Breaking Down the Spice, Worms, and Pain Boxes in Dune’s First Trailer

Chani (Zendaya) represents a world aflame in the first Dune trailer. (Image: Warner Bros.)
Chani (Zendaya) represents a world aflame in the first Dune trailer. (Image: Warner Bros.)

It’s finally here. We’ve been waiting months to see a (moving) look at Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune. The debut trailer showed a beautiful but dangerous world on the brink of destruction and gives several hints that you may have missed on first viewing. Allow us to dig a little deeper.

Dune’s First Trailer Is a Beautiful, Unstoppable Journey

The spice must flow. The dynamic first trailer is here for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, which brings a star-studded cast to a harsh desert planet where they juggle honour, power, and faith — and one young man’s fate could save or destroy them all.

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Gif: Warner Bros.
Gif: Warner Bros.

The trailer opens on a close-up of Paul Atreides, the protagonist of Dune, squinting at something in the distance. Played by Timothée Chalamet, Paul is the only son of Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the Bene Gesserit order, and Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac). Not only is he set to inherit his family’s wealthy empire, he’s also spent years training with his mother in the Bene Gesserit ways of body and mind control.

It’s no surprise his first words in the trailer are: “Something is happening to me. There’s something awakening in my mind, I can’t control it,” as the story is about him awakening into his physical and metaphysical powers.

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We then see the focus of Paul’s vision: Chani (Zendaya), a Fremen warrior who appears as an ethereal figure welcoming the desert sun. Her eyes are bright blue because of her longtime exposure to melange, a rare spice that grows on her home planet of Arrakis.

“There’s a crusade coming.” The vision of Chani is important, but it’s not the only vision of the future he’s talking about here. There’s also Paul’s warning of a future “crusade,” though he never explains what that means.

Gif: Warner Bros.

Calling it a crusade is a very interesting choice, and likely intentional. The book contains several references to global conquests called “jihads” — whether it’s jihads that happened in the distant past or a future connected to Paul, Arrakis, and the fate of the universe. The word can easily inspire racist connotations in 2020 so it makes sense that it would be swapped out. But the use of crusade feels poignant, with its connection to colonialism, white supremacy, and the forcible spread of religious ideology across great distances. Given the role Paul plays in this story and world, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence.

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We then cut to a shot of two people in the shadows — likely Paul Atreides and Lady Jessica, based on the hair and outfits — as they look over a scene of immense damage and chaos. This could be the “crusade” that Paul is worried about, or it could be a sign of even darker things to come.

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“The test is simple.” Paul Atreides subjects himself to the pain box, a test that the Bene Gesserit use to determine which people have risen above their base animal instincts to become “truly human.” The idea is that a lesser creature would “gnaw off his own leg to survive,” meaning they would choose instinct over self-control and discipline. Reverend Mother Gaius Mohiam, the leader of the Bene Gesserit, points a deadly needle called a gom jabbar at Paul’s throat and orders him to endure the pain inside the box or she will kill him. Based on his screams, that’s pretty hard to do!

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“You’ve inherited too much power.” We get a glimpse of Paul on his home planet of Caladan as he’s getting ready to leave for Arrakis. Caladan is a rich, lush planet with lots of rain and vast oceans. In many ways, it’s the opposite of Arrakis, representing how much this relocation will change the rest of his life.

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Paul trains with Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), a chief officer for Duke Atreides and Paul’s weapons teacher. He’s considered one of the best fighters in the universe and trains the young man in hand-to-hand combat techniques. Most people also wear personal defensive shields, which you can see being activated in this shot, and battles are often conducted with knives, swords, and other melée weapons. Guns are rarely used in the world of Dune because of the aforementioned shields. However, it’s important to note that shields cannot be used in the deserts of Arrakis because they attract certain creatures.

Gif: Warner Bros.

“You’ve proven you can rule yourself, now you must learn to rule others.” This message presumably comes after Paul has endured the box test, which means the Reverend Mother believes he can lead other people. However, her words come with a warning, saying that the art of ruling others is something “none of your ancestors learned.” That’s when we get our first glimpse at Duke Leto, Paul’s father.

Gif: Warner Bros.

Duke Leto is glancing at an ancient Grecian tablet showing a man and a bull, possibly readying for a sacrifice. House Atreides has long claimed its origins date back to ancient Greece, specifically the Greek mythological figure King Agamemnon (a son of King Atreus, hence the name). By drawing a dark parallel between then and now, we’re seeing that House Atreides has been, and may continue to be, on unsteady ground.

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More shots of Caladan, giving off some Game of Thrones vibes along with clearly Grecian design.

Gif: Warner Bros.

As the Reverend Mother warns Paul that he will lose Arrakis just as he’s losing Caladan, we’re introduced to Lady Jessica, being comforted by Duke Leto as they prepare to leave. We mentioned Lady Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit order, they are a society of women who’ve spent generations accumulating power throughout the universe. But what’s also true is that Lady Jessica herself is a huge player in the events of Dune, with her choices impacting the future of the entire universe. In these shots, she’s the bridge between Caladan and Arrakis, as we see her transition from her old home to her new one. This hints at the vital part she plays in the story, as the bridge between Paul’s two worlds. Sadly, we don’t hear her actually speak in the trailer, though.

Gif: Warner Bros.

A haunting rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse,” from composer Hans Zimmer, starts to play while House Atreides arrives on Arrakis and is welcomed by the soldiers already stationed there — including a warm, friendly hug from Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), who was sent ahead to scout the planet. We also get a glimpse of House Atreides’ Mentat, Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson). He’s the guy with the fancy umbrella. We’ve explained Mentats further down.

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A brief glimpse of Stilgar (Javier Bardem), a Naib (or leader) of one of the Fremen tribes, as he takes off his mask in the middle of the desert. He’s wearing a stillsuit, the standard outfit created for survival on Arrakis. It extracts water from the body (including sweat, respiratory droplets, and urine), filters it, and stores it in a pouch so it can be consumed later.

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We finally see the famous Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) — the main villain of this story — telling his brutish nephew Glossu (Dave Bautista) to “kill them.” Baron Harkonnen is an evil mastermind who’s as cunning as he is gluttonous. It’s unclear where he is during this moment: He’s likely on his home planet of Giedi Prime, but he could be on Arrakis, based on the architecture behind Glossu.

Glossu’s role looks to have been expanded for the film. Much of his work in the book tends to happen “offscreen,” but here’s he’s at the forefront of the fight on Arrakis. With a massive army of soldiers at his command. Plus, if you take a closer look at the army, you might spot a figure in the back — that’s likely the Baron himself, on the suspensors (floating harnesses) he uses to get around.

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We immediately cut to Glossu unleashing his weapon as a group of soldiers march on Arrakis, surrounded by burning trees. A war has begun.

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“They’re picking my family off one by one.” Duncan Idaho gets ready to push back against the invasion, keen on having them fight “like demons.” Some of this fight is in his stillsuit and some is in normal clothes, so I’m guessing it’s two different battles.

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Paul meets Chani for the first time, out in the desert. He recognises her from his dream, but the stern look on her face here shows she’s much more than the otherworldly vision he’s been dreaming about.

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More of the attack on Arrakis. None of the fighters, including Gurney, are in battle gear, which indicates it took them by surprise.

Gif: Warner Bros.

Nothing much to say about this, other than I fully expect weird Baron Harkonnen vibes in this movie.

Gif: Warner Bros.

Duncan and Paul share a salute, though these shots look to be taking place at two different times. Paul is wielding a crysknife, which is a blade made from the tooth of a dead sandworm, the weapon of choice for the Fremen; they are sacred and forbidden to those outside of the tribe.

It’s important to note that during this moment, the Reverend Mother is telling Paul Atreides about a “legend” who must one day be born, as all of civilisation will depend on him. This is in reference to the Kwisatz Haderach, a long-prophesied hero who would rise up and rule the universe. The legend as well as the Bene Gesserit’s role in making him a reality, would take too long to explain: I’ve written out an explanation of the prophecy, which you can check out here.

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Oh hey, it’s one of those creatures… devouring an entire ship. This is our first moving look at a sandworm of Arrakis, and it looks mighty imposing.

Gif: Warner Bros.

We get shots of Dr. Wellington Yeuh (Chang Chen) with some of Baron Harkonnen’s soldiers, as well as Chani’s mother and Arrakis planetologist Liet Kynes (Sharon Duncan Brewster) at the palace on Arrakis.

Image: Warner Bros.

We catch a brief (albeit fuzzy) glimpse at ornithropters, helicopter-like machines that are commonly used for travel. You might notice the name comes from ornithology, or the study of birds, and that it looks like a dragonfly. That’s because thousands of years before the events of Dune, the galaxy unilaterally rejected artificial intelligence technology — shunning anything that could replace the intelligence or capabilities of a person. There are no A.I. computers in the world of Dune and everyone relies on people called Mentats trained to serve as “human computational devices.” In addition, many devices and transports are modelled after organic life, or as close to it as can be achieved.

Image: Warner Bros.

Duke Leto Atreides briefly comforts someone as they lay dying, leaving a bloody handprint on his shirt. He looks concerned and confused, which is kind of the mode du jour for most of House Atreides during the attack.

Gif: Warner Bros.

“The future, I can see it.” Paul is revealing to Stilgar that there’s something powerful inside of him, even if others like Reverend Mother may or may not believe he’s the Kwisatz Haderach who’s been prophesied. This revelation comes as he prepares to fight someone in the desert using the crysknife. It looks like the Fremen warrior Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun), who opposes Paul coming into the tribe.

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“I must not fear.” Paul screams as something strange overpowers him, then we see Paul and Lady Jessica take an ornithopter into a sandstorm. The two of them spend much of the story together, surviving the desert while trying to find the Fremen. Through all of this, Lady Jessica continues to train Paul in the Bene Gesserit ways of controlling one’s body, mind, and voice, rejecting fear in all of its forms to maintain a sense of order in the chaos.

Image: Warner Bros.

“Fear is the mind-killer.” Paul reminds us of his Bene Gesserit training as he reaches down into the sand, discovering what this whole story it’s all about — the Spice. In the world of Dune, the spice known as “melange” is a required element for interstellar travel. Fish-like creatures called Guild Navigators use the spice to “see” their way through the galaxy, guiding ships from one destination to another. The only place the spice can be found is on Arrakis, making the desert planet the most valuable spot in the universe.

Gif: Warner Bros.

“My lord duke,” Duncan Idaho addresses Paul in a new way, as Paul looks on with a calm authority that ensures he understands everything this means.

Gif: Warner Bros.

“When the fear is gone, only I will remain.” Just as Paul was embraced by Duncan Idaho, we also see Paul, with a bloody nose, being embraced by the Fremen. This shows his rise in power with House Atreides and the Fremen, as Paul becomes a force to be reckoned with on Arrakis.

Gif: Warner Bros.

We close on Paul and someone else, most likely Lady Jessica (based on the shawl), running away from a giant sandworm alone in the desert. But then, something happens.

Image: Warner Bros.

The worm stops. This is a big freaking deal. The sandworms of Arrakis are adept killers, sweeping the sands in search of anyone making a sound. They also have a powerful connection to Arrakis that gets explained further along in the story. To have the sandworm stop to gaze upon anyone is, well, mind-blowing. Even a creature like this knows something’s different about Paul Atreides. Soon, the rest of the world will know too.

Dune arrives in Australian theatres on December 26.