Saeed Shirkhani

Let the dust settle

November 29, 2021 - 18:22

[Spoiler Alert] The first book from Frank Herbert’s Dune collection, published about six decades ago. After some desperate and failed attempts from Hollywood to bring it to the big screen, Dennis Villeneuve finally blew the dust off the book.

In 1974, Chilian-French Filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to adapt Dune to a film that “gives LSD hallucinations without taking LSD to change the young minds of all the world” – as he quoted in the 2014 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. Salvador Dali as the Emperor, Orson Welles as Harkonnen, Pink Floyd for the music, and a script which was “the size of a phonebook” and could result in a 14-Hour movie. Obviously, the studio didn’t invest in his massive ideas, and the script never got the chance to turn into a film.

1984 Dune was a box-office flop, negatively reviewed by critics and disowned by its director David Lynch. Herbert was reportedly pleased with the movie but cited the lack of “imagination” and some production techniques. Dune was – and still is – the Bible of science fiction. After all those not-so-well journies, Legendary Entertainment acquired the film and TV rights, and Villeneuve appointed as the new cinematic guardian of Dune in 2017.

Dune: Part One was admired by critics (82% on Rotten Tomatoes and 74% on Metacritic), and the so long anticipation was over for the fans. Besides the astonishment around the movie, there is a flow of analysis on what Herbert’s novel and the film meant to tell us about colonialism, religion, and our future. Now, as those impassionate reviews have passed and the dust has settled, it’s time to look deeper into the Dune.

Dune undeniably is a critique of colonialism. Fremens cast entirely from people of color, and their planet’s environment, clothing, and language are visions from West Asia and North Africa. The book was released three years after the end of the Algerian War, during which Algerians survived brutal tactics employed by the French to wrestle back their country after more than 100 years of crushing colonial rule. According to Herbert’s son and biographer Brian, the Algerians – as well as “nomadic Bedouins of the Arabian plateau, separated from civilization by vast scratches of the desert” – inspired Herbert’s Fremen. On the other hand, Harkonnen’s makeup is as white as it gets. In House of Athreidis, characters are crossing the representational barrier – some clear visual metaphors completed by the sympathetic lens to the indigenous oppressed people of Fremen. Fat white Harkonnen, who looks like the capitalist leaders in soviet caricatures, lay down in a tub filled with oil to revive a failed assassination. With a face covered in oil, he talks about keeping the prices of the Spice high! Is there anyone who didn’t get the metaphor? Spice is our world oil, and there are wars over it on Arrakis, our Wes Asia, and North Africa, galaxy’s only source of this crucial resource.

In his researches, Frank Herbert often refers to Seven Pillars of Wisdom – autobiographical book of T. E. Lawrence, British army officer and spy to the Arabs during the Arab revolt against the ottoman empire - and we can see the references in the white savior narrative: a noble outsider infiltrates into an oppressed nation and helps them to revolt against an emperor. Nevertheless, as Villeneuve explains in an interview with Now magazine, by the end of the story, Lawrence realizes that he has been an “instrument of colonialism.” Still, Dune is “a criticism of this savior figure.” Paul Atreides is aware of the oppressed and wants to revolt against the oppressor he initially represented himself.

Explaining the core element of his narrative, Frank Herbert says in an interview: “We’ve [western man] set out our missionaries to do our dirty work for us, and then come along behind them with the certain belief that we are right in anything that we do because God has told us so -- God and the person of the avatar.”

Much like the Catholic church in European feudalism, Dune has the Bene Gesserit, a quasi-religious sect of seemingly-mystical women engaged in a 10,000-year-old selective breeding program that essentially aims to create ultimate extra-human. They’ve seeded myths and legends about themselves so they can potentially leverage their power in the future.

When Paul assumes the role of messiah to the indigenous people of Arrakis, he employs Bene Gesserit’s colonial myth for his own purposes to make his way to the top of the Fremen society pyramid. It’s just like the way of colonialists – when Spanish and Portuguese invaded south America, bringing Christianity with them. Colonials and missionaries supplanted Christian myths over indigenous myths.

Although Villeneuve’s Part One ends in the climax of Paul’s narrative arc and we should wait till 2023 to sum up, but by relying on some of his predictive visions and Villeneuve’s urge to make the movie “as close to Herbert’s descriptions,” Dune: Part two is unlikely to offer a different narrative: “Paul Atreides is an anti-hero. He’s not a savior but someone who brings calamity and chaos to the world, and he knows that.”

Good science fiction is science fiction which is either a mirror or an indirect criticism of our reality. If Dune is just a penitence letter about the western colonial past to seek forgiveness, then fine. But if Herbert’s text or Hollywood is trying to warn us about the real savior, let’s agree to disagree. The SAVIOR isn’t supposed to be the output of eugenics programs, and a white savior narrative will not deceive the real Fremen in the future. It seems that the Dune’s suspicion about a savior’s emergence is rooted in the guilty feelings of the colonial past. As we all know, a guilty conscience is always suspicious.

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