The novel Dune, written by Frank Herbert in 1965, was groundbreaking within the genre of Science Fiction. While the 2021 film adaptation directed by Denis Villeneuve cannot quite say the same, it is nonetheless an engaging film, displaying a depth rare in blockbuster films today with its commentary of colonialism.
The film is set in the distant year of 10191, when space and its planets have become united under the rule of an enigmatic, calculating emperor. Planets are ruled over by imperial houses, which are loyal to the emperor but of course have their own motivations and conflicts. The main character, a young man named Paul, is destined to inherit the position of Duke in one of these houses, called House Atreides. The family currently resides on the planet of Caladan, but receives the news that House Atreides will be replacing another house, House Harkonnen, as the imperial overseers of the planet Arrakis. Though suspicious of it all being a trap set by the emperor, House Atreides begins the transition anyway.
Arrakis’s sands are rich with a substance known as Spice, regarded as sacred by the Fremen, the indigenous people of the planet. While the exact function of Spice is not really revealed in the film, the audience is told that it is vital for space navigation and travel, and therefore a highly coveted commodity.
“Spice is an economically lucrative natural resource vital to transportation and is abundant in this particular desert region. Sound familiar? Spice is oil.”
Spice collection and distribution by the Harkonnens is a brutal affair for the Fremen. In the opening scene, they are seen trying and failing to retaliate against Harkonnen Spice harvesters. When House Atreides comes into power on Arrakis, Paul’s father, Leto Atreides claims to want to rebuild relations with the Fremen, although he makes it clear that his priority is still continuing to harvest and export Spice.
Without heading into spoiler territory, there are clear parallels between the story of Dune and the story of Western imperialism and colonialism in the Middle East.
The desert setting of Arrakis, along with the fact that the Fremen dialect is heavily influenced by Arabic, create a clear association between the planet and the Middle East region on earth. Additionally, Spice is an economically lucrative natural resource vital to transportation and is abundant in this particular desert region. Sound familiar? Spice is oil.
Throughout the film, the imperial houses make it clear that the primary, or even only, motivation for their presence on the planet is to extract Spice and pocket the money without a cent going to the Fremen.
The Fremen hold extremely valuable information about how to survive not only the harsh desert climate of Arrakis, but the face of attacks by massive, carnivorous Sand Worms that lurk beneath the sands. However, the Fremen are dismissed by the imperial houses as nothing more than violent and “uncivilized.” That claim of a violent nature of course comes after the Fremen attempt to protect their homeland and sacred Spice against the forces of House Harkonnen.
Dune asks the viewer to question the legitimacy and morality of the presence of the imperial houses on the planet, even when the protagonist is a member of them.
The legitimate critiques and themes of colonization within the film are a nice deviation from trends within other big-budget sci-fi or action films. Often, these genres fall into the trend of only being about seeing big things crash into other big things and making a big explosion, with little actual substance.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are still plenty of big explosions, cool spaceships, and dramatic music in Dune. Indeed, wonderfully rendered explosions and spaceships and the fantastic score by Hans Zimmer are some of my favorite parts of the movie. But what made me like it more, and what made it (somewhat) worth the two-and-a-half-hour runtime, is that it feels as though it were about more than just that.
That runtime, however, does lead to one of my primary critiques of the film. Despite that goliath-sized runtime, Dune somehow manages to feel empty. The film covers just half of the events of the book itself (although, Herbert’s novel is a staggering 722 pages, so this can be forgiven). It took me two days to get through it during my at-home viewing, so I can only imagine it would be a slog to get through in theaters.
Still, as said earlier, we only get to see the beginning of the story, so we’ll have to wait to see the full scope of what the franchise has to say regarding colonization. Even so, having a major blockbuster film even begin to confront the ideas of colonialism is significant.