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Opinion: ‘Dune: Part Two’ falls into a familiar – and telling – trap

Opinion by Noah Berlatsky

(CNN) — Frank Herbert’s “Dune” novels struggled with their debt to colonial adventure literature. The books revel in swash and buckle and Mighty Whitey heroes lifted from the milieu of writers as various as Edgar Rice Burroughs, James Fenimore Cooper and H. Rider Haggard. But Herbert, writing in 1965, was also attuned to the critiques of colonialism of his day. His hero, Paul Atreides, is filled with doubts about his role as a Messianic leader and director of colonial conquest.

Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptations, and especially the most recent “Dune: Part Two,” try to build on Herbert’s anti-colonial leanings through subtle and not-so-subtle storytelling tweaks. Villeneuve goes further than Herbert did in questioning the basis of colonial narratives. Ultimately, though, he’s stymied by the same problems that undermined Herbert’s more liberatory impulses. It’s difficult, and perhaps impossible, to tell an anti-colonial story while centering the perspective, the heroism and the general awesomeness of a colonial hero.

The first part of “Dune” (released in 2021) introduces us to Paul (Timothée Chalamet), the heir to House Atreides, in a feudal future of space travel and intricate plots. (The distributor of “Dune” and “Dune: Part Two” shares a parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, with CNN.) Paul’s father, Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), has been granted the rule of the desert planet of Arrakis. Arrakis is the sole source of melange, a psychedelic spice, which gives space pilots the altered consciousness they need to travel between worlds. It’s as if LSD were petroleum, or vice versa.

However, the gift of Arrakis is a trap; the Emperor (Christopher Walken) is conspiring with the former ruler of Arrakis, Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård). They attack and destroy House Atreides on Arrakis, killing Leto. Paul and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) barely escape into the desert. There they encounter the proud desert-dwelling Fremen — and that’s where “Dune: Part Two” starts.

In the second (very long) film, Paul comes into his destined and prophesied inheritance. Like many a colonial hero before him, from Tarzan to Natty Bumppo, Paul, as a colonizer, quickly shows himself better at being Fremen than the Fremen themselves. He is a superior fighter, and he knows the desert ways from prophetic dreams. When he rides the gigantic (phallic) desert worms, he rides the biggest of them all. The Fremen are presented as fierce, smart and awesome — but all of their awesomeness is absorbed by Paul, who appropriates their power for himself and becomes even stronger. That’s how colonialism (and colonial literature) works.

Herbert tried to undermine or question these colonial tropes by having Paul himself feel really, really guilty. With his gift of prophecy, Paul could see that he was destined to lead the Fremen on a jihad of conquest (changed to “holy war” in the movie to try to damp down the Islamophobic connotations). He doesn’t want to be a genocidal conqueror; he doesn’t want to subvert the Fremen culture for his own purposes.

Having the colonial ruler be glum is not really much of an anti-colonial critique. Villeneuve is smart enough to have figured that out. So in the movie, it’s not just Paul who sees problems with his colonial power. His Fremen lover, Chani (Zendaya), is also ambivalent.

In the book, Chani is mostly supportive of Paul, with few reservations. In the movie, in contrast, she resolutely refuses to believe in Paul’s prophetic destiny. She insists that the myth of the coming of the messiah is a colonizer’s trick intended to get colonized people to wait indefinitely for freedom. She wants Paul to join her as an equal, rather than ruling over the Fremen.

Giving one of the colonized a chance to express anti-colonial sentiments is an important change. But it doesn’t exactly result in an anti-colonial narrative. Paul’s destiny is more powerful than Chani’s — and that destiny is the very narrative of the film. Most viewers are going to want Paul to take his revenge on the (supervillain-like) Harkonnens; you’re rooting throughout the film for Paul to win.

Chani is arguing, not with Paul, nor with other Fremen, but with the plot itself, and all its action-movie, revenge-narrative pleasures. The movie, the audience and even the characters know that the story is Paul’s. Whether Chani is right or wrong matters less than the fact that Paul’s story fits into the inevitable groove of genre.

The movie’s failure to present an effective anti-colonial vision is especially frustrating because we’re in a golden age of anti-colonial epics. N.K. Jemisin’s ”Broken Earth” trilogy, Tasha Suri’s “The Books of Ambha” series, Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s ”Her Pitiless Command” trilogy, Tade Thompson’s ”Wormwood” trilogy and many other works from the past decade or so think about colonialism with a lot more depth and insight than Herbert ever imagined.

The key to the success of Jemisin or Suri is that they give narrative precedence to the experiences of people targeted by colonialism, rather than celebrating the power, success and conflicted conscience of kings, rulers and colonizers. If Villeneuve, or for that matter Herbert, had really wanted to question the logic of colonial power and colonial privilege, the hero of the story would be a Fremen such as Chani. And she’d be fighting, not with Paul, but against him and his effort to dragoon her into his dreams and his prophecies.

Few blockbuster films give narrative primacy to colonized people though. As writer and professor Viet Thanh Nguyen writes in “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War,” his study of Vietnam war films, “much of the American artistic and cultural work about the Vietnam War, even as it engages in anti-American criticism, places Americans firmly and crudely at the story’s center.”

Nor is it just Vietnam films. The supposedly anti-colonial science-fiction “Avatar” films center on a colonizer-turned-White savior. The “Star Wars” films do have you side with the colonial resistance — but they make sure that the leaders of that resistance are mostly White, and, unlike the Fremen (who evoke Middle Eastern or North African imagery and cultural elements and some of whose language is taken directly from Arabic), aren’t a straightforward analogue for actual colonized people.

This isn’t an accident or a blip. The refusal to see colonized people as central to their own stories is part of colonialism in itself. Paul feels bad for being the destined one; Herbert and Villeneuve, to varying degrees, seem to regret making Paul the destined one. But Paul doesn’t ultimately listen to Chani, and neither does Villeneuve. “Dune: Part Two” purports to show us a freedom struggle on an exotic and distant planet. But it tells the same old story of power as ever.

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