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Monday, June 10, 2024

Audiences love Paul Atreides, but do they understand him?

Why do viewers seem to miss what “Dune” is really about?


By JOAQUIN WATERS — jwat@ucdavis.edu


“Dune: Part Two” is only a month old, yet it may already be the movie of the year. The film has taken the entertainment industry by storm, leading many to declare the sci-fi franchise the next “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars.” 

That comparison is appropriate in many ways. Like those other series, “Dune” is a visually groundbreaking epic with a huge pop culture footprint. But such a comparison has also led to mass misreadings of the latest film and its messages. 

Search “Dune” on social media, and you will be bombarded by arguments about what both the film and the classic novel it is based on are really trying to say: is it a cliched white savior narrative or a biting critique of imperialism? Is it a morality tale about how a good person turns evil in the vein of “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith” or an environmental stranger-in-a-strange-land tale in the vein of James Cameron’s “Avatar?” Is it fascist? Is it “woke?” Well, the truth is a bit more complicated than that. Allow me to explain. (It goes without saying that spoilers follow for both the films and the novels.)

“Dune” follows Paul Atreides, the young scion of an intergalactic Duke. After his family is murdered in a political plot, he becomes an outlaw and rises to become the messianic ruler of the desert planet Arrakis — and, since Arrakis is home to an all-important substance called “the spice” (think of it like a cross between marijuana and oil), the entire human race. Paul’s development is the fulcrum of the sprawling tale, and it has widely proven difficult to penetrate. Critics of the story point to Paul as a textbook example of the white savior trope: an imperialist colonizer who comes to a foreign land, ingratiates himself among the people (in “Dune,” this is the native “Fremen”) and leads them out of their perceived savagery into a brighter future. I have seen reviews of “Dune: Part Two” state that rather than Timothee Chalamet, the filmmakers should have cast an actor of color in the role to curb these perceived problematic undertones. But this is an immensely shallow reading of the story that goes no further than skin-deep.

Paul, like Neo of “The Matrix” or Harry Potter of, well, “Harry Potter,” is an archetypal chosen one. The Fremen have prophecies foretelling a great leader who will lead them to paradise, and Paul fits the mold. But unlike those previous examples, “Dune” makes it clear that this prophecy is not genuine but planted among the Fremen as a means of control. Paul foresees that should he take on the role of the savior, the Fremen will become religiously enslaved to him and genocide will follow. As a fundamentally good person, Paul resists this future for much of the narrative in favor of living a simple life among the Fremen. But ultimately, his desire for revenge against those who killed his family, along with the imperialist values he grew up with, surpass his love of the Fremen, and he gives in to the supposed “prophecy.”

There is a line in the novel that the recent films removed in which a character ominously warns a Fremen leader, “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.” I have seen viewers of the film state that they do not understand why Paul’s ascendancy is a bad thing; after all, he kills the villains who have suppressed the Fremen for decades. But this is also a misreading: Paul may have “liberated” the Fremen from their current condition, but he has also enslaved them to his own cult. He does not break the corrupt system, he merely restructures it so that he sits at the top. His victory against the evil emperor rings hollow because of what follows on its coattails: in the sequel novel “Dune Messiah” (which will allegedly form the spine of the upcoming third film), it is revealed that the holy war started in Paul’s name resulted in the deaths of billions of people. 

On this note, I have also noticed yet another misreading permeating the online discourse —  that Paul’s descent into fascism is comparable to that of another famous sci-fi character, Anakin Skywalker of the “Star Wars” prequels. Once again, on a surface level, that comparison is understandable; both are morally compromised savior figures with long hair and swirly dark cloaks. But “Revenge of the Sith” (the film that depicts the heroic Anakin’s transformation into the villainous Darth Vader) depicts Anakin’s fall as being caused by dark forces pulling him away from his destiny. He becomes the villain by failing to live up to his prophecies. With Paul, it is quite the opposite; he becomes the villain precisely because he does fulfill his supposed destiny. He remains the hero of the story — but a hero can be a terrible thing.

The discourse around “Dune” was inevitable. Filmgoers (especially of the sci-fi/fantasy genre) have been conditioned to expect a certain kind of story where good triumphs over evil, and a hero goes through a journey of self-discovery. “Dune” hits all of the familiar beats, yet viewers seem not to know what to do with his obviously wrong actions. Hence the debate: is the film endorsing Paul or condemning him? Is it about a hero who loses the way or a villain who finds it? But the truth is that it’s a far more complicated story than that, one that is not interested in questions of good and evil so much as freedom and control and the ways in which one blends into the other. Paul Atreides is a liberator and a tyrant, a colonizer and a refugee, an impassioned freedom fighter and an imperialist politician. These things may seem contradictory but often they are not: just look at real-world figures like T.E. Lawrence, Fidel Castro or Vladimir Lenin. So to understand “Dune,” do not try to pin down its politics. Let the unsettling ambiguity wash over you, and you will understand why it is so important.


Written by: Joaquin Waters — jwat@ucdavis.edu


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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