Science Fiction

Dune

Director Denis Villeneuve managed to turn a book about a feudal fight over a desert planet into a film enjoyable for both casual audiences and superfans alike.

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Frank Herbert's Dune is a hard novel to film and an easy one to misunderstand, as shown by the reaction to the 2021 movie version. Director Denis Villeneuve has been widely praised for turning a bizarre, lore-drenched book about a feudal fight over a desert planet filled with drug-spewing sandworms into a film enjoyable for both casual audiences and superfans of the book.

Genre storytelling often elicits political criticism. One common, misplaced ideological swipe is that the film peddles "white saviorism" by having the protagonists, the Atreides clan, rescue a backward desert tribe from foreign oppressors.

That critique doesn't hold water. With a subtle touch, the film shows that the Atreides—while more sympathetic than their duplicitous, physically monstrous Harkonnen rivals—are no unalloyed heroes. They too are aristocrats using force and manipulation to suck resources from the colony of Arrakis.

The visuals of the film help hit this message home. The foot soldiers' uniforms look distinctly fascist. The elder Leto Atreides refers to Arrakis as his "fief." His own morally compromised position comes through most clearly when he imparts some fatherly advice to his son Paul: "Here, on Caladan, we've ruled by air power and sea power. On Arrakis, we need to cultivate desert power." Rule through consent of the governed was never an option on either planet, a point missed by neither author nor filmmaker.