Dune and the Future of the Science Fiction Epic

Nov 10, 2021

Article ID: JAR1121CB | By: Cole Burgett

A Film Review of

DUNE

Screenplay by  Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, and Eric Roth

Based on the novel Dune written by  Frank Herbert 

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

(PG-13, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2021)

**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Dune.**


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Dune. For science fiction readers, the very mention of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel evokes a flurry of emotions. Some love it, some hate it. Some consider it the best science fiction novel ever written, others consider it the genre’s antithesis. Regardless, no history of science fiction worth its salt can go without at least mentioning the book, and the indelible influence it’s had on numerous genre classics that followed it, from Star Wars (1977) to Pitch Black (2000).

Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 film adaptation of Herbert’s novel plants its flag firmly in the ground of the epic science fiction genre. This is not the operatic adventure of Star Wars, though Luke Skywalker and Paul Atreides slot neatly into the same mythological archetype. Nor is this the hard science, technological funhouse that is the Star Trek series, though the science is much harder and the fiction more grounded here than in most other science fiction films. If anything, Villeneuve’s Dune is much closer to Ronald D. Moore’s brilliant reimagining of the television series Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009) in terms of tone and accessibility. The result is an adaptation that sacrifices Herbert’s nuance and intricacies in order to remain faithful to the original novel in terms of size and scope and — most importantly — to the character arc of main character Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet).

Redefining the Science Fiction Epic. Like most things sacred and interesting, the term “epic” has been seized by the popular imagination and distorted into something that barely resembles its original connotation. For example, a play in sports might be called epic for its daringness, or a person’s actions might be described as epic in terms of sheer bravura. These aren’t necessarily wrongheaded ways to approach language, but there’s a history to be understood as well that lends modern culture its present understanding.

In classical literature, an epic is a poetic genre. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are two of the genre’s best-known works, sweeping narratives of grand adventure featuring the exploits of heroic figures. The genre is frequently used in the forming and codifying of mythopoeia, or mythmaking. In the age of film, the cinematic epic generally refers to a large budget film with massive scope and scale, which the American Film Institute limits to a strictly historical context, such as William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) or James Cameron’s Titanic (1997).1 Still, other critics are wont to extend the confines of the genre to encapsulate certain science fiction films, such as the Star Wars series (1977–2019), and Cameron’s Avatar (2009).2

As a filmmaker, Denis Villeneuve is right at home when channeling the cinematic epic style of moviemaking. His earlier films Arrival (2016),3 Blade Runner 2049 (2017),4 and — my personal favorite — Sicario (2015) turn breathtaking vistas and wide shots into landscapes meant for excavating the human soul. The barren deserts of Sicario are as desolate and empty as Matt Graver’s moral ambit, just as the rain-slicked neon streets in Blade Runner are as gloomy and moody as K’s existential crisis. In Dune, the landscape becomes less of a metaphor and more of a character unto itself, getting as much screen time, if not more, than any of the central characters.

In terms of scope, Dune is larger than most modern blockbusters, which at first seems to clash with the humdrum, by-the-numbers story. This, of course, is intentional, as the familiar narrative sends Paul Atreides trekking across the unforgiving sands of Arrakis (Dune) on a literal hero’s journey.

The scale of the film expands the minimalistic storytelling, as if to say, “Yes, you’ve seen this story before. But you’ve never quite seen it told on a scale like this.” Perhaps the most daring storytelling decision here — one that I genuinely admire — is the choice to leave everything incomplete. It could easily have been that Dune released to lukewarm reception and low box office numbers, throwing water on plans for a sequel. Still, Villeneuve and company choose to roll the credits just as Paul’s journey truly begins. This is not at all the usual modus operandi for epic science fiction, which, though known for its trilogies, sees each film as relatively self-contained. Take, for example, Luke Skywalker, who has a very distinct arc in all three of the original Star Wars films. Taken together, his arc is complete, but each film works on its own. Dune does not work on its own — nor is it meant to. If this were all to the story, then audiences would certainly have every right to walk away feeling cheated, robbed of any sort of closure. Dune asks its viewers to be patient, to trust the filmmakers and the writers, to commit to the long haul. It promises to be more than the sum of this, the first of its individual parts — a bold move, to be sure. But perhaps this is the kind of long-term vision the science fiction epic needs to reinvigorate a genre that has struggled since the 1970s to produce more than the occasional one-off film like Interstellar (2014).

Skirting Controversy. As mentioned, the film’s source material is no stranger to controversy. Herbert’s novel flaunted a reckless disregard for traditional Western sci-fi devices while embracing the most primal storytelling beats. The book was long believed to be unfilmable after Alejandro Jodorowsky failed to get an adaptation off the ground due to a swelling budget in the 1970s, and David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation failed to find an audience with either critics or filmgoers. Villeneuve, it would seem, has succeeded where others failed.

In Herbert’s own words, Dune was always meant to split audiences right to the bone by upending traditional storytelling conventions:

It began with a concept: to do a long novel about the messianic convulsions which periodically inflict themselves on human societies. I had this theory that superheroes were disastrous for humans, that even if you postulated an infallible hero, the things this hero set in motion fell into the hands of fallible mortals. What better way to destroy a civilization, society, or a race than to set people into the wild oscillations which follow their turning over their judgment and decision-making faculties to a superhero?5

The ideas Herbert plays with throughout the Dune series are obviously provocative. Steeping his deconstruction of messianic storytelling tropes in a world with Arabic and Islamic influences — especially in the mid-1960s — all but guaranteed a mixed reception. But, as has been proven true time and again, controversy sells and, over time, Dune sold.

In taking up the adaptation of the property, Villeneuve was keenly aware of the kind of controversy Dune would spark. In the months before the film ever released, he made his intentions clear when pressed about the story’s “white savior” overtones. “It’s a critique of that. It’s not a celebration of a savior. It’s a criticism of the idea of a savior, of someone that will come and tell another population how to be, what to believe. It’s not a condemnation, but a criticism.”6 Current cultural trends, of course, have reframed the controversy around the concept of a “white” savior. The irony here is that such a reduction has rendered Herbert’s truly subversive approach something that is literally only skin deep.

Herbert was not interested in merely critiquing the “white” savior motif. He was interested in critiquing the notion of a savior, period. Herbert’s biographer, Timothy O’Reilly, demonstrates how Herbert looked at both Judaism and Islam as inspirations for the story’s persecuted and desert-wandering Fremen. In his research, Herbert concluded, interestingly, that Islam is perhaps the most messianic of religions, a system of belief that builds itself upon a foundation that requires an ongoing cycle of messianic figures who rise and revolt, with its continual Mahdist movements throughout the centuries. The “white” savior element comes in with T. E. Lawrence, who became legendarily embroiled in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the early-1900s.7

With this in mind, perhaps the success of Villeneuve’s adaptation, where so many others have failed, tells us more about the cultural interests of audiences in 2021 than anything else. How ironic that the same culture obsessed with the Avengers approves of Dune, the story that looks more cynically than any other upon everything the notion of a superhero represents. Some might suggest that this represents our current fixation on pluralism; I tend to think it shows that we are some of the most confused people in history. We don’t know what to do with babies, sex organs, or even the kinds of stories we want to have told to us.

The Christian and Frank Herbert. There are books upon books to be written from a Christian perspective interacting with the ideas central to Dune. How should a Christian respond to Frank Herbert’s criticisms of savior narratives? I dare not speak for every Christian, only as one myself. For my money, we should approach Dune unsentimentally and with clear-eyed sanguinity. Christianity is most definitely a messianic religion, but in the two thousand years since Christ, his followers have made more than their fair share of mistakes — Herbert was right in this regard. When the savior’s work is taken up by mortals, things go awry.

Yet the “work” rests not only upon the shoulders of the redeemed, and this is, perhaps, the most important distinction. The Holy Spirit plays an active, present role in the world today, for those who maintain traditional, orthodox Trinitarianism. Those of the Reformed camp will probably have more serious reservations with Herbert’s assertions, while dispensationalists likely see a bit more value, even merit, in Herbert’s critique. Regardless of where one falls on the theological spectrum, one thing is clear: we live for that second messianic appearing, the one in which all things are set aright.

Can Christians benefit from reading Frank Herbert? We are not the only ones. O’Reilly writes, “In Herbert’s terms, religion and its attendant, hero worship, are human adaptations to uncertainty….In Dune, Herbert used heroic myth elements from the Western tradition in an effort to awaken in his readers a sensitivity to the needs that prompt a messianic religion.”8 From this angle, Dune looks less like a critique of the New Testament’s Jesus and more like an Old Testament messianic expectation. We witness Paul Atreides’s rise and fall much in the same way we read about Samson’s, or David’s. We watch the people flail about in the aftermath, disappointed, clinging to nothing but a slim hope that maybe, one day, a savior unlike the ones that came before will arise. We fear that no one will come, that humanity is left with needs fulfilled only in myths, fables, and fictions. The New Testament comes along to address those concerns, and C. S. Lewis framed them for modern audiences — “myth became fact.”9 

Herbert would likely contend that we should get comfortable here, enlighten ourselves, and accept that savior narratives point to the flaws of saviors themselves.

Well, Frank, on this we’ll have to agree to disagree. —Cole Burgett

Cole Burgett is a recent seminary graduate. He is also a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, and an author for the website Christ and Pop Culture.

 

NOTES

  1. Nickolas Haydock, Hollywood in the Holy Land: Essays on Film Depictions of the Crusades and the Christian-Muslim Clashes (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2009), 153.
  2. Constantine Santas, Responding to Film: A Text Guide for Students of Cinema Art (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 32.
  3. John McAteer, “Reading a Sci-fi, Pro-life Theodicy in Arrival,” Christian Research Institute, December 1, 2016, https://www.equip.org/article/reading-sci-fi-pro-life-theodicy-arrival/.
  4. John McAteer, “Finitude and Freedom in Blade Runner 2049, Christian Research Institute, October 13, 2017, https://www.equip.org/article/finitude-freedom-blade-runner-2049/.
  5. Frank Herbert, Dune: The Banquet Scene Read by the Author Frank Herbert, dir. by Ward Botsford (Caedmon, 1977), audio recording.
  6. Denis Villeneuve, quoted in Eric Eisenberg, “Dune: Denis Villeneuve Responds to Criticisms that the Sci-Fi Epic is a White Savior Story,” Cinemablend, September 6, 2021, https://www.cinemablend.com/news/2573106/dune-denis-villeneuve-responds-criticisms-sci-fi-epic-white-savior-story.
  7. Timothy O’Reilly, “Chapter Three: From Concept to Fable,” in Frank Herbert (New York: Frederick Ungar Pub. Co., 1981), O’Reilly,  https://www.oreilly.com/tim/herbert/ch03.html.
  8. Timothy O’Reilly, “Chapter Five: Rogue Gods,” in Frank Herbert (New York: Frederick Ungar Pub. Co., 1981), O’Reilly, https://www.oreilly.com/tim/herbert/ch05.html.
  9. C. S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact,” in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014, 1970), 54–60.
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