Why Dune (2021) is a fantastic film, but with many problems
I recently watched the first part of Dune (2021) directed by Denis Villeneuve and it was a great movie. Everything was perfect: cinematography, acting, effects, narrative, music. It is definitely a movie that starts something great and I sincerely hope, that future parts will be equally as good as this one. The main theme of the movie (and books) however, is the theme of colonialism and I think it is interesting to have a closer look.
Spoiler free plot of Dune (2021)
So I did not read the books and did not watch the movie from 1984. So what I can tell you from the plot is what I remember seeing it in 2021 for the first time. If you know more about the plot, bear with me then. As far as I know, the movie covers about the first half of the first book written by Frank Herbert. It tells the story of House Atreides and how it is commanded by the emperor to oversee the Spice harvest (a drug but also the fuel for space travel) on the desert planet Arrakis. This comes at a cost for House Harkonnen who were overseeing the harvest before and got filthy rich. Naturally, they are not happy.
The whole harvest however comes at a far greater cost for the Fremen, the people living on the planet, which live in sync with nature and the sand. As the film tells, they don’t mind the Emperor harvesting the Spice, as long as they can live in peace. House Harkonnen however, who are the main villains of the movie, were hunting them down. The new overseer, House Atreides, however plans to form an alliance with the Fremen to peacefully harvest the spice and to let them be. Naturally, House Harkonnen do not want this and so the narrative of the movie unfolds.
Colonialism in Dune
The depiction of the Fremen is clearly a reference to West Asian/North African nomadic people. Together with the imperialist behaviour of the two Houses the whole story is a clear reference to the Imperialist past of Europe in West Asia. This necessarily has not to be a bad thing. To process the imperialist past through media can be enlightening, showing the absurdities of imperialist behaviour. But does the film provide that? Clearly, House Harkonnen is depicted as the bad and sadistic colonialist, suppressing the Fremen for decades and giving nothing back in return.
But can the Fremen free themselves from this oppression alone? Obviously not, as our white male hero, who is also seen as a form of Messiah by the Fremen, is needed to start a revolution. Paul Atreides, the son of the Duke Leto Atreides I, is the hero of this movie and as it seems the whole revolution. The Fremen however depicted close with the nature of their planet seem to hide their true power. It is a recurring trope of movies that the natives have special abilities in connection to nature, but still need the help of the White Saviour (see for example Avatar (2009) or Stargate (1994)).
House Atreides: The good colonialist?
So what to make from House Atreides? They are colonialist too, but try to rectify their role as the oppressor by the necessity to fulfil their orders from the emperor. Are they the good guys now? As I said before, I do not know the rest of the story and it needs to be seen how the narrative develops. They are for sure part of the imperialist machinery despite their good intentions. It seems for now they (in form of Paul Atreides and his mother) join the Fremen to fight against House Harkonnen.
As I am writing this, I realize that I will probably not wait until the next movies will come out, but instead read the books. Nevertheless, the movie is great and if you can, watch it in the cinema. Something that got under my skin was the music. There is a distinct piece featuring a female singer that offers a roar that is really epic. You can also hear it in the trailer above.