TV Editor Josie Scott-Taylor reviews sci-fi epic Dune, exploring whether it should be classed as a white-saviour film
The long-awaited Dune has everything a science-fiction fan could ask for, from innovative weapons and spaceships to mind control. With an all-star cast and a score written by sci-fi soundtrack expert Hans Zimmer (Interstellar, Inception), Dune certainly makes a statement and has been an unsurprising box office hit. Based on the 1965 novel by Frank Herbert, Dune continues to be seen as a landmark in science-fiction, even inspiring Star Wars – in fact, the two franchises are so similar that Herbert organised an ironic group called the ‘We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society’.
The film is set around 20,000 years into the future and follows the powerful House Atreides, at the head of which is Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), after they are ordered to take control of the planet Arrakis. The brutal House Harkonnen, the previous rulers of the planet, have been forced to return to their home, leaving behind the vast spice empire that they built. Spice, a drug that lengthens lifespan and heightens awareness, is the most valuable substance within the Dune universe and can only be found on Arrakis, but harvesting it is extremely dangerous: the desert is patrolled by enormous sandworms that can grow up to 400 metres long, and are drawn to rhythmic thumping noises, like the sounds of footsteps and hulking metal spice harvesters.
Stunning cinematography of the planet Caladan, home to House Atreides and covered in huge rocky mountains and stormy seas, contrasts with the majestic, sun-beaten Arrakis, which is introduced to us at the very start of the film in a slight subversion of the storyline in Herbert’s novel. The intensity of Zimmer’s score will have you forgetting to breathe as Paul and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) desperately attempt to escape a terrifying sandworm, and the outstanding performances are what makes the film so emotionally forceful. Dune raises one particularly controversial question, though: is it just another white saviour film?
Although director Denis Villeneueve has responded to criticisms by claiming that the film is actually the opposite of a white saviour film, it is important to break this question down and figure out what the film’s message really is. The native people on Arrakis are called the Fremen, and their planet has been subjected to years of colonisation and imperialism by other planets, all desperate for the extremely valuable ‘spice.’ House Atreides, though, led by Leto and his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet), aspire to save the Fremen people and rebuild their spice empire, all while grappling with the fact that Paul may in fact be the ‘chosen one,’ referred to as the ‘Mahdi,’ the messiah who was foretold in ancient Fremen prophecies. The Fremen have spent years learning how to live peacefully in their harsh climate and avoid death-by-giant-sandworm, which includes tactics such as the elaborately arrhythmic ‘sandwalk’ (which Chalamet has predicted will become a future TikTok trend…), brought to life from the novel by Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Millepied. They clearly have a far better understanding of their planet than any of their previous colonisers.
Are the members of House Atreides, then, simply a family of white saviours, assuming their superior knowledge and skills can save a group of people who have lived and survived on this planet for years? The culture of the Fremen people is inspired by (or stolen from, depending on how you want to look at things) Middle-Eastern society, specifically Bedouin of Arabia’s Empty Quarter, but with Herbert’s own ideas and innovations thrown into the mix. Fans have picked up on the omission of references in the film to the Islam-inspired nature of the original novel, particularly in the promotional material, which features the words ‘a crusade is coming’ – crusade is actually a Christian term for ‘holy war’, which seems out of place in a story centred around Islamic culture – while Herbert used and better understood the nuanced and complicated history of the word ‘jihad’ in his series of novels. Is this an example of the real context behind the novel being washed away, erased by uneducated white people?
Despite the potentially dubious origin of Herbert’s material, Dune is not actually another story about a white man saving the lives of those who have been oppressed for centuries. Instead, Herbert centres the entire series around the Fremen, allowing Paul to participate in their culture instead of transforming it to fit his own imperialist lifestyle. Whether or not the newest film adaptation of Dune will fall into the white-saviourism trap is something that will be decided in the next installment, which will hopefully be gracing our screens in just two years’ time.
Dune definitely deserves the praise it has been given, and, despite its huge COVID-related delays, it certainly did not disappoint. Don’t let its star-studded cast, incredible cinematography and mesmerising music distract from the richness of the history behind the story, though – Dune is a long-established franchise, and understanding its complexity requires more than simply watching the film once.
Dune is out now in cinemas
Looking for more recent releases? Have a look at these Redbrick Film articles: