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Beautiful dunes in the Arabian desert of Abu Dhabi - UAE
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Why Dune Might Be the Saddest Film I’ve Ever Seen

Are we saved through the love of power or the power of love?
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If you’ve seen Dune Part 2 already, read on, but this commentary will include some spoilers, so beware for those who have yet to witness Denis Villeneuve’s visually stunning adaptation of the 1965 classic by Frank Herbert. I read Dune a couple of years ago, and enjoyed it, but J.R.R. Tolkien’s rumored distaste for the book soured some of my reception. Seeing the new films, though, illustrates why this story is so deeply tragic.

Herbert drew much of his world and mythology from religion, and Dune is rich in religious allusion. Young Paul Atreides is the “Messiah” figure, and he “resurrects” after drinking the poison of the sandworm (a.k.a., the “Water of Life). There are fanatics in southern Arrakis ready to die for the prophesied Messiah. There are the Bene Gesserit, somber priestesses bent on controlling political outcomes and maintaining the balance of power in the universe. And there is, lurking behind the scenes, the concept of jihad, or holy war, which Paul fears he will instigate once he summons the allegiance of the southern fanatics. The confluence of Islam and Christianity is interesting, because although Biblical language is employed in the story, the overtly political function of power and salvation is alien to the New Testament ethic. Paul Atreides is the type of Messiah many Israelites in the first century would have looked for: a military man bent on upsetting the cruel domination of the Roman Empire, just as Paul upset the ruthless rule of the Harkonnens. Peter, one of the disciples, sliced off an ear of a Roman soldier on the eve of Christ’s crucifixion just to keep that political vision slightly alive. Jesus, however, reproved Peter with the famous line, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52).

The Way of the Sword

So it is in Dune. The story is a meditation on the sword, and the vicious cycle of power-mongering that doesn’t stop once a new king is declared. Paul Atreides loses his father and most of his kinsmen to the sword of the Harkonnens, and in his hiding among the native Fremen, consults whether the sword is the only option to secure the freedom and prosperity of Arrakis. Prophecies of the Bene Gesserit, enhanced by the spice on Arrakis, yield visions of horror in which Paul doesn’t stop with the Harkonnens, but wars against the other great Houses of the universe, too. Once the ball gets rolling, it never stops.

The film depicts Paul as having no other choice but to follow his destiny and declare holy war on the whole universe. To save himself and the Fremen, the enemy must be destroyed. He is initially a reluctant Messiah, downplaying the prophecies of his rule and instead focusing on helping the Fremen take out Harkonnen spice production. Eventually, though, the stakes are evident: Either he embraces his fate or watch as the Harkonnens cripple Arrakis and the Fremen forever. He must go south to summon the fanatics and march on the Harkonnens.

Gaining Power, Losing Love

After Arrakis is retaken, and the Emperor is exposed as the mastermind behind the erasure of House Atreides, Paul offers to take the hand of Princess Irulan over Chani, the Fremen girl Paul actually cares about. He opts for the strategic alliance of power over the “weakness” of a relationship that might have kept him human and grounded.

That’s what got me in the end. That’s the tragedy of the story. Paul is a different person by the end of the movie. He’s embraced the Messiah identity and vows to deliver the Fremen into a Green Paradise, as written. Whatever the cost. And the cost is steep.


Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is a prolific fiction writer and has written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is a contributing writer and editor for Mind Matters.

Why Dune Might Be the Saddest Film I’ve Ever Seen