Dune: Escaping into the realm of cinematic Arab subversion
There are many reasons why Dune is considered the greatest science fiction novel ever written. A few of them might be why non-readers watching Denis Villeneuve's $165 million part-one adaptation will find aspects of its intergalactic plot, messianic themes and warring characters somewhat similar to established films like Star Wars, Stargate or The Matrix. Frank Herbert's seminal book, first published in 1965, walked so many future sci-fi properties could run.
But Dune is not a novel to be adapted lightly. The foundational mythology, ecology, theology, politics, philosophy and history late author Frank Herbert borrowed and rebuilt into this Universe, set 20,000 years in the future, is so dense that copies come with several appendices and a glossary of terms to guide readers.
His epic fantasy is set in the year 10191 on a hostile desert planet called Arrakis, where noble Houses battle each other and the native warrior-people over the control of spice, the most valuable element in their society known as the Old Imperium. He positions the contextual minutiae less in the dialogue and more in the narration; in the mood, tone and rhythm; in Herbert's vast descriptions of this futuristic environment and the diverse people who inhabit it.
"These ideas, as well as the cyclical nature of dynasties and civilisations, were reflected in Tunisian sociologist, philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun’s 14th Century book of Islamic History, The Muqaddimah, which underpinned much of Herbert’s sci-fi series"
Alejandro Jodorowsky attempted to adapt the book and failed when his unmade 1970s film proved too expensive, too long and he too much of a risk for studios to help him realise his expansive dream. David Lynch succeeded in 1984 but his completely white-washed adaptation felt overstuffed even though it offered various moments of camp excellence. But Dune's latest foray onto the big screen should earn Villeuneuve some applause.
Timothee Chalamet takes the lead as Paul Atreides, the heir of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), head of a respected dynasty, and his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the Bene Gesserit, a matriarchal order with superhuman abilities which she has long been teaching her son. When the Padishah Emperor takes control of Arrakis away from Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) and gives it to Duke Leto, a new conflict emerges.
House Atreides must relocate to the desert planet and find a way to secure their survival by convincing the Fremen, the secretive and fearsome native population, to join powers against their former oppressors. The Harkonnens’ diabolical plot soon takes hold and forces Paul and his mother into hiding amongst the dunes, where giant sandworms roam and his prescient powers manifest to reveal a foreboding future.
The execution of several action set-pieces is brutal and gripping. A stillness engulfs one scene where a team of Sardaukar - the Padishah Emperor’s soldier-fanatics - land at an abandoned scientific site previously occupied by Fremen warriors. The place is empty until the natives rise up out of the sand to attack their foe. Later, Jason Momoa’s swashbuckling Duncan Idaho takes on a band of Sardaukar himself in a fretful yet fiercely choreographed corridor fight sequence.
The granular detail of Villeneuve’s world-building is often breathtaking. From the dragonfly-esque ornithopters and the ominous costuming of the Fascist-esque military to the frequent bull-fighting motifs and the recurring appearance of a desert mouse, book fans have plenty of references to Muad'dib and his ancestry to enjoy.
The artistic application of CGI has allowed the sandworms to be realised majestically; their ferocious teeth-filled mouths dilate like an all-seeing eye while textured sound-mixing makes their travel under and through the dunes, causing sand to grandly displace, mirror waves crashing on a choppy ocean. Wide shots convey the full devastating destruction raining down on Arrakis like fire and brimstone.
Han Zimmer’s score adds to this oppressive quality. At moments it’s a strain to hear key bits of dialogue, but it is as much of a living, breathing character as any of the cast. Drums function like a heartbeat murmuring with intense anticipation while the layered use of the human voice, God’s perfect instrument, so to speak, reinforces the overt religious symbolism in this story about a young man engineered to become an omnipotent prophet and the catalyst for a new feudal power structure.
The script does well to lay the groundwork for this scheme which tees up Herbert’s overarching anti-messiah message. Along with pointed narration by Chani (Zendaya), a young Fremen woman Paul often dreams about, and clever exposition scenes reminiscent of those audio guides you get at museums, the basic bones of this complex plot can be understood. Still, its delivery is overly subdued, with not a significant amount of the story being pushed forward and a lot of character development being skimmed over.
Of course, Chalamet’s teen chosen one is the lynchpin and he certainly looks the part. The actor reveals small flourishes of Paul’s personality and emotional rigour, but more often than not, he looks dead behind the eyes and unable to convey much of the internal confusion, turmoil, affection even, that is taking place on his tumultuous journey of self-discovery.
But the most overriding issue, for this critic at least, is the total lack of significant Middle Eastern and North African representation in the cast despite the very clear influence of MENA, Islamic and Arab culture on the desert planet and this universe in the original book and this film. I’ve written before about the importance of Fremen characters being played by MENA actors not least because their language is mostly made up of Arabic words, like “Mahdi'' (‘the rightly guided one”) and “Lisan al Gaib” (“the voice from the outer world”), respectively. Though it's notable that jihad, the phrase frequently used in the book, has now been replaced with "crusade" and "holy war".
One can easily observe the Bedouin and Amazigh inspiration behind this nomadic community on the page and the screen, through the Fremen’s penchant for Keffiyeh, group feeling unity and strength in their ability to survive in such a dangerous environment. These ideas, as well as the cyclical nature of dynasties and civilisations, were reflected in Tunisian sociologist, philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun’s 14th Century book of Islamic History, “The Muqaddimah”, which underpinned much of Herbert’s sci-fi series.
Then there’s the fact Villeneuve shot most of Arrakis in Arab countries; Jordan’s Wadi Rum and Abu Dhabi in the UAE provided the vast beauty and brutality of this fictional desert planet landscape. The pale, flat-roofed buildings of Arrakeen, the planet’s seat of power which, in the book, was transferred from the city of Carthag (sound familiar?) under Harkonnen rule, is reminiscent of North African architecture. If the overarching storyline about Imperialist colonisers stealing a powerful fuel from the native population doesn't remind you of a certain 20th Century Western conflict with the Middle East, the Knights Templar colour scheme of the Sardaukar certainly hints at a 12th Century one. A holy war no less!
"Must we continue to wait and bittersweetly watch films like Dune that take but do not give back? "
With all this rich, Maghrebi and Middle Eastern culture, aesthetic and historical references on display, once again I must ask: where are the significant MENA actors? Dune is a complex novel with complex characters who toe the line between good and bad. There are no real heroes and motivations are often dicey so these people exist in the grey area of morality with Fremen characters like Stilgar and Chani still among the more admirable figures. What an opportunity it would have been to cast the likes of Egyptian actor Amr Waked or French-Algerian actress Lyna Khoudri in these roles.
Instead, we get Javier Bardem doing whatever the Arab version of Blackface is.
The rest of the Fremen - those whose faces aren't masked and have speaking roles - are made up of actors of Guyanese, West or East African heritage. This wouldn’t be a problem at all if there were at least some MENA actors to reflect the diversity of that region which Villeunueve claims to care so much about and admitted to using as inspiration: “I feel true that I’m right in doing it this way. It feels authentic, it feels honest and true to the book.”
No, Denis. It’s corruption; one that erases the Middle East and North from MENA and which, mostly, only people of our heritage will care about.
We’re used to being vilified, maligned or erased on screen. We’re used to having most of our representation in Hollywood limited to plane hijacking or suicide bombing or perverted sheikhs or refugees or having non-MENA actors replacing us in our own stories. Like Dwayne Johnson who is playing Black Adam, the first MENA superhero character to get his own solo movie. Can you imagine the outrage if The Rock was cast as Black Panther? Or Shang-Chi? People wouldn’t stand for it.
But in a post-9/11 world where Arabs and Islam are still considered too dangerous and foreign to pass the racial profiling in studio boardrooms and casting call discrimination, too taboo to be given the same equal opportunities for positive or nuanced representation as other ethnic minorities are now slowly beginning to benefit from, must we continue to wait and bittersweetly watch films like Dune that take but do not give back?
Villeneuve has certainly achieved the grand scale of his vision, and truly other blockbuster franchises should take note of his artistic attention to detail. It’s just a shame that vital elements of the story, character building and MENA representation have been lost in his translation.
Hanna Flint is a freelance film and TV critic, writer and interviewer who writes for The Guardian, Total Film, Time Out, Syfy, Yahoo Movies, SyFy and other international outlets.
Follow her here: @HannaFlint