Warner Bros. released the full-length “theatrical” trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and it’s been mostly winning the internet comments section. Reviews range from being visually dazzling to featuring an epic score by Hans Zimmer. The trailer also gives a lot more of the plot away than the first teaser did. The cast shines and Dune looks like technology has finally caught up enough to realize a vision that Frank Herbert had in 1965.
I couldn’t help but feel though that the trailer is a bit generic. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still terrific. It focuses on assuaging the biggest fear fans have had from the adaptation, which is how much faithful to the source material it would be. Everything we’ve seen about the film’s scale, scope, performances, score and concept thus far from the trailers strongly suggests that Herbert would be proud. And for an “original” adaptation not based on any sequel, the sizable $165 million that Warner Bros. has pumped into the movie provides its worth.
But at a broader level, the trailer echoes familiar beats that big-budget trailers are known for. The emphasis continues to be more on the visual splendor and less on character and plot. A couple of jokes are snuck in as well, possibly to elevate the humor of an otherwise serious and somber experience and perhaps as a studio mandate that the film carry some levity wherever the source material can afford. It builds up to huge, tantalizing visual reveals, before topping them with more “shocking” and “surprise” moments, from the sandworm glimpsed at in the first trailer, to Paul Atreides’ Fremen gear to him finally siding with the Fremens. And it’s cut in a way to remind the audiences that this is a science-fiction “action-adventure” movie.
The more I think about it, of course all of these are deliberate choices. Warner Bros. has a lot riding on Dune. It’s been one of the most significant projects in development from a pop-culture standpoint. It’s been in the works for many years. Their creators are so passionate about it that Villeneuve mandated a two-film contract and Zimmer left Nolan’s Tenet to score Dune, for which he has composed a soundtrack spanning three volumes. Bautista is grateful to be a part of Dune. And if it succeeds, it could launch a full-fledged franchise for Warner Bros. that, with the books available, could fill up the better part of a decade.
The pressure of that success is precisely what’s causing marketing to play it safe here. Dune, unlike Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, cannot be marketed as an off-beat big-budget character-driven epic, simply because that approach failed for the latter movie. Despite being amazingly good and equally anticipated back in 2017, 2049 failed to rake in box-office dollars. If Dune meets the same fate, it’s game over for Herbert’s universe. Warner Bros. doesn’t want another Blade Runner 2049 or a Jupiter Ascending on their hands.
Another difficulty with Dune is the inaccessibility of its source material. Those who have read Dune have often struggled to understand its concepts, let alone visualize them. As much as David Lynch’s 1984 version flopped, it did open the story up to a more generic moviegoing audience. To see it translated on the big screen then and have it appeal to a wider audience then also means making the movie more accessible, which means peppering it with elements that cinemagoers are familiar with seeing in other tentpole movies. Don’t be surprised then that some of the conflicts, the dialogue, the action and storytelling beats follow familiar ground.
My sincere hope here then is that as much as marketing is promoting it as a straightforward and as much as Villeneuve has tried to make the film accessible to everyone, Dune still retains the uniqueness that it brought to the table when it released in 1965. I believe Villeneuve is a fine director and he would have balanced out the novel’s oddities and idiosyncrasies with more traditional elements, without letting the commercial aspect take over his artistic vision for Dune. To that end, the trailer’s conventional design is more indicative of the audience that Warner Bros. intends to attract rather than the kind of movie Villeneuve intends to make.
Dune is set for release on October 22, 2021. The film will premiere simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max on the same day.