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Film & TV

Dune 2020: My Butlerian Jihad

A desert in Peru, on January 9, 2019. (Frederic Le Floch/Reuters via Red Bull Content Pool)

In a time of much sadness and great tumult, certain things have provided me welcome solace. My faith, no weaker despite its temporary mediation, in some respects, through technology. My family, with whom I am currently living. Our home, a place of comforting familiarity to me. Continued digital interactions with family and friends I cannot be with at the moment.

And, of course, the promised release of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel Dune, which — as of right now — remains committed to its December 2020 release date. As a testament to this commitment, the production recently released the first of its promotional materials to Vanity Fair. A passionate fan of the Dune universe, I have been eagerly anticipating this movie’s release since I first learned it would come out, and am following news about it, including this recent spread, eagerly.

Most information that has emerged about Dune has been encouraging. Starting with the involvement of Villeneuve, a veteran of thoughtful and beautiful sci-fi (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049), it has put together an impressive crew behind and in front of the camera. Actors involved include Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Zendaya, Jason Mamoa, Javier Bardem, and many, many more (though contrary to rumors, Christian Bale will not be playing a sandworm).

The Vanity Fair first look is mostly continued cause for optimism. The costumes look great (though the stillsuits are a bit bulky), and the actors great in them; the desert cinematography has a fittingly spare beauty. I am a bit skeptical of the waifish Timothée Chalamet in the role of Dune‘s protagonist, Paul Atreides (I avoid the word hero, for complicated reasons). But I am open to being proven wrong in my skepticism. I suspect Chalemet, a “rising star” of sorts, has had many opportunities to lead in blockbusters, but has turned them down for those familiar reasons of supposed artistic integrity. That he signed on to star in this role suggests he believes the Dune source material makes it a little different from such films. And it does. (I had to leave my copies of the first six Dune books in my New York City apartment, so alas, I cannot go into great depth here as to why. But rest assured: Soon, I shall.)

Which is why one piece of information from this article is of some concern to me. The author describes Paul as the hero of Dune, which, as I’ve noted, is technically true, although it’s a bit more complicated than that. I’d be fine with that, though, if his heroic status were not put in such insufferable terms in the article: “Think Greta Thunberg, only she’s a Jedi with a diploma from Hogwarts.” The Greta Thunberg comparison is an allusion to Dune‘s ecological themes; these are native to the novel to a considerable extent, and so thinking in such terms does not itself indicate that those involved with this production of Dune have missed the point.

It is more the likening of Paul to such conventional forms of our culture that vexes me. Paul is not a totem in culture war struggles, as Greta is. Nor is he like a Jedi; the Jedi are derivative of Paul, and Star Wars of Dune more broadly, with its tyrannical empire, religious sect possessing telepathic powers that attempts to direct the course of history, giant sandworms, special twins with mystical powers, sluglike beings with human faces, and desert planet setting. (The first Star Wars film came out in 1977.) If Dune is done right, it will not only show how much more layered and complex it is than such juvenile derivative works. It could also rise far above them, becoming an archetype in itself, not something merely likened in simplistic fashion to things turned into clichés by their facile overuse in our discourse, such as Star Wars and Harry Potter

There is no guarantee that this version of Dune will get things right. (Others have failed before.) But I remain hopeful that it will. If movie theaters still exist by December 2020, I’ll be seeing it at one; if not, I’ll eagerly watch it by some other means. (Come to think of it, a stillsuit might be good garb for a post-coronavirus, hygiene-obsessed world.) I will think and speak of it frequently between now and then, my own Butlerian Jihad. And whether it succeeds or not, being a fan of Dune has not been, is not, and never will be something to be “embarrassed” by.

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