Could Dune Deliver the Full Scope of the Book’s Epic Sci-Fi Battles?

The latest Dune trailer proves that the time has come when the conflicts of the Frank Herbert novel might finally be captured visually.

Oscar Isaac in Dune
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

There are certain visual elements of Dune that the classic novel by Frank Herbert and its previous adaptations have indelibly imprinted on our collective consciousness. The giant sandworms plowing their massive paths through the deserts of Arrakis, for example, and the spice-enhanced “eyes of Ibad” that turn the whites of Fremen eyes blue, are exactly as expected in the latest trailer for the upcoming Denis Villeneuve film.

But that’s the “easy” part. What about capturing the scale of the novel, with its epic battles and immense galactic setting? Judging from the new footage, which gives us a taste of huge battle sequences set in the dunes of the spice planet, Villeneuve may have finally cracked the book once thought “unfilmable” (as hard as Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch tried).

Virtual sets and green screen have come a long way, of course, but part of what really grabs our attention in the Dune trailer are depictions of the war between House Atreides and House Harkonnen for dominance of Arrakis, the melange-producing planet essential to travel between planets in the galactic empire. The huge explosions of colliding ships are reminiscent of Star Wars, which Dune certainly inspired, but the dogfights between flyers and ornithopters are unique to Herbert’s universe and are illustrated with awe-inspiring accuracy in the trailer.

Perhaps the most exciting change in this particular adaptation is the way in which the fight choreography shown in the trailer highlights the use of personal defense force fields known as Holtzman shields in the books. Dune took the unconventional approach to space battles by avoiding disconnected laser shootouts, explaining that the shields worn by the armies prevented passage of any object traveling above a certain velocity. The resulting hand-to-hand combat is much more dramatic on screen, especially with the visual dissonance created by weapons striking the shield.

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That visual impact also translates to the brief scene in which Dune fans get their first look at Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) making use of his anti-gravity suspensors to lift his considerable girth into the air. The use of long coat-tails, a wider shot, and a darkened room makes the film’s main villain significantly more intimidating than the Wonka-esque floating baron in the much-maligned 1984 adaptation.

Of course, Dune is still holding a few of its battle cards up its sleeve. Although fans have seen the sandworms emerging from the desert, they haven’t been privy to the Fremen riding method which gave the scrappy desert-dwellers a massive advantage over their imperialist oppressors. As lengthy as the latest trailer was, the visuals provided an impressive teaser without giving away everything, giving viewers the sense that the film might actually be able to capture the massive scale of this classic space opera.

Ahead of the new trailer’s release, Star Wars veteran Oscar Isaac, who plays Leto Atreides in the movie, told Den of Geek that he was “blown away by how many other movies and stories have taken from it and been inspired by this book.” Isaac, of course, played rebel pilot Poe Dameron in the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy. Poe would have felt right at home flying one of those ornithopters.

Villeneuve’s Dune already looks like a real treat for longtime fans of the book, but could its own vision of space empires and familial power struggles also capture the imagination of a new generation of fans? Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Lady Jessica, was certainly taken by the story after reading the book for the time while preparing for the role: “Somehow [the book] escaped me even though everyone I knew was reading it. When I did, I was captivated. Why had I never read this? It’s an incredible multilayered, psychological, philosophical adventure.”

Dune releases in theaters and on HBO Max on Oct. 22.