'Dune': The Emperor in trouble on Arrakis while imperialism rules on Earth

Dune film 2021
Leave your critical faculties at the door and you won’t waste your money.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac
In cinemas

With $US165 million of production costs on the big screen, you would expect Dune to be impressive and it does not let you down. The sound track roars as gigantic sand worms erupt out of the desert and epic battles are fought by sword wielding warriors.

While it is all nicely distracting, its imaginative universe, set in the immeasurably distant future, is an image of our contemporary world seen in a distorting mirror.

To understand the plot, viewers would be well advised to read the Frank Herbert novel before attending. Key elements of dialogue get muffled by the general noise, turmoil and mayhem.

The story is of an inter-dynastic conflict set on a desert planet, Arrakis. The universe is organised as an empire with various feudal houses competing for the Emperor’s favour.

Arrakis happens to be the only source of a drug-like substance called “spice”. Spice is essential for intergalactic travel, but, while enhancing vitality, it is addictive.

Part of the backstory is that, centuries before the tale unfolds, humans have decided to do away with computers to avoid becoming enslaved to robots. That technological choice is the reason soldiers battle with swords and not advanced weaponry.

Another feature is that religions have evolved and coalesced so that there is an “Orange Catholic Bible” holy book and odd adaptations of Islam and Zen Buddhism. A powerful, silent force is the female Bene Gesserit order, obviously based on the Jesuits, who manipulate events from behind the scenes using eugenics to control society.

The fruit of all this is Paul Atreides, the son of a noble house and the recipient of secret, mystical training from his Bene Gesserit mother. On Arrakis he rises to his true calling as the messiah of the Fremen, the planet’s pseudo-Muslim inhabitants.

The concoction of feudalism, mysticism, ecology, Nietzschean Übermenschism, cultural appropriation and naked Orientalism holds together just enough to deliver a satisfying, over-the-top, CGI-laden sci-fi flick. Leave your critical faculties at the door and you won’t waste your money.

It will be interesting to see how Dune intersects with our current social zeitgeist in which Nazis have linked up with anti-vax New Agers. Dune’s strange amalgams could cut in different directions with those who have abandoned rationality.

Frank Herbert was a complex character. The child of socialists, as a youth he was close to a Native American community and also interacted with ecologists.

As an adult he took magic mushrooms and peyote and mixed with Zen Buddhists in San Francisco’s beatnik counter-culture. All those elements suffuse both the book and the movie, so there is something for everybody.

But Herbert was no progressive. He adhered to radical libertarianism, the peculiar US phenomenon that combines an anarchist rejection of the state with bare-knuckled, capitalist individualism. It is the petit bourgeois ideology par excellence.

Herbert worked as a speech writer for various Republicans and supported the GOP’s most right-wing elements. He also zealously believed that feudalism was the best way to organise society.

To put it simply, he was an arch-reactionary, albeit with eccentric foibles. It is against that background that Dune should be seen.

Dune is a heady brew. The mystical and enlivening attributes of spice are analogous to cocaine and the psychedelics Herbert liked.

Spice is also analogous for the oil lying under the sands of Middle Eastern Islamic countries.

When Dune’s characters proclaim that air and sea power are what made the House of Atreides powerful, it reads as a description of US imperialism at the end of World War II, the era in which Herbert wrote. But Herbert has the characters go on to say that their future lies in desert power.

The twist is that Herbert has Paul Atreides working to recruit the Fremen into his army by personifying their religious belief in a saviour, which is the opposite of US strategy.

Frank Herbert wrote a number of sequels to Dune, which became increasingly right-wing and deranged. Denis Villeneuve has broken the first novel in two to fit the sprawling narrative into a coherent film.

The next film of the first novel is in the works and after that we may be in for a continuing franchise drawing on Herbert’s nutty visions.

The film’s final credits lists the hundreds of Indian computer experts employed to create the special effects at cheaper than US pay scales. So, while the Emperor may be in trouble on Arrakis, on Earth imperialism still rules.