you’ve just watched the trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, chances are you’re feeling many things: thrilled, awed, overwhelmed by the sight of Oscar Isaac’s magnificent beard, and possibly a little confused. Because unless you’ve read Frank Herbert’s epic tomes (and their many appendices) or you’ve seen David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation, the world of Arrakis, spice, Harkonnens and Ornithopters won’t mean anything to you. Well, step this way – Empire’s resident Dune uber-geek James Dyer is on hand to break down exactly what you just saw in that trailer, from the various planets, to the characters that inhabit them, and how it all fits together.
Read on for an explanation of who’s who, what’s what, where’s where, and why – and start putting together your own Dune glossary now. You’re going to need it.
It started out with a kiss…
The trailer begins with some early tongue action between Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides (our hero and scion of one of the galaxy's Great Houses) and Zendaya’s Chani, a warrior of the Fremen (the desert planet Dune’s indigenous people). The somewhat ethereal vision of Chani dressed in white, standing on a rocky outcrop is likely taken from a dream sequence before the pair actually meet.
The Reverend Mother
Charlotte Rampling lends her expositionary voiceover talents beginning with this scene, where we are introduced to Gaius Helen Mohiam, Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit: a sisterhood of eugenics-obsessed nun/concubine/witches with a penchant for messianic prophecy. Barrel of laughs that she is, Mohaim subjects Paul to the ‘Test Of Humanity’, forcing him to put his hand in a mystery box while holding the Gom Jabbar (a poisoned needle) at his throat. “What’s in the box?” Paul asks. “Pain,” she replies. Nice.
Oceans not being a common fixture on Dune, this beach stroll takes place on Paul’s verdant home planet of Caladan, where the first part of the film takes place. Expanded from the brief glimpse in David Lynch’s interpretation, Caladan is the seat of House Atreides as we begin the story, where Paul’s Father, Duke Leto, reigns. But the Padishah Emperor has ordered Leto and his family to take over stewardship of Dune, so those transports in the background are essentially interstellar moving trucks, shipping all their stuff to their new home.
Paul spars with Josh Brolin as Atreides master-at-arms Gurney Halleck (played by Patrick Stewart in the David Lynch adaptation). The pair activate their rather handy personal shields and begin to cross blades. The shields are tuned to stop fast-moving objects (like bullets) but allow more leisurely attacks to pass through, hence the pair facing off with knives. Only the slow blade enters the shield.
Leto (not Jared)
And speaking of which, here’s Oscar Isaac as Leto himself, stroking a stone mural. “My father rules an entire planet,” says Paul, proudly. “He’s losing it,” replies Reverend Mother Killjoy.
Mother has arrived
We next catch a glimpse of Paul’s mother, the Lady Jessica, played by Rebecca Ferguson. A Bene Gesserit herself, Jessica is the Duke’s concubine and was tasked by the Reverend Mother with bearing him a daughter to further the Bene Gesserit breeding programme. She defied her orders and chose to give him a son, Paul. Needless to say this didn’t go down well. The character of Jessica was based heavily on author Frank Herbert’s mother — right down to her prophetic abilities, which Herbert insisted his mother Beverly Herbert shared. He writes a three-page tribute to her at the end of his sixth novel in the series, Chapterhouse: Dune.
It's coarse, irritating, and it gets everywhere
The planet Arrakis, aka Dune. At once a desert shithole at the arse end of space and also the most important planet in the universe. Arrakis is the sole source of the spice melange, which makes interstellar travel possible. Whoever controls Arrakis controls the spice, and whoever controls the spice controls everything.
Duke Leto, Gurney and the Atreides troops prepare for war in some particularly natty battle armour. Of course, the fact that they have energy shields does rather make the armour redundant but it’s a small price to pay for looking badass.
The one-man army
Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, a fearsome swordmaster loyal to House Atreides. Written as dashingly handsome and a lethal one-man army thanks to his skill with the blade (something demonstrated later in the trailer when he carves up soldiers with his twin swords), Duncan was one of the novel’s most popular characters. Indeed, he’s the only character to appear in all six of Herbert’s original novels (appear in, not live through, but let’s not get into that).
Stilgar or sparkling?
Stilgar, the Naib (chief) of Sietch Tabr (one of the Fremen tribes), played by Javier Bardem. The mask he pulls from his face here is part of his stillsuit, which recycles the body’s moisture from wherever it escapes (yes, even there) and purifies it for drinking. His glowing blue eyes are a trait shared by all the Fremen and are a side-effect of long-term exposure to the spice.
The bloody Baron
Stellan Skarsgard as The Baron Vladimir Harokonnen, head of House Harkonnen, sworn enemy of the Atreides and chief bad guy of this story. There’s a great deal of plotting and intrigue at work in this story and to touch on that would be spoilerific but suffice it to say he has his fingers in a great many pies. “Kill them all,” he growls, which pretty much sums up his character.
The doctor is in
Chen Chang as Dr Yueh, a Suk Doctor in service to House Atreides. The diamond on his forehead indicates that he has undergone Imperial conditioning (as all Suk doctors do) making it theoretically impossible for him to inflict harm on his charges.
Get to the choppa
The big metal dragonfly ships we see here are Ornithopters (or ‘Thopters, if you will), versatile little transport ships that are the Dune universe’s equivalent of a Routemaster. Neither the Lynch film, nor the miniseries attempted to properly duplicate Herbert’s concept of ships with flapping wings (somewhat understandably) but fair play to Villeneuve for nailing the design here.
Largely submerged and looking like a giant, mutant Sarlacc, this is our first glimpse of one of Dune’s giant sandworms, here swallowing a spice harvester as Paul and Gurney fly to safety in an ornithopter.
Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr Kynes, the Emperor’s chief ecologist on Arrakis and friend to the Fremen. Gender-swapped from the books, Kynes is far more than she seems and dreams of terraforming Arrakis and transforming the barren desert planet into something slightly more hospitable.
Back in black
They’re bald, they’re pale and they dress exclusively in black: yep, they’re the bad guys. Specifically, the Harkonnen ground forces, led here by Dave Bautista’s Glossu ‘The Beast’ Rabban. The eldest nephew of Baron Harkonnen (the younger nephew, Feyd-Rautha, will play a larger role in the second film), he didn’t come by his nickname for no reason and, as the former custodian of Arrakis before it was passed to House Atreides, committed numerous atrocities in his suppression of the Fremen.
The litany against fear
“I must not fear, fear is the mind-killer.” Dune’s most famous quote, the Bene Gesserit litany against fear is spoken to focus the mind in times of peril, which explains why Michael used it during the tricky biscuit house task in the 2016 series of The Great British Bake-Off.
Game of thrones
Duncan Idaho, here bowing before Paul and addressing him as Duke, which doesn’t bode well for Leto’s longevity…
The worm has turned
At last, the trailer’s money shot: a sandworm in all its glory. Called Shai-Hulud by the Fremen (literally ‘old man of the desert’), the worms are Arrakis’ apex predators and roam the desert, burrowing beneath the sandy depths. Growing up to vast lengths in the sands and attracted to vibrations on the surface, they have a tendency to devour anything that draws their attention and should be neither fed nor petted.