Brief Thoughts on Dune: White Saviorism, Orientalism, and MENA Representation

Major Spoilers for Dune below.

Disclaimer: I’ve never read the novel by Frank Herbert (though I remember paging through it during my high school days and noticing the Arabic words and Islamic references). I’ve seen the Sci-Fi channel’s miniseries and David Lynch’s version (in that order). I really enjoyed the miniseries, but also dismissed it as having a typical white male savior narrative. Lynch’s movie also has this problem, though it doesn’t feel as prominent. I remember some people arguing that Muad’dib is inspired by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), but the more I read, the more I realized Paul Atreides is closer to T.E. Lawrence.

In the past year or so, I’ve been reading articles and blog posts written by avid fans of Dune, especially Muslim fans, about how Herbert’s novel is actually a critique of the white savior figure. Then I watched an interview with Herbert where he says the message of his story is, “Don’t trust leaders to always be right,” and how power corrupts the protagonist (Paul). This made me question about whether I had been misinterpreting Dune this whole time. Because Lynch’s film and the miniseries did not convey that message (or if they were trying to, it wasn’t effective in my opinion).

Villeneuve’s film, like all of his movies, has stunning cinematography. The way his film treats Paul is very different than the other iterations, and this is perhaps the thing that stood out to me the most. Maybe this is just my interpretation, but the miniseries and Lynch’s film seemed to want to depict Paul as a Luke Skywalker-type character. I didn’t really care about Paul in Villeneuve’s film; he doesn’t have any charisma or wit, but I think that’s the point. My dislike of Timothée Chalamet probably also helped, but I don’t think the film went out of its way to make Paul a likable or sympathetic character (unlike the other versions — and I mean, how could you dislike Kyle Maclachlan?). I’m curious to hear from Dune fans if this version of Paul is closer to how he is written in the books.

I liked the movie overall, but as I’ve read some movie critics say, it’s incomplete without a sequel or two. I think the actual critique, the real message of Dune, doesn’t get fully realized until the story is complete. Having seen the miniseries, I was looking forward to seeing how the movie would depict certain events, but it doesn’t get that far. I was disappointed that we didn’t even get to the Fremen until there was 15–20 minutes left in the film! Zendaya wasn’t kidding when she said she’s hardly in the movie! My guess is that this movie is only the first half of the first book?

The performances were strong, especially from Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson. Josh Brolin was alright as Gurney (I prefer Patrick Stewart’s version). I was underwhelmed by Hans Zimmer’s score, except for a few scenes (his score for Interstellar is one that I listen to a lot, so maybe I set high expectations)

I know there’s a lot being said about the lack of Muslim and Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) actors in the movie. I think it goes without saying that there’s lots of cultural and religious appropriation in Dune, and that the depictions of Fremen are very Orientalist. I don’t know if casting MENA actors would “fix” the Orientalism, which prompts a bigger question I have: Do we/Muslims want to be included in such representations? I go back and forth on this. I’m sure some people feel like, “If you’re going to steal from and appropriate us, at least include us somewhere!” I think I’d be supportive of the idea of casting MENA actors and involving MENA filmmakers to dismantle the Orientialism of the source material, if that’s even possible. By the way, David Dastmalchian is Iranian, but he doesn’t even play a Fremen! To me, this is just one example of how little thought the filmmakers gave to the importance of Muslim and MENA representation.

I love the political themes in Dune and for some reason I felt that they were a little downplayed in this version. Maybe I need to watch it again. From the cast interviews I’ve seen so far, some members correctly acknowledge that spice is a metaphor for oil, but I haven’t heard anyone directly talk about U.S. imperialism in the Middle East (which Dune is very obviously about). I’d like to see any interviews with the cast and crew where they directly discuss this.

Hopefully, they’ll make more Dune films and we’ll see more of these themes explored.

Pakistani, Muslim, counselor, independent filmmaker, Star Wars geek, prequelist.