DUNE and Critical Analysis of Modern Media
by Jack Sellers
Not too long ago, I saw an article using the 2021 adaptation of Frank Herbet’s massively influential science fiction novel Dune to discuss how overanalyzing media has overrun popular culture. The long and short of the article was that movies are supposed to be entertainment, and looking for connections to the real world and themes within these stories is dampening the enjoyment that should be experienced during these films. There is something to be said about the obsession with easter eggs that has taken a grasp on the zeitgeist, but arguing that media should be taken at face value is a bizarre take for me to see in an era where seemingly every movie in the theater is more concerned with connecting with other movies than offering a compelling theme for the audience to ponder. When every movie in the theater presents a similar presentation of the hero’s journey but with different coats of paint, a complex political space epic was a massive refresher for me.
I must acknowledge my bias here, I adored DUNE. Also, being a big fan of Denis Villenueve’s other works puts me in a position where I was pretty sure that I’d enjoy DUNE going into it. As I make my way through the 1965 original novel, this article is only becoming more and more bizarre to me. Of all the movies to present the argument that “Americans think too much about movies and don’t appreciate them for their entertainment value”, the story of Dune seems like the absolute worst vessel. Dune is a complicated story that focuses less on conveying big action scenes and more on the political and philosophic implications of the universe that Herbert presents.
Dune presents a story that staunchly denounces the actions of many of its characters, and specifically the colonization and profit that is reaped from the desert planet Arrakis. The titular dunes of Arrakis are key not only to the story that Herbert is telling but to the success of the novel’s characters. The various factions of the novel are all vying for control of the desert planet for the natural resource that lies within the sands, the miracle drug of spice or melange. These factions, the Harkonnens and Atreides, have different approaches to dealing with the natives of Arrakis, the Fremen, who have been oppressed for hundreds of years because of the mining of spice. This is brought to the attention of the viewer immediately in this newest adaptation, which chooses to offer more context to the introduction than the novel via narration from Zendaya’s character Chani. This introduction brings the Fremen further into the forefront of the story
, by directly condemning the actions of the Harkonnens and the Empire, and by questioning the motives of the Atreides as they obtain control of the desert planet. This kind of questioning and condemnation is incredibly key within the novel, as Paul Atreides and his mother Jessica are brought into Fremen society and must begin to learn about the “desert power” that the people possess.
There is no doubt plenty of media that exists today seeks solely to entertain the masses. For someone who loves comic books as much as I do, I’m quick to criticize their adaptations for lacking substance in a lot of areas and promoting a focus on moments of fan service over compelling storytelling. DUNE was a breath of fresh air for me to see in theaters. So, it was really baffling to see this article criticizing not only the film, but its audience for critically analyzing its themes and story structure, and essentially coming to the conclusion
of that “it’s not that deep”. This feels like such an odd step backwards. In a lot of ways, I feel like the zeitgeist has applied “it’s not that deep” to most media that comes out. While I don’t want to say that every movie that’s come out this year has secretly been a complex metaphor for the state of the world, I also don’t want to downplay the efforts of writers, directors, and the crew of these films to tell a compelling and thought-provoking story.
Not every story needs to be a seven-book saga about the politics of a fictional space empire that discusses themes of religion, power, colonization, and ecology, but to deny these key elements of the story in service of the entertainment value of the film adaptation is, in my eyes, a blatant step in the wrong direction. No, not every story needs to be Dune, or anything like Dune for that matter. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with pure escapism, but we must allow the themes and ideas of stories to be presented. No one is overthinking Dune, they are simply engaging with the text in a deeper manner. Stories have a power that I think is often not discussed. Many stories are escapist and entertaining, and present complex and enthralling themes and ideas that can spark deeper thoughts without the reader or viewer even realizing. I think the focus of consuming as much entertainment as quickly as possible is greatly damaging a vast majority’s ability to critically think about the media that they are engaging with. People don’t watch tv anymore, they binge tv. If you didn’t enjoy DUNE, I get it. It’s not for everyone. No story is, but that doesn’t mean that the themes and ideas that the story is presenting aren’t interesting or worth engaging with. Stories have a power, and to deny that power is a disservice to all those that put their hard work and effort into making them. I offer you a suggestion; the next time you’re binging that show, slow down a little. Engage in a little critical analysis, look for what questions the story is asking you, what is telling you, and how. You’ll be surprised how much “deeper” it is than it appears.