Dune: Part One begins with a voice-over by Chani (played by Zendaya) describing how the desert planet Arrakis, the home world of her people, the Fremen, is strip-mined for the precious spice “melange” by “out-worlders”, the Harkonnen, a fascist society committed to profit at all costs.
We see a vast harvesting ship landing in a vicious sandstorm, protected by Harkonnen troops wearing insect-like masks. They are attacked by Fremen fighters and immediately retaliate with a howling barrage of missile fire.
The film cuts to the Harkonnens overseeing their extractive mining empire, a terrifying wasteland of massive industrial structures under the unforgiving desert sun. But the Harkonnens unexpectedly leave the planet, leaving Chani to wonder, “Who will our next oppressors be?”
This awe-inspiring opening to director Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel immediately touches on themes of resource depletion, greed and colonial domination. Set 20 000 years into the future, humanity has spread out to the stars in a neo-feudal interstellar society that is ruled by fear, violence and relentless competition between noble houses, like that of protagonist Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet).
After being enslaved by machines, humans revolted and replaced artificial intelligence by developing extrasensory human perception. The Spacing Guild, which controls interstellar travel, relies on the use of a hallucinogenic spice that is only produced on Arrakis to navigate space. Whoever controls the spice, controls the universe.
At the same time, the matriarchal Bene Gesserit religious order has been secretly trying to create the “Kwisatz Haderach”, a mind capable of bridging space and time. The Bene Gesserit also deliberately sowed beliefs about messianic figures on planets like Arakkis, with the objective of later using these legends for political gain.
In Dune, Paul has been secretly trained by his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) in the “weirding way” – a form of intense psychological and physical combat practised by the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. And he seems to exhibit the powers of the Kwisatz Haderach. The powerful women of this religious order disguise the true extent of their skills while acting as secret power brokers.
But Paul is not a messianic or “white saviour” figure. Instead, he sees nightmarish visions of a future where his political actions lead to religious mania and a galactic war.
In its scale and visual ambition, Dune is similar to previous fantastic epics like the Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings films. But whereas those films focused on clear-cut, good versus evil tales of virtuous protagonists overcoming the odds, Dune looks at political power and the choices made by morally ambiguous protagonists trying to survive in a dangerous, chaotic society.
Despite the vast technological advances, humans are still ruled by a self-serving ruling class that stays in power through terror, betrayal and assassination. While it is a film of supreme visual beauty, from its lavish character costumes to the eerie shots of impossibly vast, brutalist craft suspended in outer space, its dominant mood is of dread and tragedy. It is far closer to the emotional chill of The Godfather films than any previous sci-fi film of its budget and scale.
Income, above all
Herbert’s original novel became a cult sensation when it was published in the 1960s, as its themes of anti-colonial war, mysticism and consciousness expansion deeply resonated with a countercultural audience. Herbert would receive phone calls from fans tripping on psychedelics who excitedly told him they had read the book aloud while blasting acid rock music.
In many ways, the novel was ahead of its time in its focus on ecology and the dangers of environmental pollution. One of its influences was Herbert’s friend, Howard Hansen, a member of the Native American Quileute people. In the 1950s, Hansen discussed with his friend the destruction caused by logging and how it was “eating the earth”. “They’re gonna turn this whole planet into a wasteland,” he said. Herbert responded that the whole world could indeed become a “big dune”.
The author also used the book to discuss the dangers of authoritarianism and of people sacrificing their freedom and critical thinking to charismatic leadership. In a 1980 interview, he spoke of how power resided in private capital as much as in the state, saying: “I have a standard axiom: all governments lie, don’t believe anything they say. And corporations are only kinds of governments.”
But despite these sentiments, Herbert politically gravitated towards the libertarian Right, supporting politicians like Ronald Reagan. And his books (which included five further titles in the Dune series) often include reactionary sentiments on gender and sexuality. For example, the monstrous Baron Harkonnen (played by Stellan Skarsgård in the film) is portrayed using homophobic tropes in the original book, a stereotypical depiction that has been dropped entirety in the film adaptation.
The mix of progessive and conservative sentiments in the Dune universe has seen it appeal to fans across the political spectrum. Leftists are fascinated by its tales of revolt and political struggle, but fascists like alt-right leader Richard Spencer have been inspired by themes of eugenics and feudal rule. It also has admirers among the Silicon Valley tax-dodger billionaire class, with Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos both describing themselves as fans. Describing this phenomenon, historian Daniel Immerwahr said these hard-right and libertarian fans ignore the book’s extensive critiques of greed and hereditary monarchy.
In contrast, Villeneuve paints the sadistic, genocidal Baron as the walking embodiment of capital accumulation who tells his underlings, “I only have one requirement: income.” The film’s version of the Baron takes today’s space-travelling billionaires to a nightmarish extreme, showing the grotesque end point of unrestricted personal power and wealth.
Villeneuve is not the first director to tackle Dune.
In the 1970s, Chilean surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky attempted a ludicrously ambitious, 12-hour version that would have starred Orson Welles and Mick Jagger. This version collapsed before it could go into production, but it was the subject of the acclaimed documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013).
In the 1980s, David Lynch directed an adaptation that starred Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides. The film was a critical and commercial disaster (although it has gained a cult following in subsequent years) and Lynch has publicly disowned it. Both Jodorowsky and Lynch imagined Paul as a literal messianic figure, omitting Herbert’s commentary on how religious beliefs are manipulated for political ends.
While other directors have tried and failed, Villeneuve (who has chosen to split the novel into separate films, with Part 2 arriving in 2023) has finally produced an adaptation that both highlights the best aspects of the text while thriving as a distinct cinematic experience in its own right.
Villenueve’s last two films, Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), stood out as sophisticated and adult sci-fi cinema in which special effects and imagined landscapes were used to heighten, rather than obscure, human drama and emotion.
In the past decade, large-scale and expensive sci-fi filmmaking has been dominated by the loud computer-generated imagery spectacle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Disney Star Wars trilogy and Transformers. While more idiosyncratic stories have flourished in lower-budget films and on television, blockbuster cinema – even when enjoyable – has been characterised by imaginative conservatism and sterility.
The Marvel films are supposedly set in a contemporary world that replicates our own, except that fantastical aliens and superbeings regularly interact with humans. In reality, such events would profoundly shake social and political order, such as when inner-city Johannesburg is levelled in a fight between Iron Man and The Hulk in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). But these shocking events don’t seem to change anything.
In Avengers: Endgame (2019), for example, characters make glib popular culture quips and post selfies, even after an apocalyptic event where half of all life in the universe disappears. Consumer capitalism persists in the face of events that would radically alter history, and everyone goes back to shopping. But, as all who have experienced the shocks of the past two pandemic years can now attest, people and societies are forever altered by existential crises.
Darkest futures and deepest hopes
Villenueve, in contrast, is not afraid to use the social commentary of sci-fi to immerse us in futures that reflect the darkest elements and deepest hopes of today. Blade Runner 2049 (2017), for example, explores personal alienation in an environmentally wrecked corporate police state. Watching the scene of Ryan Gosling flying over a bleak, rainy urban canyon of unelectrified high-rises has a harsh resonance in a time of environmental disasters and infrastructure collapse.
Before Dune’s release, Villeneuve said of its environmental themes: “Future generations will judge us. I think it’s time to get angry right now – to push, to make changes. I still have hope, and I think it’s time to get into action. I don’t want to be moralistic, but I think it’s about survival. And that’s what this book is about: survival.”
The film begins with an inhuman voice intoning “Dreams are messages from the deep”, and it serves as its epigraph. Mixing cosmic beauty with murderous realpolitik,Dune is a psychedelic mirror that speaks directly to the question of what it means to be human in a harsh time.