Dune (2021): A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Warner Bros. Pictures

Dune (2021) is massive, looming across the screen with every frame: a film that demands to be seen on the largest screen possible so as to amplify its own gravitational pull. It imposes itself on the viewer, presenting vistas of oceans and the sweeping curves of sand dunes. It dares anyone watching to feel anything other than small. The only appropriate response is to lie flat and gape upward, like a desert transfixed under the midday sun.

For all its impressive grandeur, the film also lies flat, trapped under its own bulk. The movie is weighed down by the reputation of the novel that inspired it, by the expectations of everyone who’s loved the story, by the baggage it carries with it. The plot of the original novel is ponderous enough, concerned as it is with ecology and politics and conspiracies to breed a super-powered Messiah. Add 56 years of near-religious reverence within the science fiction community, plus a mountain of fair criticism1 and a history of disappointing screen adaptations, and any new version of Dune would be justifiably pinned under the weight of its own expectations. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is a self-fulfilling prophecy that undoes itself in the telling, an ouroboros regurgitating its own tail rather than eating it.


Frank Herbert’s novel Dune is about many things, but it is mostly about power, and about the lengths to which those who hold power will go in order to maintain their hold on it. The Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV aims to keep his throne by pitting the Great Houses under him against each other; the Spacing Guild and the merchant conglomerates want to maintain their place within the universe’s economy; the Great Houses jockey for position against each other in vendettas that stretch backwards for millennia; the Bene Gesserit—a secretive society of women trained to serve the Great Houses—seek to breed for themselves a Messiah, a man who wields the same powers of control that they do, and who can also look backwards and forwards in space and time. Each faction in the story revolves around a single substance: a drug called the Spice Melange, the metaphorical sun around which all their planets orbit. Spice exists on only one planet—Arrakis, a desert planet known colloquially as Dune—and whichever House governs Arrakis can harvest spice with impunity. Governorship of Arrakis is the key to unfathomable riches and power.

All that power has a heft to it. Each character in the book is conscious of power at all times: what they have, what they can bargain with, who has an advantage over them—and who can annihilate them. “He who can destroy a thing controls a thing,” states Paul at a pivotal turn in the story, underlining the existential threat that hangs over each character. The book is consumed by the thoughts of its point-of-view characters; their internal monologues bear most of the burden of storytelling and exposition, and these internal monologues also demonstrate the inevitable pull toward whoever in the room has the most power at any given moment. Each person watches everyone else, wondering to themselves: Is this the person who will be my end? Which hand holds the knife?

The interpersonal politics of the book lend the story its sense of scale; each character is a thinly sketched archetype—an imperiously beautiful witch, a boy learning the extent of his considerable power just as he becomes a man, a doomed royal, a devious heir—but they are also each a wealth of emotions, insights, ideas, and vices. Each one is an oversimplification of what it is to be an actual person, and therefore larger than life. Each one is also so small when compared to the turning machinations of galactic history.

Villeneuve’s Dune cannot communicate the weight of history in quite the same way as the book.2 His adaptation trades the intimacy of interpersonal relationships and internal dialogue for overwhelming visual scale: massive ships overshadowed by even larger ones, clustered above the curve of a planet’s atmosphere; immense armies arrayed in the hulking shadows of space cruisers; the fury of dust kicked up by a sandworm half a kilometer long as it cruises through the desert. The frame sometimes very nearly gets eclipsed by the ships it tries to contain, their unnatural spherical shapes bursting out of their confines, otherworldly and yet dense at the same time. Power is writ large, not by characters thinking about who in the room is most likely to betray them, but by the spaces those characters see. Ships in the air represent their ability to defend themselves and their Houses; unoccupied horizons convey a sense of uncertainty. When Duke Leto of House Atreides (Oscar Isaac) surveys a city on Arrakis, he’s taking stock of the vulnerabilities that his new position as governor of the planet has given him. The empty space over his new home, unoccupied by any ships, is a metaphorical power vacuum. If he cannot fill the space himself, someone else will.


I have been trapped in Dune’s gravity well for exactly half my life.

I first read the novel as an awkward 14-year-old—only one year younger than the main character, Paul Atreides, at the story’s open. I’d been primed for the story by my love for Lord of the Rings and my budding interest in linguistics and the Arabic language. I didn’t need to go out of my way to find Herbert’s Dune, because I was a voracious reader, and my parents had left a copy around the house where it was fair game. Loving Dune was a foregone conclusion, a product of being part of the Welch family. I never stood a chance.

As I grew up, my encounters with Dune became an exercise in disappointment and subverted expectations. I tore through a handful of sequels after reading the first book, breaking the spines of my paperbacks in my haste to find out what would happen next. My further excursions into the story were all attempts to fill a hole left by the absence of a completed book. Frank Herbert refused to fill any holes with his sequels; his world was too big for such a simple solution. Instead, he insisted on digging deeper and weirder with each new book, undercutting the progress his characters had made before. Each of Herbert’s sequels is a deconstruction of the story that came before it: Dune ends with a usurping of the galactic empire’s ruling class, an apparent triumph that curdles into tragedy in Dune Messiah, the immediate sequel that exists mostly to count the human cost of galactic war. 

My disappointment with the story grew deeper and deeper with every following installation. I liked the clean, abrupt ending of the first book, which resolved itself with one character telling another how they would be remembered by history long after they were gone; the sequels paradoxically warp the ending of Dune by clarifying the consequences of the actions its characters take. At the time, I didn’t understand why Herbert had to go and deconstruct his novel in every one of the sequels—brick by brick, chapter by chapter, character by character. Then again, I was 14, and I was reading Dune not for its themes about ecology or power, but for its plot only. I hadn’t understood the first book in the first place.


Villeneuve’s Dune is aware of the power it wields as an adaptation of a beloved story on a metatextual level. It elects not to explain itself to the uninitiated, choosing instead to imply in single shots what the book might have taken pages to reveal. Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), in a single shot, calculates the exorbitant cost of a trip across space: his eyes flip upward to expose the whites, and his voice tallies the totals in staccato bursts. Readers of the book would know that Thufir is a Mentat, a human trained to think and reason like a computer. In this universe, computers and artificial intelligence of any kind have been wiped out millennia ago, the collateral damage of a jihad3 against “machines in the likeness of a human mind.” It is because of this jihad that spice is so valuable: the drug is the only substance that enables humans to make the calculations necessary to perform the miracle of space travel without the use of a computer. Readers of the book understand this history implicitly as Thufir rattles off the cost of a journey through space. Newcomers to the story are left with a fleeting shot of a man acting as an abacus, all power from Thufir’s calculations dissipating like mist as the shot centering Henderson cuts to someone else.

The rest of the film follows suit, choosing to give glimpses of its world through wordless allusions to the novel. Emissaries recite their charges with the reverence of religious litany—all ceremony, no explanation. Characters on whom the book spends pages of time are relegated to a handful of lines in the movie. Most exposition in the film is implicit: a knife fight to demonstrate personal shields; a conversation between Paul (Timothée Chalamet) and his Bene Gesserit mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), to demonstrate the Bene Gesserit power of Voice. Jessica recites her own litany (“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer…”) as a reflex in times of stress; the book repeats the litany several times, but the film never gives it in its entirety, trusting instead that audience members who are familiar with the story will be able to fill in the gaps, and that audience members who have not read the book will not care to hear a prayer repeated.

When the Great Houses circle each other, it’s with language that remains opaque to outsiders (and to those who might not have read the book), but stands clear and sharp to the ones for whom the message—or the insult—was truly intended. The Atreides refer to their mortal enemies, the Harkonnens, as “cousins,” implying both distance and the familial ties afforded them by noble birth; you can’t choose family any more than you can choose the loyalties that come with it. An agent of House Harkonnen speaks with Imperial soldiers in half-sentences, refusing to come out and speak the entire truth that the Emperor has sided with House Harkonnen in their feud. An emissary of the Emperor who would prefer to take sides with House Atreides, but who has been commanded to remain neutral, cautions Duke Leto to take care of his family while they’re in danger: a backhanded verbal slap for the son of a noble who died fighting bulls in the arena.4 Each House is aware of the history between them, and none of them care to explain that history for each other’s benefit, nor for the benefit of the audience. Each faction communicates with the others with the elaborate language of diplomacy that has calcified into tradition over long years.

 Tradition is, by nature, cyclical—a repetition of words and actions over time until they become ingrained in a culture, or in an individual human heart. Villeneuve’s Dune does not care much about the individual hearts of its characters, with the exception of Paul and perhaps his mother, Jessica. Everyone else remains a cipher, a cog in the wheel of history, a tool to push Paul further and further toward his end. People are repeatedly dwarfed by machinery, and by the gigantic buildings and rock outcroppings that spring from the dusty desert floor. Villeneuve’s Dune is interested in the 10,000-foot view of the machinery that drives history, and in the drivers’ decisions to preserve their toeholds on power, but not in the fates of those who dwell in the shadows of greatness.


My own history with Dune continued beyond my disappointment with its sequels. My parents showed me Lynch’s version when I was 15 or 16. It felt like an induction into a secret society: the film’s dialogue is a key part of the Welch dialect, with lines quoted frequently enough that they’ve taken on new meaning within our family, a secret code layered with connotations beyond Lynch’s original intent. (“The forms must be obeyed” became the family version of “It is what it is,” especially when the “it” was doing chores properly.)

Despite its place in Welch family lore, I didn’t care for the movie at the time; I thought it was ugly and rushed, an exquisite corpse stitched together from macabre set design and an oversimplified retelling of part of the book’s plot. But my ambivalence wasn’t strong enough to keep me from picking up a used DVD at a record store, nor from showing the movie to friends. I pictured Kyle MacLachlan trudging through the sand whenever I reread the first book in the series, which was frequently. Lynch’s Dune haunted me with its nightmare energy, until finally I had to write about it. That essay became the first I ever published. 

I must mention this essay if I am to talk about my history with Dune. I am embarrassed by the naïveté with which I wrote that essay. I don’t want anyone to read it anymore. I have to talk about it in comparison to the essay I am writing now, and therefore I must direct others to it. I can’t escape the gravity well of my own past decisions and taste. 


Dune as a story is obsessed with histories, with the layering of decision on decision until they calcify into a course of action, which shapes the future. Paul says at one point that “there is no escape—we pay for the violence of our ancestors.” The quote does not appear in the story proper, but in one of the many epigrams scattered throughout the book. Each epigram quotes Paul; each one is a quote from a series of histories about Paul, written by a prolific Bene Gesserit princess5 long after the events of Dune. The quotations from history cast the entire story as a foregone conclusion: Paul and his family must leave their watery homeworld for the desert planet of Arrakis because, to history, this action has already happened. They must suffer betrayal, and Paul and his mother must run for the desert, into the arms and protection and eventual worship of the indigenous Fremen.

Villeneuve’s Dune rolls through its plot deliberately, like a machine driven by fate. Paul and Jessica discuss a ceremony formalizing House Atreides’s control over Arrakis: Paul complains about the necessity of the ceremony when the move has already been decided; Jessica watches him, her gaze as steady as the camera’s, and tells him simply that he must be there, in ceremonial dress, for one reason—“ceremony.” The forms must be obeyed. The Arrakis transfer to Atreides control is a foregone conclusion.

Throughout this scene, Villeneuve’s camera pauses on different objects in the room around Paul and Jessica—a crystal water glass, a bronze statue of a bull and a bullfighter—intercutting the objects with the traditional shot/reverse shot of Paul and Jessica’s conversation. Villeneuve’s Dune might not quote any histories like the book that it is based on, but it does understand the weight of the decisions its characters make, and it equates those decisions with concrete objects, things that occupy three-dimensional space, that have their own gravity. 

Jessica, more than anyone else in the film, understands the pull of gravity’s embrace, and how impossible to resist that it becomes the closer it gets. She is part of the Bene Gesserit, and she is pivotal in their plot to breed a Messiah. As part of their breeding program, she was instructed to have only daughters, who would also be funneled into the Bene Gesserit bloodlines, in the hopes that they might produce the Messiah. For the love of Duke Leto, she has a son—an heir for House Atreides—instead. She suspects that Paul might be the Messiah that the Bene Gesserit have been looking for, one generation early. She cannot help but train him to use the Voice, but the looks she gives him are measured, almost cautious, as though by having a son she has attempted to catch a wild thing, and now that she has that wild thing, she and the sisters of the Bene Gesserit cannot control it or tame it.

Paul, for his part, feels trapped by the circumstances that brought about his very existence. “You Bene Gesserit made me a freak,” he accuses his mother, once he realizes that his dreams are glimpses of the future. The camera repeatedly frames Chalamet’s head with circles in the background, like halos, except they’re off-center, almost broken. Paul has been set up to be a Messiah by his mother, by the Bene Gesserit, by countless women whose decisions to chase bloodlines across millennia finally crystallized into him. He’s earlier than expected, but the people who matter—his mother and the people of Arrakis—recognize him for who he is. “They see the signs,” says Jessica when the Fremen call out across the sand to Paul with the words “Lisan al-Gaib.” They’re calling him the Voice From the Outer World, their name for Messiah. 

What Jessica knows (and what the movie does not explicitly state) is that the Bene Gesserit have been to Arrakis centuries ago; their conspiracy to breed a Messiah included missions to warp the religions on every planet, to plant stories of the Bene Gesserit Messiah so that he’d be protected, should he ever fall into trouble. Fremen pilgrims chant prayers for deliverance from the Lisan al-Gaib, unaware that their hopes are tangled up in the conspiracy to produce a seer unhindered by time. The Bene Gesserit plot turns on their ability to plant a prophecy, then to work to cultivate that prophecy until they can fulfill it themselves.


On a metatextual level, Villeneuve’s Dune could not fail in its mission, armed as it is with its budget, its production design and costuming, its cast, and its writer-director who had already managed to successfully adapt two other science-fiction stories previously considered unadaptable. Dune is a juggernaut, fueled by the momentum provided by the behind-the-scenes efforts of cast and crew. Like the Bene Gesserit efforts to produce a Messiah, Dune is a self-fulfilling prophecy, albeit with several possible outcomes: if the film had failed, the book would have been confirmed to be “unadaptable” until the next attempt some decades in the future. If the adaptation had been good but rejected by audiences, it would have been hailed as an instant cult classic, if only because the book’s fanbase is large and loyal. As it is, Dune is both an inevitable and unexpected success: it manages to tell the story it sets out to tell within an appropriate runtime, at appropriate scale, with enough tantalizing details to keep both fans and the uninitiated alike happy. 

And yet, for all the richness of its mise-en-scène, the film is startlingly anemic, focused only on the cycle of time and on Paul’s plight as an early Messiah. It abandons the book’s sweeping surveys of ecology and politics for the 10,000-foot view of the book’s coming-of-age plot. Remove one component of an environment—a plant, or a predator—and the rest of the environment falls out of balance. Dune abandons its characters’ rich internal lives to focus on one character only, allowing the movie to evoke a sense of grandeur and weight through sheer spectacle, but at the cost of the story’s ecology of thematic threads and interpersonal relationships. Deserts are, in reality, rich and complicated ecologies, and Frank Herbert’s Dune is no exception; in comparison, Villeneuve’s is a deep shadow.

A prophecy that fulfills itself is more impressive than a statement that never comes true, but there’s no real magic to it, only immense effort. Villeneuve’s Dune is complicated: self-aware enough to avoid falling into the traps its mid-century source material lays, impressively designed enough that there is no choice but to sit in wonder at the spectacle. Like Paul, Dune is a fulfillment of prophecy in an unexpected way, perhaps delivered too early; the film is literally incomplete. Rather than covering the full arc of the novel, the film tapers off, resolving in a series of catastrophes: personal betrayal, inter-House fighting, the loss of House Atreides. Paul kills a man for the first time, losing the last of his innocence. Eventually, the plot threads die away without resolving. Paul and Jessica retreat into the desert with the Fremen. As in the novel, they will emerge from the desert in two years’ time, when the next movie comes out.


My own expectations for Villeneuve’s Dune had a weight to them. I knew that my own history with the book was deeply personal; even now, I have a difficult time articulating precisely why I like the book, beyond my own history with the story. I went to the theater hoping for a spectacle, something to fill in the blanks in my brain whenever I read the book, and I got that. From now on, when I read about Paul behind the controls of an ornithopter, I’ll forever picture the dragonfly-shaped warships folding their wings to dive into the depths of a raging sandstorm. I expected to be slightly disappointed by the ending—I’d been tipped off that this movie was part one of two—but I didn’t know whether I’d be angry, or disappointed, or left wanting more by the time I reached the end.

I walked out of the theater feeling flat and a little empty, a desert with half the plant life gone. I hadn’t been changed by this movie, although the movie had changed my relationship to the story. Each piece of the film slid into place as I watched it, oiled tumblers in a lock, and with each piece I nodded, Yes, this fits, this makes sense. I was left agape at the scale of the special effects. I was unsurprised by the beats of the story.

I want art to surprise me. I don’t want it to live up to my own expectations. I don’t want a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t think Dune—in any adaptation—can be anything but a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m Jessica: the person who wanted to see this movie come about, but who didn’t understand what that would mean until I saw the result. Only time will tell if I’m right. 

And if part two is a disappointment? There’s always another version coming, someday, in the future.

  1. I recommend reading Roxana Hadadi on what Villeneuve’s Dune gets wrong about its approach to the original novel’s deliberate Orientalism. Her piece gets into the cultural context that the movie deliberately flattens.
  2.  David Lynch’s Dune (1984) attempted to do so, and the end result was characters’ internal thoughts expressed as whispered voiceover that cut the tension of any given scene, and a paper glossary of terms that was handed out at some theatrical screenings—attempts to explain a story that defies simple explanation, leaving most viewers unhappy and confused.
  3. Herbert’s word choice is intentional and strategically placed as one of many concepts he draws from MENA cultures and languages.
  4. The bull’s head that hangs in the Atreides dining room on Arrakis is the very same bull that killed Leto’s father; Leto cannot escape his father’s legacy any more than Paul will be able to escape his own fate.
  5. The Princess Irulan, Paul’s wife and historian—trapped in a loveless marriage as Paul’s gambit to take the throne, second to Paul’s Fremen lover Chani, repeatedly inserting herself into history by writing about Paul because he will not admit her into his life in any other way.