For science fiction readers, the very mention of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune 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. 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 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), a messiah like figure who is the heir of the House Atreides, an aristocratic family that rules the ocean planet Caladan. The House of Atreides is sent by the Emperor to replace the House of Harkonnen and rule the desert planet Arrakis (Dune) where its people are subjugated and its valuable resource of the life-extending spice is mined.
The ideas Herbert plays with throughout the Dune series are obviously provocative. Villeneuve was keenly aware of the kind of controversy Dune would spark. In the months before the film was released, he made his intentions clear when pressed about the story’s “white savior” overtones. Herbert was not interested in merely critiquing the “white” savior motif. He was interested in critiquing the notion of a savior, period. 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? 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. 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. Herbert would likely contend that we should get comfortable here, enlighten ourselves, and accept that savior narratives point to the flaws of saviors themselves.
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