This review contains spoilers.
“Epic” and “sweeping” are words frequently overused in film descriptions, but they were made for movies like Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.
Frank Herbert’s original novel is a masterpiece of “soft” science fiction and intricate worldbuilding, and Villeneuve wisely deviates very little from his source material. What the film lacks in detail it makes up for in cinematic scope. And if some of the finer points of Herbert’s world are drawn with broad strokes, Villeneuve’s adaptation beautifully captures the story’s massive scale.
Set several thousand years in humanity’s future, Dune follows the young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), only son of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and his consort, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). House Atreides is a wealthy and well-positioned clan within the Padishah Empire and its complex dynamics of interplanetary feudalism. This makes Atreides a target. Threatened by House Atreides, the Padishah Emperor conspires against the house with its sworn enemies, the Harkonnens, and Paul must claw his way out of the wreckage of this treachery.
Herbert’s world is thickly populated with memorable characters and settings, but Dune is as much a story about the larger forces that move the universe—politically, economically, and spiritually—as it is about the individual humans who inhabit it.
Follow the Money
Key to the financial dynamics of Dune is the spice: humanity’s most precious commodity, found only on the desert planet of Arrakis. It extends human life and, in larger quantities, grants a degree of prescience. Without spice, interplanetary travel would collapse, along with the empire that encompasses the known universe. With it, the Spacing Guild maintains a monopoly on interstellar travel, the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV maintains his position at the top of the feudal heap, members of the clan Harkonnen maintain their financial foothold as the enviable lords of Dune, and a great many important people people make a great deal of money.
Herbert almost certainly intended Dune’s spice traffic to serve as a metaphor for the West’s exploitative trade in fossil fuels, and the analogy is no less apt for being obvious. Eons into the future—our homeworld long lost to time and catastrophe—humanity is up to the same dull game. In the medieval era, the kings and popes of Europe disguised political rivalry as holy war. In the 18th century, the American South’s prosperity came at the cost of chattel slavery. In the 21st century, cheap Western clothing is sewn by underpaid Bangladeshi women working in life-threatening conditions. Millennia later, the Padishah Empire is held aloft by the exploitation of a single desert planet and its people. So it goes.
Myth and Manipulation
But while the financial dynamics of Dune are fairly straightforward, there are other forces at work, both more subtle and insidious. And if Herbert is incisive in his critique of exploitative financial policies, he is scathing in his treatment of manipulative religious practices.
The Bene Gesserit are an ancient, quasi-religious sisterhood that has, for many lifetimes, steered humanity’s politics from the shadows. Through carefully arranged marriages, genetic manipulation, and the occasional strategic seduction, they have pruned the branches of the most powerful family trees in order to create their awaited messiah, the Kwisatz Haderach. This man, through selective breeding and intense training, will possess a mind powerful enough to see through space and time, enabling him to govern humanity safely and securely through the uncertain future.
They’ve even spent generations seeding the universe with the news of his coming, planting prophecies of his advent deep in the cultural memories of countless societies. On Dune, Paul quickly finds himself associated with tales of what the people of Arrakis, the Fremen, call the Lisan al Gaib, the messianic figure whom they believe will not only break the hold of their oppressors, but turn the desert of Arrakis into a garden paradise. Paul, however, is disillusioned with his birthright.
“They see what they’ve been told to see,” he sighs to Lady Jessica as Fremen pilgrims gather to gawk at him. They are the unhappy carriers of myths designed to consolidate power, and Paul knows it. Young Atreides is not eager to be anyone’s messiah.
If Herbert is incisive in his critique of exploitative financial policies, he is scathing in his treatment of manipulative religious practices.
And yet betrayed by his allies, hunted by his enemies, and abandoned in the desert, this is what he becomes. With all other Atreides allies dead, captured, or defected, Paul and his mother can only turn to the Fremen. And the Duke Atreides won’t be enough to forge an army from these nomads. It’ll take the Lisan al Gaib.
In the duel that provides Paul his entrance into the Fremen community, the young duke can already sense the terrible purpose laid out for his future. As the fight begins, he hears on the winds of time, “Paul Atreides must die for Kwisatz Haderach to rise.”
Young Atreides will be great, make no mistake, but by stepping into the role designed for him by the Bene Gesserit, he will lose a good deal of his humanity. He knows it, fears it, and even loathes it, but yet, if only for lack of options, he chooses it. The argument could be made that Dune’s individual characters lack the ability to truly step outside the track laid down by their culture, heredity, or inherited religion. Even Paul, outrageously privileged and fully aware of the forces driving him, is unable to choose a different road.
This isn’t the first time Villeneuve has explored themes of determinism. In Arrival, an encounter with an alien race grants the protagonist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a glimpse into her future. In Arrival, however, free will and determinism meet and kiss: Banks both sees her certain future (in all its glory and tragedy) and freely chooses it. The people of Dune, however, are trapped within the trite, cyclical patterns of the human race.
It would be easy to simply raise our hands and thank God that Christ’s death and resurrection sets us free from the communal sins and systemic evils of our time. Paul, Jessica, Leto, and the rest may be captive to some form of naturalistic determinism, but we are free to choose a better way.
But do we?
It would indeed be easy to characterize Herbert’s universe as nothing more than a stark and depressing depiction of a world without a true savior. And yet our world does have Christ and isn’t remotely free of the evils Herbert so vividly portrays. The Crusades were driven by priests, not pagans. The antebellum South was professedly Christian. And if you rifled through my closet, I guarantee you’d find more than one tag reading “Made in Bangladesh.”
The processes of disentangling our curriculum, politics, infrastructure, denominations, and supply chains from the perpetual sins of greed and power-mongering would be no easy or simple task. Nor, candidly, would I presume to understand these dynamics well enough to chart a course for such an enterprise. Yet I would confidently argue that such a task would begin by admitting such ills exist.
Herbert’s story is not a particularly happy tale, nor is his world an especially hopeful one. Yet it is beautifully, painfully, and inescapably honest.
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