“Dune,” Dreams and the Messianic Parable
By Aaron Lambert
Writer from Denver
These words are bellowed (albeit not in the English tongue) and thus open the new, highly anticipated film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel, “Dune.”
Considered one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time, “Dune” was a precursor to many of the popular science fiction films that have captured the hearts and minds of many today, including the beloved “Star Wars,” and it has been long overdue for an adaptation that does the story’s power and lasting effect justice. (Most have forgotten that David Lynch’s infamous 1984 version ever happened, and rightly so; while it has some redeeming qualities, it’s become more of a cult film than anything else.)
Thankfully, Denis Villeneuve, known for his work directing the more contemplative science fiction films “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049,” was up to the task, and it’s safe to say he has delivered what will come to be known as the definitive film adaptation of “Dune.” Directing this film was a personal endeavor for him; a devotee of “Dune” since the age of 14, he’s stated in many interviews that “Dune” has been a dream project for him for as long as he can remember. As such, there is passion and purpose in every shot, deep meaning in every performance, and though the film only covers roughly the first half of the original novel, it feels like a complete masterpiece of filmmaking – the kind of masterpiece that comes along rarely anymore.
All star cast & ethereal score
The film features an all-star cast comprised of Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Javier Bardem, Jason Momoa, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Zendaya, Stellan Skarsgard and many more, along with a stunning and ethereal score by renowned composer Hans Zimmer. “Dune” has been often described as unfilmable (the aforementioned David Lynch version was disavowed by the director himself), but Villeneuve has struck cinematic gold in his adaptation. By leaning into the more philosophical and spiritual aspects of the story and shooting the film on a scale befitting a big Hollywood production, “Dune” truly is an epic science fiction film of massive – and at times, even biblical –proportions.
At its core, “Dune” is a story about destiny, namely the destiny of Paul Atreides, sole heir to Duke Leto Atreides and son of Lady Jessica. The world of “Dune” is quite complex, host to many different factions and royal families that exist in a universe set 10,000 years into the future. Although it’s science fiction, the world of “Dune” more closely resembles medieval or even biblical times than the high-tech future that so much of science fiction is known for. Frank Herbert was deeply influenced by the intersection between religion and politics, and these elements are very much at the heart of “Dune.”
In the future depicted by “Dune,” the universe is governed by an intergalactic feudal system in which royal families are declared rulers and stewards of planets as their fiefs. The film begins as Paul and House Atreides are given the desert planet Arrakis by the emperor, forcing them to leave their water-rich home-world of Caladan. Arrakis is the most important planet in the known universe because it is home to the spice melange, a psychoactive chemical that grants enormous health benefits and allows humans to chart safe star paths for space travel. It is also one of the most dangerous planets on account of the sandworms: giant, hulking, slithering creatures that live deep in the desert and are seen as gods by the natives. In being given Arrakis to rule over, House Atreides is taking the planet from the control of House Harkonnen, their sworn enemies and a starkly brutal counterpart to the noble and loyal House Atreides. For 70 years, the Harkonnens have ruled Arrakis with an iron fist, oppressing the planet’s native people and generating immense wealth from the harvesting of the spice melange.
Dreams are central to the story
It is in the relationship between Paul and the native people of Arrakis, known as the Fremen, that the crux of the “Dune” narrative lies. In the film, Paul has a series of dreams and visions that hint at his future on the planet Arrakis and his greater purpose among the Fremen. Lady Jessica, Paul’s loving mother, plays a dual purpose in his destiny, as she also belongs to a religious order known as the Bene Gesserit – far future nuns, which Herbert based on the Jesuit order, as it were – who have been preparing the way for Paul as a prophesied messiah for the Fremen who will transform Arrakis from a harsh desert planet into a lush paradise.
Although Herbert was raised Catholic, he converted to Buddhism later in life and was taken by the Islamic religion and the Bedouin tribes in the Middle East. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that allusions to all three of these religions are very much present in the story of “Dune,” whether it be in some of the terminology used (“Lisan Al Gaib” or “Mahdi” as Fremen terms for “messiah”) or how when watching the film through a Catholic lens, the relationship between Paul and Lady Jessica bears striking similarities to Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The Gom Jabbar scene in particular evokes the scene from “The Passion of the Christ” when Mary watches helplessly as her son is viciously scourged; it is also when we first hear the famous “litany against fear” spoken by Jessica as her son suffers in the next room.
And then of course, there’s the more direct allusion to Christ in Paul and the Fremen, a people who could conceivably represent the Israelites in this story. Again, watching the film through a Catholic lens, the emphasis on dreams throughout the film – not only Paul’s dreams, but also the dreams of what a messiah arriving on Arrakis might look like – closely mirrors those of the Old Testament prophets whom God often spoke to in dreams, or even that of St. Joseph, whose dream from God compelled him to take Mary as his wife and flee with her and Jesus into the desert to protect the newborn child from King Herod. When Jessica and Paul flee into the desert in the latter half of the film, there are indeed echoes of St. Joseph and the Holy Family.
Ultimately, underneath the exciting spectacle of “Dune,” there is a deeper message about dreams and prophecy that remains present and mimics the underlying narrative of Christianity. Like the Fremen of Arrakis, Christians eagerly await the coming of the Messiah to transform this harsh world into a paradise. While we don’t require “stillsuits” to repurpose our body’s moisture to survive in the blazing heat of the desert, nor must we “walk without rhythm” to avoid attracting the Old Man of the Desert, the sandworm Shai Hulud, Christians face a spiritual desert not unlike the harsh terrain of Arrakis, filled with trials of their own that aren’t easily overcome. And indeed, like the Fremen, humanity desires a messiah to come and make a paradise out of this spiritual desert; the difference is that the true Messiah has already come. We only but need shake the sand from our feet and follow him.
Part of the reason that “Dune” has endured in popular culture since it was first published in 1965 is not simply because the story is so compelling. One could argue that the narrative’s close parallels with the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity and its use of the messianic parable as a key storytelling device tap into something innate in the human experience. The biblical narrative is often and rightly called “the greatest story ever told,” and indeed, the fact that “Dune” is so heavily influenced by this narrative speaks to both its timelessness and perpetual relevance to all different genres of film and literature, from fantasy to science fiction. In “Dune,” the loose utilization of this narrative, combined with masterful filmmaking, makes for a modern-day marvel of a film that shouldn’t be missed.