Much like Brad Pitt desperately waving a gun in the face of a serial killer, you might’ve watched today’s highly-anticipated Dune trailer and thought to yourself: “What’s in the box?” It certainly looks like Denis Villeneuve has crafted a gorgeous, ambitious sci-fi epic, but Dune—both book and, apparently, movie—is filled with terms, names, and lore that can whizz over your head if you’re not already a studied Dune scholar. Case in point: The moment in the trailer in which Reverend Mother Gaius Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) instructs Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) to place his hand in a box. Mohiam places a needle to Paul’s neck and tells him to keep his hand in the box, or die. But, again, what’s in the box? “Pain,” Mohiam says.
That is both accurate and an extreme understatement. The needle itself is a “Gom Jabbar”, a cyanide-tipped needle that, in conjunction with the box, is key to the “Gom Jabbar Test of Humanity.” Carried out by the matriarchal superhuman society known as the Bene Gesserit, the test is meant to measure the subject’s humanity. The subject sticks his or her hand in the box, which causes immense pain. If they immediately follow their instincts and withdraw their hand, the Bene Gesserit deems them as base as animals; if the subject can remain aware enough of the certain death at their neck to stick through the pain, they pass the test.
*Some very light SPOILERS ahead for Dune*
So why is that important for Dune and, more specifically, good ol’ Paul Atreides? This particular Test of Humanity is the event that kicks off Dune, which is one of the most enduring “chosen one” stories of all time. There has arguably never been one more chosen than Paul Atreides. He passes the test, the first man to ever do so in the history of the Bene Gesserit, suggesting he is the long-awaited “Kwisatz Haderach”, the fabled leader who would possess the mental capability to bridge both space and time.
For more on Dune, here’s an explanation of that giant sandworm in the trailer. Gotta’ keep an eye on those dang sandworms.