Dune offers the impossible in modern cinema: robust anthropology, religion, and virtue.
By Jacob Feiser
“Dune, famously, is an unfilmable piece of work. It has four appendices and a glossary of its own gibberish, and its action takes place on two planets, one of which is a desert overrun by worms the size of airport runways. Lots of important people die or try to kill each other, and they’re all tethered to about eight entangled subplots.” —WIRED
And that was just the first book.
Dune: Part Two
I watched Dune: Part One (2021) nine times before I read the 1965 sci-fi novel, and subsequently watched the movie six more times. Some might call me a “fan” because of this, others, “obsessed.”
Now that the latest trailer for the sequel has just dropped, I am ready to revisit Dune in preparation for Part Two (2024). I am not generally a sci-fi fan and I do not follow the actors involved in the project. Yet, I am drawn to the title’s substantive relevance and encouragement for the present age. Despite the otherworldliness of the material, Dune offers a full-bodied anthropology (what it means to be human), with generous attention given to religion and virtue.
As the director of a previous adaption noted, Dune is a timeless and universal contemplation of “the human condition and its moral dilemmas.” With questions of artificial intelligence, transhumanism, and the value of religion in today’s cultural headwinds, there is no doubt that Dune provides a literary and cinematic reflection for modern audiences to consider.
Set in a distant future much akin to the Middle Ages, Dune navigates emperors, dukes, great houses, and political rivalries, where machines are forbidden to “think.” No robots, no computers. Yet this is not a Luddite paradise. This prohibition is not a rejection of progress or innovation. It is a conscious decision to prevent a loss of humanity. Advanced technologies remain present with humans in full control.
Certain humans become themselves proverbial computers, rational and conditioned, highlighting the tension between material progress and retaining one’s humanity. To be human becomes a dominating focus as the story weaves itself together.
Man vs. Machine
This question of humanity is fully explored through the experiences and trials of the protagonist. Early in the Dune story, Paul Atreides undergoes a ritual trial: he must submit to exponentially increasing pain, or he will die. In this sort of mind-over-matter test, the question is posed. Will he prove himself a human, capable of maintaining rational control over himself? Or, will he serve his instincts, as animals do? When he survives this test (shocker), film viewers might be confused when the administrator of the test says farewell to Paul. “Goodbye, human. I hope you live.” Without context, it seems as if Paul is the only human, that the administrator is an alien.
To Be Human
Instead, the argument begins to build: to be human means, in the least, controlling one’s instincts and urges.
True humanity is not found in surgical or technological enhancement or alterations. Rather, it appears in the ability to overcome our instincts and feelings. This forthright rejection of postmodern psychology (man is just a bunch of impulses and urges), expresses a far higher view of the body than just that of a human ‘meat-Lego.’ Part One instead emphasizes the fullness of humanity that lies beyond instinct, and Part Two is expected to continue that anthropology.
On the desert-planet Arrakis, Paul encounters the natives, the Fremen people. Religion is at its most primal state in the Fremen (what I might crudely refer to as “Space Islam”), but Dune does not present this religion with any modernist superiority. If one is attempting to read or watch Dune as a theological program, they will be sorely disappointed; Herbert has blended the world’s major religions into various new forms through a sort of Jungian-Zen serialism. But this is not to inspire mere “spirituality.” Instead, Dune considers religion a necessary and viable part of human existence.
Religion in Dune
There is no degree of orthodoxy to be found in the religious amalgamations present in Dune, but religion is itself something real and transcendent. In the present world consumed by secularity and the immanent frame of thinking, Dune provides a stark reorientation: religion defines man, theology guides anthropology.
With the rise of expressive individualism and the growing desire by many to treat the human body as a limitation, Dune calls us to pump the brakes and ask if modernity (and now post-modernity) provides the solution. The fullest realization of humanity is not a secularized existence, “enlightened” from religion. In this scientifically advanced world, that realization is instead totally dependent on religious expression and participation.
The actual theological claims of Dune are not ideal. The Christian, or anyone of an orthodox faith, cannot endorse the various religious beliefs present in Dune. We can, however, appreciate the sincerity with which a transcendent view of human existence is approached. When the post-modern world dismisses traditional forms of belief, Dune challenges the conception that a rejection of traditional religions will lead to utopia. Often, modern audiences view religion as incompatible with rational or scientific thought. In the film, however, religion is a dynamic force in driving advancements. Dune: Part One revels in marrying the rational and the religious (Paul, that rational man, is also a messiah figure), and it is actually the complete rejection of religion that leads to an impoverished anthropology.
The portrayal of religion in the film may appear merely superstitious or overly general. The treatment may be a catchall for anyone regardless of tradition. This is a fair critique. But in an age when secularity claims any benefit provided by religion, the value in Dune is not its theological rigor. Its value is its broad insight. No matter how much technology humanity develops, no matter how advanced our civilizations become, we find fullness in something higher. I go further: that fullness can only be found in the Christian tradition. But people of all stripes can still appreciate the cultural value articulated in Dune.
Many great films come from literature, yet so often, the book is better than the movie. Here, I do not disagree – but the difference is thus far marginal. If Dune: Part Two delivers, I expect this to be a film well worth the price of admission.
About the Author
Jacob S. Feiser is a research fellow for the Institute for Faith & Freedom. He is a junior political science major with minors in Biblical and religious studies, economics, and history from Havertown, PA. On campus, Jacob is the executive vice president of academic affairs for the Student Government Association. He is the executive content editor for the Grove City College Journal of Law and Public Policy. Further, he is a ranking member of the Student-Faculty Review Committee. He also competes for Grove City College on the Classical Fencing team.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the writer alone. They do not necessarily reflect those of Grove City College, the Institute for Faith and Freedom, or their affiliates.