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Colonialism and Culture in Cinema: Looking at Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One

Rachit Raj

Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune is often regarded to be a pioneering science-fiction novel of the 20th century. After a shelved attempt and a shoddy adaptation by David Lynch, Denis Villeneuve’s film finally does justice to Herbert’s massive world-building ability.

Like most stories that transcend generations to remain loved, Dune can also be read in different ways. But as its cinematic adaptation ran in front of my eyes, I found a clear, deliberate theme of colonialism that seems integral to the idea of the story. But more than that, I found the film — made in 2021 — to be catering to the colonial and not the colonized, making it a questionable film politically (at least as it stands at the end of part one).

A lot of the film is invested in exposition, and yet the narrative continues to be riddled with ideas, phrases and allegiance lines that remain confusing. To sum it in short, the story is about two beings — Atreidus, who hold control over Arrakis, a desert planet that is home to the local tribe Fremen.

What interests the Atreidus in Arrakis is the vegetation of a special spice in this desert-land that helps in intergalactic travel. This means that a part of Atreidus population in the desert world continues to dig in search of these spices until a creature called desert-worm is tantalized by the rhythmic sound of machines to launch an attack.

It is a classic colonial versus colonized narrative, the kind we have seen in a film like Avatar years ago. The problem, though, behind the visual extravagance, Villeneuve’s knack for bigger-than-humans storytelling, and Hans Zimmer’s fantastic score, is that the film (not going into the novel) has a protagonist who is a colonizer. Paul (Chalamet) is a white man in a country that is not his, to begin with.

The narrative, in trying to be authentic to the novel, seems to forget that 1965 was still a time when the idea of a white man’s burden was as ripe as the brewing thought of a white man’s transformation. The latter was a more liberal idea of looking at colonialism, a more comfortable gaze than the more criticized former.

But in Dune we are given a narrative dominated by white people, and the natives — the blue-eyed Fremen — are only given a compromised screen presence. This goes deeper, of course. It is a problem with previous Villeneuve films, too. His films are quite easily on the side of the white majority, probably the reason why he is so successful.

Arrival was as much about showing China as the wrathful, impatient beast against the gentle, helpful aliens as it was about a woman — a white woman — and a white man being calm, and composed, trying to find humanity in those alien beings, a comment on how there were some “good” whites who always saw the human in the “other”.

With Dune, the theme of colonialism is too obvious, and the film’s white-centric politics too easily visible. The second part promises more of Fremen, and Paul’s transition into a life of Arrakis, but the question remains. Why? Why are we still paying service to a plot where a bland, white man is our protagonist when far more interesting characters are around? And more urgently, why can’t we tinker with the perspective and choice of protagonists in adapting a work of literature? Why?

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