New ‘Dune’ movie gives us a messiah for uncertain times

(RNS) – Part of the excitement over the new movie “Dune,” which debuted in theaters and on HBO Max last week, is that legions of fans of Frank’s mystical sci-fi novel Herbert from 1965 were waiting for someone to get the screen version on the right.

Infamously difficult to adapt due to its complex history, the book saw two attempts at cinematic adaptations: a 1984 film that even its director, David Lynch, called goofy, slow, and illogical, and a fantastic earlier vision of ‘a Chilean. -French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who promised a 14-hour reimagining with Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles and Mick Jagger with a score by Pink Floyd. Jodorowsky’s refusal to compromise meant the project was abandoned.

If there’s one thing to be said about Jodorowsky and Lynch, it’s that their plans were incredibly spiritual, a prerequisite for a book that invents a blend of Mahayana Christianity, Zensunni Catholicism, and Budislamic religions, all captured in a scriptural salad known as Catholic Orange. Bible.

While Jodorowsky’s soul largely came from his artistic representations, Lynch centered his film on the protagonist Paul Atreides as “the chosen one”, the messiah called “Kwisatz Haderach”, able to join space and the weather. It is intended to lead them into a “jihad” against other hostile groups who control precious spices on the planet.


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Growing fans’ hopes with the sheer scale of its production and all-star cast, which includes Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya (Lynch’s version starred Kyle MacLachlan, in his debut, and Sean Young as Chani) , “Dune” by director Denis Villeneuve succeeds as both an adaptation and an excellent science fiction film. The elements of politics and economic warfare seem both timely and timeless. Every character, landscape and circumstance carries a dark weight reflecting the severity of our time.

Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides, from left to right, Zendaya as Chani, Javier Bardem as Stilgar and Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in “Dune”. Photo by Chiabella James / © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

“The book has become more relevant over time,” Villeneuve recently told Esquire. “There are several topics… like environmental themes, the mix of politics and religion, the danger of messianic figures, which have become more relevant, and this is one of the reasons why it made sense to do a short story. adaptation. ”

If Villeneuve’s state of mind is political and societal, and if he rationalizes Herbert’s tradition in the name of good storytelling, spiritual themes, far from lacking, benefit from his look at modern faith. Perhaps the most notable effect is that Villeneuve wonders if Paul’s role as messiah is actually a good thing. The movie “Dune” is not so sure.

It’s an accurate reading of the distrust of any leadership that the public nurtures today. Yes, the messiah is religious, but he carries more uncomfortable political weight, especially given QAnon’s cult obsession with a leader (who some believed to be Donald Trump) who is both a societal and spiritual hero.

"Dune" movie poster.  Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Poster of the movie “Dune”. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Likewise, does the idea of ​​a holy war have a darker connotation after the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill, or the refusal of some Americans to obey mandates to wear a mask or get vaccinated? .

The novel is somewhat blindly trusted, convincing the reader that despite its flaws, it does the right thing. Herbert himself was brought up in the Catholic tradition and converted to loosely practiced Zen Buddhism later in his life. “Dune”, however, focuses primarily on Islam and Arabic language and art.

The characters in his novel undoubtedly have religious motivations. Paul receives prophetic visions in dreams, and although his role as messiah is questionable, as it offers him the opportunity to act without consequences, he is overall portrayed as a hero with a good heart and the right motives.

Villeneuve’s film is true to Herbert’s presentation of spirituality in the right places, but it comes up against Paul’s growing distrust of his own role, which he is reluctant to take on. His divine nature is the subject of fervent speculation by others, from the desert dwellers of their planet, Arrakis, to Paul’s own mother.


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But Herbert’s book was undoubtedly written in a more innocent time. It is difficult now to pronounce the word “jihad” without igniting the fear and mood of Americans who cling to anti-Islamic sentiment – perhaps the reason it is called “crusade” and “holy war” in it. this adaptation. Herbert’s cosmopolitan mix of religion in the novel “Dune” was revolutionary. In the current context, it bears the weight of a thousand missteps and societal fears.

This is consistent with the darker and darker reading of Villeneuve’s book. Regal and shrewd Bene Gesserit has become vicious and selfish. Paul, who in the novel is stoic and conflicted, is conflicted and angry: a messiah for our time.

We don’t see the holy war in the movie – this is planned for other installations, as the current “Dune” is only the first part of what is destined to become a series. But the development of this war, and the messiah who leads it, will be an interesting trajectory to follow.

Actors Josh Brolin, left, and Timothée Chalamet in "Dune." Photo © 2020 Warner Bros.  Entertainment Inc.

Actors Josh Brolin, left, and Timothée Chalamet in “Dune”. Photo © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.


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