by Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture writer
Director Denis Villeneuve’s cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert 1965 novel is officially titled Dune: Part One; the 155-minute movie is just the beginning of the tale about the Duke Leto Atreides’ son, Paul, on the desert planet Arrakis. Dune:Part One is a film that needs to be seen on a large screen with top-quality sound. This epic journey driven by stunning visuals and complementary sound design but potentially dips into the White savior Orientalism mode.
Once you’ve experienced the expansive deserts of this Dune you’ll be tempted to think Lawrence of Arabia” of interstellar science fiction. That 1962 British epic historical film was based on T.E. Lawrence’s 1926 book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and directed by David Lean to win seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. The young and very beautiful Peter O’Toole was 30 when the film came out and the romance of this White savior in the Orient has become part of our cultural mythology.
While O’Toole can’t be faulted for his performance, it is, one writer in 2013 called “insidious” in its Orientalism (Juan Cole for Juan Cole.com, How Peter O’Toole Saved the Arabs (According to David Lean). Aljazeera notes T.E. Lawrence as the “original ‘savior of the Arabs” in an article about The White ‘Saviours’ of the Arabs: Western fighters have streamed into the Middle East to help ‘liberate’ Arab countries such as Syria and Libya (Tanya Goudsouzian, 22 April 2014).
House of Atreus
Herbert’s 412-page novel came out three years after Lean’s epic and draws from Greek mythology through the name of the central character, Paul Atreides. The word Atreides refers to one of the sons of Atreus: Agamemnon and Menelaus. In English, Atreides is also used to refer to both sons collectively (instead of the plural form Atreidae). The House of Atreus bore a curse from the gods of Greece and supposedly springs from them: The house begins with the son of Zeus and the nymph Plouto, Tantalus, who tested the gods by serving his son Pelops to them. As punishment, he was imprisoned in the underworld, standing in a pool of water from which he cannot drink and under a fruit tree from which he cannot reach the fruit. The English word “tantalize” is derived from his name.
Pelops was restored to life by the gods, but continued his father’s questionable ways. He arranges for the death of a king in order to marry the king’s daughter and then kills the king’s servant who helped him. The servant curses Pelops and the curse descends upon his sons: Atreus and Thyestes. Atreus kills and serves Thyestes’ sons to him. Thyestes commits incest to produce a son who kills Atreus.
The sons of Atreus leads Greece into war against Troy. Agamemnon leaves his wife Clytemnestra and sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia. While Agamemnon is away, his wife takes a lover, Aegisthus. Upon his return, Agamemnon with concubine Cassandra in tow, is murdered by his wife and her lover. Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, kills his mother and her lover, supposedly ending the curse.
As a result of the Trojan War, Menelaus regains his wife, Helen, and returns to his kingdom eight years after he left.
The House of Atreus was both kissed and cursed by the ancient gods of Greece and Herbert gave this hubris to his hero.
Herbert also reached out into other cultures such as the Bedouin tribes of Arabia and the San people of South Africa for the indigenous Fremen of the desert planet of Arrakis. The names used come from Native American languages as well as Latin, Greek, Persian, Turkish and East Indian (as well as Russian, Finnish and Old English).
The 1984 film adaptation with Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides came in at 137-minutes and tried to cram in the full arch of the first novel. That film’s director, David Lynch, had quarrels with the studio (He disowned the final film.), and Roger Ebert wrote, “This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.”
By choosing to separate the novel into more than one film, writers Jon Spaihts (co-writer on projects like the 2012 Prometheus and the 2016 Doctor Strange), Oscar-winning (the 1994 Forrest Gum“) Eric Roth (the 2008 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the 2018 A Star Is Born) and the director Villeneuve have avoided some of the problems of the 1984 film.
In the beginning of the film, Duke Leto Atreides (Guatamalan American actor Oscar Isaac) of the House of Atreides, rules a wet planet, Caladan, where his family has been for generations, but the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, assigns him to the desert planet of Arrakis. Arrakis is valuable to the empire because is it the only source of “the spice” which has powers when ingested, but is also necessary for interstellar travel. Arrakis had been ruled by the House Harkonnen and the Harkonnen had become rich as a result. Yet one look at the sinister Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) and his nephew Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista) and you’ll understand they don’t leave the planet Arrakis willingly and won’t stand idly by see their wealth lost.
Duke Leto moves to the empire’s Arrakis stronghold, Arrakeen, and takes with him his concubine, Lady Jessica (the 37-year-old Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the socio-political female order Bene Gesserit, and their son, Paul (the 25-year-old Timothée Chalamet). Lady Jessica was part of the Bene Gesserit breeding program and although instructed to bear Leto a daughter, had, for the safe of love, given Leto a son. Trained for warfare by his father’s best soldiers, Duncan Idaho (a beardless Jason Momoa) and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), Paul also benefits from his mother’s Bene Gesserit training of mental powers and sign language. Even before arriving at Arrakis, Paul has vivid dreams and he sees a woman in the desert and the death of Duncan Idaho.
The Bene Gesserit, represented by the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (an appropriately sinister Charlotte Rampling), have not forgotten Jessica’s betrayal and are cautious as to how Paul will fit into their long-term plans. What Paul does know is:
Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear, and I will permit it to pass over me. When the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
The Fremen have been treated cruelly by the Harkonnen and the rebellious Fremen aren’t the only danger in the dunes of Arrakis. There are giant sandworms. The Fremen do, however, have a legend of a great savior and there are rumors that Paul might be the one they wait for. Paul will meet the literal woman of his dreams, Chani (Zendaya), a Fremen who narrates the beginning of the film, and other Fremen such as Stilgar (Javier Bardem), the leader of Sietch Tabr. Chani says: “The planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low…You can see spice in the air.” But she also warns that the outsiders “ravage our lands in front of our eyes.”
The film’s website clearly spells out the three sides: The House of Atreides represents loyalty and mercy. The House Harkonnen is power and brutality. The Fremen are only survival and resistance. What happens next in the film as Leto deals with treachery will mostly be faithful to the novel. Still, purists will not be happy with this beautifully lensed film (Greig Fraser). The atmospheric scenes are supported by Hans Zimmer driving militaristic and sometimes tribal music score.
One clear example of attitude differences between Herbert’s vision and Villeneuve is the casting of Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet-Kynes. In the 1984 Lynch film, Max von Sydow played this role and in the 2000 Dune miniseries, Karel Dobry. The change is not only in gender (and the press notes reveal that the doctor is a mother), but also in race. The British actress is Black.
Herbert, who died in 1986, wrote five sequels to Dune” and his son Brian Herbert and science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson published prequels and further sequels so there is a potential that this Villeneuve film may become the beginning of a franchise. At this stage, it is hard to interpret how the film will resolve the problems of the novel’s content and its potential message(s).
As the US pulls out of Afghanistan and we watch the disasters there, it is hard not to think of the foolish bravura of the beginning days of that war and the grind of two decades and that colors our interpretation of this film. The film sets up an intriguing world, one that seems in tune with the changing attitudes toward women.
The films strives for tremendous diversity, setting up the Fremen as a mixture of Black and North African or Western Asian looking peoples. For those of Asian descent, there seems to be a careful balance struck between the casing to Jason Mamoa and Dave Bautista on opposing sides with Chang Chen as Dr. Wellington Yueh, the doctor who betrays the House of Atreides, sympathetically in the middle. This version of Dune was filmed in West Asia (Wadi Rum, Jordan and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates) as well as parts of Europe: Budapest (Hungary), Stadlandet (Norway), Slovakia and Austria. The Fremen costume design (by Bob Morgan and Jacqueline West) also draws from Bedouins and other traditional desert dwellers although there is a futuristic twist.
One wonders how the film will be seen and interpreted in Western Asia and North Africa, both once considered part of the so-called Orient. By the the end of Part I, one still has questions. Will the Paul of this film be another White savior? Will the storyline remain faithful to the novel? It is too soon to say. The Reverend Mother cautions Paul:
You’ve proven you can rule yourself. Now you must learn to rule others, something none of your ancestors learnt.
That is a question within the film that is unanswered and undoubtedly the sequels will seek to explore. As the book tells us, “A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” With this version of Dune, Villeneuve is off to a spectacular start.
Dune premiered September 3, 2021 at the 78th Venice International Film Festival and will be released in the United States in 3D on October 22, 2021 by Warner Bros. Pictures with simultaneous release on HBO Max (streaming for 31 days).