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‘Dune: Part Two’ and Orientalism

By Jana Monji

Dune: Part Two is a beautifully shot and scripted Lawrence of Arabia in space saga, but in 2024, do we really need the White man saves the desert people movie? The first film left lingering questions, but Part Two slides down the slippery slope and sinks in White savior quicksand. The diversity casting doesn’t help here. The problems seen here should concern Asian Americans on two levels: religion and the persistence of Orientalism.

The 1962 Oscar-winning Lawrence of Arabia was based on T.E. Lawrence’s 1926 book Seven Pillars of Wisdom but the casting included Alec Guinness playing Iraqi King Faisal and Mexican-born Anthony Quinn playing an Bedouin although Egyptian-born Omar Sharif was Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish.

This was only a year after Audrey Hepburn starred in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Mickey Rooney played a buffoonish Japanese man. 

Frank Herbert’s novel Dune was also a product of the 1960s. Yet in that decade special effects would not have been able to recreated Herbert’s world as both of these current films do. The 2021 film Dune in 2021 (scripted by Jon Spats and Eric Roth with director Denis Villeneuve) only covers part of that novel with Dune: Part Two (written by Spats and Villeneuve) completing the story action. While the special effects are impressive, this realization of a desert space society is oppressive in its Orientalism.

In Part Two, Paul and concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) have found shelter with the indiginous Fremen people. He has also found a faithful believer in the Stilgar (Javier Bardem), leader of the Fremen Sietch Tabr. Paul has also connected with a cautious ally and, eventually, a lover with the Fremen woman, Chani (Zendaya).

His mother, Jessica is pregnant and already can communicate with her unborn child. She becomes more entrenched in the Fremen religion and urges Paul to embrace a messianic mission.

The House Harkonnen brings in the psychopathic younger brother of Glossu, Feld-Rautha (Austin Butler), to replace a failing Glossu Rabban. And the emperor’s (Christopher Walken) daughter, Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh) comes into play.

On screen, Chalamet and Zendaya have great chemistry that makes the ending poignant. For Rampling, this is a rare opportunity to see an older woman in a position of power which she ably personifies, and in Part Two, we see Ferguson’s Jessica hardening as a mother fiercely fighting for the future of her children. Butler’s transformation is alarming as is the downfall of Bautista’ Glossu Rabban.

The world creation of Villeneuve team is exceptional and yet seems like a seduction for a message that should be outdated.

At the end of the first part, I had questions, but I was hopeful. Part Two makes this clearly a White savior film and further builds up the religious beliefs of this Muslim Arab-esque peoples on the desert planet of Arrakis as a product of centuries of planning by a sisterhood led by a White woman (Rampling) although there are minorities present.  Early on, the press screening audience laughed at precisely the moment that I, as a non-Christian, felt uncomfortable. How would Muslims feel about it? There had already been objections raised for the first film, I expect there to be more with this one. For Asian Americans, it’s important to remember that Asia, even excluding West Asia/Middle East, has prominent Muslim populations.

There’s no real sign that Part Two attempted to address accusations of cultural appropriation or erasure although I noticed some Muslim-sounding names in the actors who played warriors loyal to Paul (Fedaykin) and the Fundamentalist fighters. Here, in Dune and Dune: Part Two, the diversity casting makes this 2024 interpretation more troubling than the predominately White casting of the 1984 David Lynch film. 

Would it be possible to take the Orientalism out of Dune? Perhaps, but this film won’t do it. Remember, Lawrence of Arabia was essentially an Orientalist version of a moment in Arab history. If this is all one knows about Arabia for that time period, that’s problematic.

There is currently a non-fantasy TV series based on a 1975 novel written by a White man, Australian-born American James Clavell, that is making intense efforts to avoid Orientalism. The FX miniseries Shōgun has Japanese American Rachel Kondo with her husband Justin Marks credited as the creators and Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada listed as one of the producers. Sanada has been very vocal about bringing authenticity to the series.

Yet that isn’t the path that the Dune production team has chosen, even though it was filmed in two West Asian countries (Jordan and United Arab Emirates). The persistence of Orientalism should trouble all the peoples who were once under its oppressive umbrella.

Dune: Part Two is a sinister contemporary emissary of Orientalism.  Dune: Part Two premiered in Mexico on 6 February 2024 and is scheduled to be released in the US on 1 March 2024. 

For a longer essay on Dune and Orientalism, visit AgeOfTheGeek.org.

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