Everything you love from pop culture, including #StarWars, has been greately influenced by Frank Herbert’s Dune saga. Continued by his son, Brian Herbert, and his co-author, Kevin J Anderson, the Dune universe spans many eons and storylines that all mash up together to give a complex storyline that at the center of it, remains timeless. It is the struggle to free the mind, the ties that binds us across time and space to family, culture and the sense of finding ourselves in an ever changing landscape.
When you read the saga, especially the original saga started by Frank Herbert, you don’t feel like you are reading a space opera but rather a historical tale. Something that has been persevered thanks to the voice of history and the cruel efforts of one family against the sands of time. Frank Herbert, inspired by Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION saga (of which an adaptation has also been made, albeit it is as a series for the streaming platform Apple +), understood the importance of ancestral memory or rather history. If we are to move forward, we have to take into account the past. But more than that, we have to be careful how we choose to remember and who we choose to follow.
*SPOILERS* (Thou Have been Warned!)
The film comprises only the first half of the first book. As such, we don’t get to see Paul fighting Feyd or meeting Princess Irulan to force her into marriage to solidify his future bloody imperial reign. Paul does come to be self-aware near the end of this film, but he’s also terrified by what he knows he must do in order to save humanity from extinction and into the golden path. In the books, we get a better sense into his psyche. This being a visual medium, the director did a good job highlighting this via the acting of Timothee Chalamet and his visions.
I was worried that the film would not be opening like the eponymous book with Irulan’s narration; yet, this slight distortion ended up working to better get a sense of where the Fremen are coming from and what lays ahead for Paul. Chani’s role is a big one in future books and determines his cowardice and cruelty to their future children and his neglected wife, Princess Irulan (the daughter of the Padisah Emperor Shaddam IV he will end up deposing and exiling). Though the latter aforementioned characters are not seen here, they are referenced in subtle ways which leaves the door open for a better understanding of when they are finally introduced in part 2.
That aside, the film is a visual spectacle. It is a masterpiece.Though there are not ETs here, everything feels alien. Humanity has moved beyond the confines of our solar system. The imperium is similar to other empires in our history, but it also feels like something completely different. Despite the other similarities between feudalism and the way the Houses are structred, this is not a space feudalism. It is something else. And this feeling is exactly what one feels when reading the books. It feels familiar but also something completely detached from our reality. We are meant to be part of the ride, but not meant to be fully integrated into this new universe of evolutionary wonders and horrors. Humanity has moved past A.I. In its stead, they have splintered into different factions, all under the rule of the Imperium. Some humans seem no different than their ancestors on earth from more than ten thousand years ago, but others might as well be classified as alien because they have modified themselves to such an extent that they are almost a separate species. At the center of it all, is the one substance that powers the entire universe: the spice melange. Found in only one planet in the known universe: Arrakis (also known as Dune), everyone fights for control of this precious substance. He who controls the spice controls the universe.Beyond extending life, persevering youth, opening consciousness and allowing other super-human abilities, the spice has helped humanity stay away from the temptation of falling prey to technological curiosity and dependence. But there are one group of humans who have claimed the desert of Arrakis as their own despite not being native to the planet. These are called the Fremen. Originally, they formed part of the humans who fought the machines in the last machine war or Butlerian Jihad. They settled on Arrakis and called themselves the Free Men. Through time, they formed an enclave which grew until becoming the Fremen we see in the film. Their religion is a mixture of Zen Buddhism and Islam, with tinges of the ever more complicated mixture of Abrahamic religions and other religious philosophies found in the OCB (the Orange Catholic Bible, which has become the new official bible by the ruling houses). Though this is not explicitly mentioned in the movie, enough hints are dropped here for viewers to know and find out more about the underlying religious and philosophical currents in this universe. What these rebels don’t know though is that the prophecy of their messiah is nothing more than religious engineering by the powerful sisterhood known as the Bene Gesserit. Insidious and extremely dangerous, this religious organization does what it can for power. Although they want to save humanity from future extinction, at the end of the day, they want power and believe that the super human messiah they have long been awaiting for will be theirs to control. But as what happens with every human calculation: something goes wrong.This is where Paul Atreides comes in.
He’s the Dune Messiah, the Kwisatz Haderach, the prophesized savior of the Fremen, the Muad’Dib, and future savior of humanity. He is also part of a carefully engineered genetic planning by the Bene Gesserit. His mother, a Bene Gesserit herself, has worked in tandem with the Sisterhood to orchestrate this. However, the calculations were disrupted by Lady Jessica (Paul’s mother) decision to fall in love with the Duke Leto of House Atreides and give him a son rather than a daughter. The Bene Gesserit in their infinite wisdom and conniving nature, have been in charge of mixing bloodlines for thousands of years until their end result. To achieve their ultimate power, the last move on the chessboard would depend on the daughter Lady Jessica would give Duke Leto. This daughter would be given in marriage to a Harkonnen (the Atreides’ main enemy) heir and the result be a Kwisatz Haderach which, with the support of both Houses, overthrow the Padisha Empire, declare himself Emperor and thorugh him, the Bene Gesserit would rule and bring forth the Golden Path. But Lady Jessica chose love over duty. It is this simple choice which upset their plans, but also set in motion a crueler fate in order to achieve this “Golden Path”. Paul comes to find this out near the end of the movie and resents his mother for this. Yet, he realizes that he has no other option but to do what was meant of the Kwisatz Haderach in order to save himself and his loved ones. The Dune Movie does a good job in showing all of this. Hopefully this will lead people to become more interested in this world and the historical and philosophical influences which inspired Frank Herbert to write his space opera. This, along with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, is the original Star Wars. But while in Star Wars, the alien worlds and species still feel human, here, set tens of thousands of years into the future, the world feels more alien. It is more grounded in scifi, while still being relatable because of the timeless conflicts that have plagued mankind since its creation.
When Paul “awakens”, it is not only he who does but the rest of us as well.
If I were to have a concern it’d be that Irulan’s role is minimized in future adaptations. She is an extremely important part in the saga. The old saying that the “pen is mightier than the sword” is demonstrated through her. While it’s through the fanatical hordes of Fremen’s crysknives and their religious fervor which places the galaxy into submission, as well as the near-omniscience of the God Emperor Leto II (Paul’s son) that the Known Universe is pushed towards the Golden Path, none of this could have been possible without the eloquence and intellectual curiosity of Princess Irulan. Princess Irulan is everything we dream in a historian. Despite being uncomfortable in her own skin, being mistreated by Paul and suspected by the rest, she quickly redeems herself by taking on the task of raising her twin stepchildren and preserving knowledge for future generations. If the next sequels are to continue being masterpieces and represent the importance of history, they need to expand on Irulan’s role as they have already pledged they will do on Paul’s love interest, Chani. The second novel (DUNE MESSIAH) does a good job expanding her role. The director has stated that he plans to add more dimension to her character other than being a love interest of Paul. This was good to hear. However, I hope this doesn’t fall into the common old Victorian trope of elevating one female character at the expense of the other. This would be detrimental and contrary to the intention of what the director’s claims and what Herbert intended in the first place.
With this being said, I hope things go well and we get to see more of the marvelous worlds that the known universe in Dune has yet to offer us in future sequels, and does justice to all the characters. If that is so, then let the spice flow!