Dune: Blind faith is the mind-killer - Hindustan Times
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Dune: Blind faith is the mind-killer

Apr 23, 2024 09:13 PM IST

While Denis Villeneuve’s Dune flattens some arcs as it streamlines Frank Herbert’s dense tome into a five-hour spectacle, the director does give women characters Chani and Lady Jessica more dimensionality and agency

Some 45 years ago, Monty Python brought their rampaging absurdity to an unholy romp about an accidental messiah. Life of Brian was their second feature-length outing. Suitably, the targets were Big-Picture stuff: blind faith, bandwagonism and biblical epics. Born on the same day as Jesus in the stable next door, Brian of Nazareth is a hapless peasant who is mistaken for the messiah. Naturally, he does not wish to bear such a cross. When a crowd gathers outside his window to validate their belief, he reasons he is not the promised saviour they seek. “Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t need to follow me! You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!” Brian urges the crowd. “We are all individuals!” chants the crowd in unison. Words become doctrine on sheer utterance. The more Brian protests, the more he confirms their belief. “Only the true Messiah denies his divinity,” says a believer. “Well, what sort of chance does that give me?” Brian wonders before giving in, “All right, I am the Messiah!”

Sandworms in a scene from Dune: Part Two. (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
Sandworms in a scene from Dune: Part Two. (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

A scene from Monty Python, Life of Brian (Netflix)
A scene from Monty Python, Life of Brian (Netflix)

This odd turn of events mirrors a similar one-eighty in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) spends about two-thirds of the film protesting he isn’t the Lisan al Gaib (“The Voice from the Outer World”). Ultimately, he decides to embrace the mantle. Part One had set all the parameters for an epic interplay of messianic deliverance and cosmic realpolitik in a far-off feudal future. Central to all of which is spice melange: a substance essential for space travel and prescience awakening, found only in the desert planet of Arrakis. “Power over spice is power over all,” as the opening of Part Two states. Hence all the treachery, the subterfuge, the brinkmanship. Hence the need for saviours and prophecies. Being the exiled scion of an aristocratic dynasty, Paul is positioned as the good off-world colonizer prophesied to lead the native Fremen of Arrakis to victory against the bad off-world colonizers, and transform their desert planet into a green paradise. Prophecy slides into propaganda, faith into fanatacism, kinship into worship, all best embodied by the transformation of Fremen tribal chief Stilgar (Javier Bardem).

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In streamlining Frank Herbert’s dense tome into a five-hour spectacle, Villeneuve however ends up flattening some of its arcs. Book Stilgar is a wise leader and trusted advisor. Here, within a span of months, the character strays into caricature, an oversimplified send-up of zealotry. Behind Movie-Stilgar’s credulous eyes is an overenthusiasm to accept Paul as the chosen one. As an early believer and eventual hype man, he is eager to ascribe holy qualities to whatever Paul says or does, so much so it becomes a running gag of sorts. When Paul picks Muad’Dib (the tiny kangaroo mouse which survives on its own moisture) as his warrior name at the behest of the Fremen, Stilgar is quick to declare it as a “powerful” choice. When Paul tells the Fremen he wishes to learn, not lead, Stilgar chalks it up as a sign of his humility (As written!). Later, at a Fremen council where only tribal leaders are allowed a platform to speak, Stilgar beseeches Paul to take his life and speak as his successor. This descent from ally to devotee saddens Paul in the book: “In that instant, Paul saw how Stilgar had been transformed from the Fremen naib to a creature of the Lisan al-Gaib, a receptacle for awe and obedience. It was a lessening of the man, and Paul felt the ghost-wind of the jihad in it.”

“Herbert had conceived the saga as a wake-up call on the ‘messianic convulsions that periodically overtake us.’” (IndiaMart)
“Herbert had conceived the saga as a wake-up call on the ‘messianic convulsions that periodically overtake us.’” (IndiaMart)

Far more frightening than the gigantic sandworms in Dune is the frothing certainty of radicalised belief. Herbert had conceived the saga as a wake-up call on the “messianic convulsions that periodically overtake us.” Paul knows he is destined for something terrible. Visions of the future warn him of his role as the figurehead of a holy war, a catastrophe that will ravage the galaxy and result in the deaths of billions. He also knows the prophecy is a myth planted by a superpowered matriarchal order known as the Bene Gesserit — of which his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) is a member — to enslave the Fremen. Where Life of Brian is about a case of mistaken identity, here it is a case of manufactured identity. The legend of the saviour, foretold by destiny, is exposed as a lie spread by the colonizers. Chalamet uses his heartthrob allure to underpin the perils of putting too much faith in a charismatic leader.

Belief in the coming of an off-world messiah is largely unshakeable among the Fremen in Herbert’s 1965 novel. The film, on the other hand, allows room for moderates and sceptics. The natives of Arrakis aren’t a monolith who all share the same fervour and customs. It takes Paul’s arrival to reveal the fault lines. The Fremen are split into two factions by geography and ideology. Given the near-inhospitable conditions of the South, the people there have held onto their faith with a fundamentalist persistence. Given the off-world colonizers do all their spice-plundering in the North, the people there have faced enough death and destruction to be sceptical of outsiders. Foremost among the Northern sceptics is Paul’s warrior girlfriend Chani (Zendaya). Throughout Part Two, Chani tells it as it is, not as written: if there is a messiah, he won’t come from another world but from within their own ranks; believing otherwise and waiting to be saved are what keeps the Fremen enslaved. It is because Paul shares the same sentiment and resists the path set out for him that Chani falls for him in the first place.

Being a true believer of the prophecy, Book-Chani is not as outspoken. In fact, she is so devoted to Paul she stands firmly by his side even when he decides to marry Princess Irulan, the daughter of Emperor Shaddam IV, to legitimise his claim to the throne. What’s more she even helps broker the terms of the dowry. The book ends with Paul’s mother Lady Jessica reassuring Chani that although both may be Atreides concubines, history will remember them as wives. Movie-Chani, however, refuses to stand for such betrayal, no matter if the alliance is purely political. Once Paul affirms his commitment to his role as a messiah rather than a mensch, she walks away. She won’t be made to feel like a runner-up. Nor will she join Paul and the Fremen in their holy war. Villeneuve gives her more agency than Herbert did. If Paul’s ascent to power plays like wish fulfilment when seen through Stilgar’s worshipful eyes, it plays like a warning through Chani’s fretful eyes.

“Between Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dances with Wolves (1990) and Avatar (2009), we have seen enough variations of the story of an outsider who leads natives through a war for independence from colonizers.’ (Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox)
“Between Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dances with Wolves (1990) and Avatar (2009), we have seen enough variations of the story of an outsider who leads natives through a war for independence from colonizers.’ (Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox)

The good colonizer vs bad colonizer narrative of Dune gets a more definite critical shape, when both parts are watched back-to-back. Part One introduced all the pawns and players of Dune’s nine-level pyramid chess game. Not long after being given stewardship of Arrakis, the House of Atreides is reduced to ashes in a coup led by long-time rivals, the Harkonnens, at the behest of the Emperor (Christopher Walken). With Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) killed, his son Paul and concubine Lady Jessica find sanctuary among the Fremen. The first hour of Part Two finds the pair learning the ways of the Fremen under the guidance of Chani and Stilgar. Paul gains the trust of the tribe by joining the warriors in guerrilla raids of the Harkonnens’ spice harvesters and support aircraft. With each heroic feat, from riding the biggest sandworm to drinking poisonous blue liquids, his legend grows.

At its core, such a legend isn’t as foreign as its subject. Between Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dances with Wolves (1990) and Avatar (2009), we have all seen enough variations of the story of an outsider who leads natives through a war for independence from colonizers. The Dune films only make the novel’s subtext crystal clear: that the antidote to the poison of colonization isn’t a new form of it; that saviour myths can be a mirage, a lie sold to maintain the status quo of oppression; that religion can be used to subjugate just as easily as it can be used to inspire.

Religion irrigates the water-scarce planet of Arrakis to such an extent it takes control of the Fremen’s lives and dictates their traditions. But if the prophecy is fulfilled by Paul’s mere existence, how much control does he really have over his own life? Can Paul be considered an agent of his own destiny? Insofar as destiny is concerned, it is the universe shrinking the possible futures. Insofar as agency is concerned, it is the path chosen from those possible futures. Paul doesn’t embark on the chosen path out of his own choices. It is his noble heritage, the Atreides in his name, that opened the gates. It is generations of selective breeding that led to his birth. It is years of Bene Gesserit training, typically reserved for women, that made him a highly skilled fighter. It took centuries of pre-emptive seeding of myths to ensure his messianic coming goes unchallenged. It was his own mother who engineered his journey to become the Kwisatz Haderach against the wishes of her magical sisterhood.

Zendaya in a scene from Dune: Part Two. (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
Zendaya in a scene from Dune: Part Two. (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

As with Chani, the films give Lady Jessica more dimensionality. Part One kept her motives ambiguous. When the Reverend Mother administers the Gom Jabbar test (a mortal test of willpower while undergoing excruciating pain), the camera cuts from Paul’s face to Lady Jessica sharing her son’s pain and struggling to hold back her tears. Part Two sees her pulling strings quite nakedly, often conspiring with her in utero daughter. First, she drinks the Water of Life (the blue bile extracted from an infant sandworm) to become the Reverend Mother to the Fremen, thereby inheriting the memories of all her ancestors. Next, she uses her mind-controlling voice to rally the weakest among the Fremen to spread the gospel of Paul. Then, she encourages Paul to come to the South to rally the Fundamentalists to their cause. Paul refuses in fear of the suffering his visions foretell, if he does. The disorienting mix of visions, voices and the wails of Hans Zimmer’s pulsating score emphasises the doubts that plague him. But circumstances force him to make the trip. Soon as he drinks the Water of Life, he yields to his “terrible purpose”. In the novel, Paul drinks it without his mother’s knowledge and against her wishes. Here, he does so on her urging.

Each chapter in the novel is introduced with an epigraph from Princess Irulan. Excerpts from her future-tense writings about Paul’s ascent haunt the present-tense narrative like a shadow. More importantly, they telegraph the necessary exposition and context to bridge the historical distance. The films refrain from info dumps or any sort of spoon-feeding. The opening of Part One transfers the epigraphic duty to Chani, who wonders aloud, “Who will our next oppressors be?” The answer arrives in the very next cut to Paul waking up from a dream/vision. (For those misreading Dune as a ringing endorsement of white saviour narratives, Villeneuve practically spells out our protagonist’s soon-to-come villainous volte-face, well before he drinks the Water of Life.) Part Two begins with a voiceover from Florence Pugh’s Irulan, who briefly recaps the developments of the first film, based only on what she has been told. Meaning she is narrating a diary entry in the present, not recording history after the fact.

Sting in David Lynch’s 1984 version of Dune (Dune/David Lynch)
Sting in David Lynch’s 1984 version of Dune (Dune/David Lynch)

The opening epigraph and inner monologues from the book were more faithfully rendered as voiceovers in David Lynch’s 1984 version (which he later came to disown). But the device gave a stilted cadence to the film, only compounding its erratic pacing and muddled drama. Villeneuve fares much better in terms of condensing the novel into a pageant worthy of the big screen. What takes years in the novel happens in a matter of months in the films. Bearing in mind Jessica’s pregnancy, a lot less than nine months pass in Part Two. Compressing the timeline however leads to some glaring omissions: Jessica’s daughter Alia appears as a chatty foetus instead of a Water of Life-drunk toddler “preborn” with the memories of her ancestors; Paul and Chani don’t have a son who gets killed in a Harkonnen raid; there is no screentime for how Mentats do their computing or how Navigators use Spice to safely make faster-than-light journeys; also gone are spice orgies and dinner parties. With years becoming months, all it takes is a heroic feat or a rousing speech to bring sceptics over to the side of the believers.

It goes without saying the screenplay by Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts makes some radical changes to the book. But it is worth remembering the book itself was a major departure from a lot of the hard science fiction from the 1950s and 1960s. While the likes of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke rigorously extrapolated future technologies, Herbert mapped out a universe without computers even. Long before the events of Dune, humanity had destroyed all thinking machines in a crusade known as “the Butlerian Jihad.” The god of machine-logic was overthrown. A new commandment was set in stone — “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind” — so mankind may never again become slaves to technology. In its place, the creation of the Mentat order (who replaced the computers), the Bene Gesserit (who revolutionised spiritual engineering) and the Spacing Guild (who made space travel possible) allowed mankind to drive their own progress. By de-emphasising the role of technology, the films too direct our attention to the role of religion: how it has influenced future cultures, and how people interact with it and each other because of it.

To write Dune, Herbert drew inspiration from the tangled web of Middle Eastern oil politics. The world of Arrakis he sketches is overtly Islamic. For Fremen names and language, he pulled mostly from Arabic and gave them his own translations. The Fremen quote from the Kitab al-Ibar (“The Book of Lessons”), speak of ijaz (“prophecy”), and refer to sandworms as shai-hulud (“thing of eternity”). Paul is hailed as Mahdi (“The One Who Will Lead Us to Paradise”). The films water down the Arab-ness a bit. “Jihad” is Christianised as “crusade” and “holy war” as if the latter two don’t have extremist connotations. “Ya hya chouhada”, a phrase Herbert borrowed directly from the Algerian war of Independence, is substituted with an indecipherable Fremen variant, subtitled as “Long live the fighters.” Such dilutions only end up undercutting its critique of western imperialism as a civilizing force.

The ruffling seam of imperialism is weaved into the film’s visual design. 2024 AD or 10191 AG, colonizers have to still keep up appearances. At the beginning of Part Two, Lady Jessica’s wardrobe is a modest one. As her influence grows among the Fremen, so does cultural appropriation. With more power comes more elaborate dresses, more veils and more headpieces. Bene Gesserit agent Lady Margot Fenring (Léa Seydoux) wears a deep blue velvet habit. With war on the horizon, Princess Irulan accessorises with chainmail and beads. The vampiric Harkonnens are suckers for gothic chic with their black leather and spandex. Meanwhile, Chani and the Fremen stick to functional wear like stillsuits, preferring practicality over pageantry.

Austin Butler as Feyd-Rautha cuts a menacing figure. (Courtesy Warner Bros)
Austin Butler as Feyd-Rautha cuts a menacing figure. (Courtesy Warner Bros)

Villeneuve’s visual conception of the geography and architecture of each planet tells us all there is to know about the noble house in charge and where they are headed. Paul’s oceanic home planet of Caladan experiences endless rain and hosts a complex underwater ecosystem. Sculptures, paintings and trophies of bullfighting in the noble house of Atreides symbolise his grandfather’s legacy as a matador. As a motif, it also foreshadows the fate of Duke Leto (whose sense of duty to the Emperor leaves him blind to betrayal) and Paul (who chases red in his warpath of vengeance). The use of bagpipes as a ceremonial instrument to announce the arrival of House Atreides creates a funereal tone, signalling a slow march towards death. Geidi Prime, the homeworld of House Harkonnen, is described in the book as a “median-viable planet with a low active-photosynthesis range.” Here, it looks like a circle of hell Dante forgot to map. An infra-red camera depicts the planet with a black sun so blindingly harsh all colours are drained. Baldness has become the go-to fashion choice among its deathly pale inhabitants. Their ruthless leader Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård) appears less like a mirror image of Duke Leto, more like a monstrous robber-baron who smokes space hookah, takes oil baths, and hovers over everyone as he barks orders. His nephew Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler) cuts an even more menacing figure, with his cat-like eyes, his pouty lips and his bulbous head.

The contrast between the worlds becomes much starker once in Arrakis. If water is everywhere in Caladan, it is so scarce in Arrakis that its natives wear suits that recycle their bodily fluids into drinkable water. If the Harkonnens wish to impose their hegemony on the world, the Fremen wish to live in harmony with nature. Generations of living in a hostile landscape has taught them to ditto the ways of their fellow living beings. Their stillsuit, for instance, is modeled on the survival mechanism of the kangaroo-mouse which stays hydrated on its own sweat.

Ornithopters flutter like dragonflies. The Harkonnens’ spice harvesters crawl like hulking bugs. Spaceships float like colossal orbs in the air. Paul hooks onto a sandworm and rides it like Moses crossing the Red Sea. The Fremen hitch rides on the creatures like they were Uber XL. Fireworks in a black sun-lit world explode like Rorschach ink blots in the sky. The unfamiliar is made familiar, and the familiar is made unfamiliar. Each image exhibits a certain monumentality, even if some are more unwelcoming than others. The future is presented as fact so tactile and arresting it often feels like we are being shown a documentary travelogue from another world, from another time. Villeneuve’s eye for detail gives the images in the film the same mythological density as Herbert’s words do in the book.

Director Denis Villeneuve attends the premiere of the film "Dune: Part Two" in New York City, U.S. February 25, 2024. (Andrew Kelly/REUTERS)
Director Denis Villeneuve attends the premiere of the film "Dune: Part Two" in New York City, U.S. February 25, 2024. (Andrew Kelly/REUTERS)

Despite having to pack in so much story, the films are forbearing. The build-up is methodical. The action doesn’t bludgeon the viewer into submission with relentless digital bedlam; it is parcelled out in measured portions of shock and awe. Native familiarity of the Arrakis lands proves to be a tactical advantage against the outsiders’ superior firepower and numbers. The Fremen often ambush their enemies by hiding beneath the sand, using snorkels to breathe, waiting for the right moment to strike. In shepherding a story centred on an oil analogue with acid-like effects from page to screen, Villeneuve succeeds in exposing the lies told and conspiracies hatched for control over a precious resource, but he fails to replicate the hallucinogenic quality of the source text. This failure is what prevents the spectacle from becoming a more transcendent experience.

When the book came out, a lot of the readers, perhaps high on Spice or drunk on Water of Life, misinterpreted the ending as a happy one. Because Paul had avenged his father’s death. Because he had “liberated” the Fremen from the evil grasp of the Empire. Because he was now the Emperor. Herbert wrote the follow-up, Dune: Messiah, partly to set the record straight that Paul was not the hero, not the Fremen liberator, not the Chosen One — but just the latest one. The shock on Chani’s face serves the same purpose in Part Two. The anger and sorrow in her eyes seem to paraphrase what Herbert said in a 1985 speech, that messiahs indeed should come with a warning label: “May turn into tyrants when exposed to even a little bit of power.” Once Paul gets high on his own supply, he stops resisting the pull of destiny. When the noble houses refuse to acknowledge him as the new Emperor, he orders the radicalised Fremen to “send them to paradise.” Sending dissidents to “paradise” is much easier than diplomacy after all. If the holy war will result in the deaths of billions, then so be it. Power corrupts, and desert power all the more so. While the rest of the Fremen celebrate the birth of the Kwisatz Haderach, Chani mourns the death of the Paul she fell in love with. Book-Chani may have gotten on board. Not Movie-Chani. She won’t get swept away so easily. She turns her back on Paul, hails a sandworm, and rides into the sunset.

Prahlad Srihari is a film and pop culture writer. He lives in Bangalore.

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