Dune: “Beware of Heroes”

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021)

In its second weekend in theaters, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune has once again topped the U.S. box office, even as it carries on streaming simultaneously on HBO Max. Globally, the adaptation of the first half of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel has been doing so well that Legendary Entertainment greenlit Dune: Part Two last Tuesday. There’s even a release date: October 20, 2023. The film has sparked some illuminating supplementary reading, while reviews, since we last took a look in mid-September, have maintained a relatively steady keel—generally positive, with few outright pans or raves.

A few years ago, Villeneuve referred to Dune as “Star Wars for adults,” and in the New Yorker, Ed Park notes that both stories conjure a world “in which a young hero on a desert planet is tapped by a quasi-mystical sect to fulfill his revolutionary destiny.” Park also sees Dune as a natural extension of Villeneuve’s oeuvre, though the “melancholy atmospheres of the alien-contact tale Arrival and the dystopian Blade Runner sequel are transmuted into a sort of interstellar emo.”

“Throughout Dune,” finds the New York TimesManohla Dargis, “you can feel Villeneuve caught and sometimes struggling between his fidelity to the source material and the demands of big-ticket mainstream moviemaking and selling.” Michael Sragow, writing for Film Comment, suggests that Dune “typifies the current mania for world-building over character-building.” It’s “a thick, loud, well-fed spectacle of a movie, towering over the people in it with a brooding sense of intention,” writes K. Austin Collins in Rolling Stone, but it “earns its distinction as a faithful adaptation—and proves a satisfying movie, too.”

One of the most entertaining reads on Dune you’re likely to come across is Scott Tobias’s conversation with writer and humorist John Hodgman. “Dune has been entwined with my life at significant periods of time in such a pronounced manner that I wonder if an interstellar order of all female monks isn’t seeding it into my life in order to develop me into the most nerdy person in the universe,” says Hodgman in the first part of a chat so long it’s been posted as two separate and lengthy entries at the Reveal. Among the many topics covered are whether or not David Lynch’s version of Dune should have been realized the way it was, whether Alejandro Jodorowsky’s should have been realized the way it wasn’t, the version Peter Berg pitched to Hodgman on an airplane, and eventually, Denis Villeneuve’s.

Interview, in the meantime, has had Guillermo del Toro, a serious admirer of the new Dune, talk shop with Villeneuve. “The art direction is very symphonic,” suggests del Toro. “Each culture in the film has a different rhythm, but it always feels like one movie.” Villeneuve says he did indeed aim “to create very distinctive cultures with very distinctive forms of architecture and behaviors and needs,” but, “in all this disparity, it doesn’t feel like a bunch of different ideas.”

Addressing the “vague Middle Eastern and North African aesthetic” of the film at Slate, Ali Karjoo-Ravary points us to a fascinating piece at Writing just days before the film opened, Haris Durrani argued that the novel “does not cheaply plagiarize from Muslim histories, ideas, and practices, but actively engages with them.” Dune’s “Muslimness is attractive because it is an interrogation within Islam at the same time as it is a critique, however limited, of colonialism and capitalism . . . The saga is not reactionary but a conversation with itself about how Muslims have and will continue to interact with one another, other faiths, and their oppressors . . . Say what you will about Herbert’s politics and orientalism, but it’s clear that he put in the work.”

Islam, though, is just one of many belief systems that inform Herbert’s Dune and the first two sequels, Dune Messiah (1969) and Children of Dune (1976). In an extensive guide to all things Dune at Reverse Shot, Gavin Smith points out that Herbert dabbled in Zen in the 1950s and that “the novel occasionally makes reference to the ‘Orange Catholic Bible,’ which codifies a syncretic religion incorporating myriad belief systems from Islam to Christianity to Buddhism to Sufi mysticism.”

The native inhabitants of the desert planet await the mahdi, a messianic figure who will free them of their oppressors. In Dune: Part Two, we will discover whether Paul Atreides, the ducal heir of House Atreides played by Timothée Chalamet, “turns out to be just another anti-colonial freedom-fighter leader or a full-on religious mahdi, a more complicated proposition,” writes Smith. “While some link Paul to the hoary old Joseph Campbell ‘hero's journey’ template, Herbert differed, stating that ‘the bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes.’”

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