The Inverse Interview

How Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two Rejects the White Savior Myth

“Frank Herbert didn't want to do a white savior story. He wanted to do the opposite.”

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Dune: Part Two

Spoilers for Dune: Part Two ahead!

Dune: Part Two opens with a chilling shot of a pile of bodies engulfed in flames, as Harkonnen warriors throw more Atreides corpses into mass graves. The once-glorious House Atreides, a victim of the Harkonnens’ ruthless political ambitions, is rendered to ash. But as the events of Dune: Part Two unfold, it’s clear this image isn’t just a depiction of the tragedy of tyranny, but a cautionary tale warning against the dangerous allure of charismatic leaders… and the fallacy of the white savior. At least, that was Denis Villeneuve’s interpretation of Frank Herbert’s classic novel, and it’s a reading he wants audiences to emphatically understand.

“When Frank Herbert wrote Dune, when the book came out, I think he was disappointed,” Villeneuve tells Inverse. “There was something about the fact that Paul was seen as a hero that he didn’t like.”

Timothée Chalamet’s performance takes a turn for the sinister once Paul Atreides accepts his fate as messiah.

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Dune: Part Two makes no pretense that Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) is a hero. The sequel to Villeneuve’s astonishing 2021 blockbuster, Dune: Part One, follows Paul as he picks himself up from the massacre of his family and finds refuge among the Fremen, the native people of the desert planet Arrakis. The Fremen have been fighting the Harkonnens for decades for control of the planet’s coveted natural resource, the hallucinogenic “spice” that fuels the Empire’s space travel. But centuries of oppression by Harkonnen rule have made the Fremen vulnerable to what Paul calls “Bene Gesserit propaganda,” a manufactured prophecy of a messiah that will “lead them to paradise.” A messiah that would, conveniently, be a white man.

“For [Herbert], the book was a warning about charismatic leaders and he wanted Paul to be more perceived as a dark figure.”

To say that Dune has a complicated relationship with the white savior trope would be an understatement. The trope refers to a white person from one culture entering another to “save” the helpless, often uncivilized, minorities, and the concept’s imperialist roots have been criticized in recent shows and films ranging from Game of Thrones to The Help.

Herbert’s Dune, based in no small part on British soldier T. E. Lawrence leading a 1916 revolt against the Ottoman Empire (and inspiring Lawrence of Arabia in the process), can’t avoid the white savior myth. The story draws heavily on Middle Eastern imagery and the sociopolitical context in which it was written — 1965 was the height of the Iraq oil crisis — which would paint the Fremen as people of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent.

Dune’s language is loaded with Arabic terms; the Fremen’s word for messiah, for example, is “Mahdi,” a Muslim term meaning “guided one.” The white messiah, Paul, and the MENA-coded Fremen he would amass into an army is a loaded combination of imagery that Herbert would present as a cautionary tale. “It’s been my belief for a long time that man inflicts himself on his environment … that is, Western man,” Herbert said in 1969.

That was the spirit of Herbert’s Dune that Villeneuve wanted to convey with his films. “For [Herbert], the book was a warning about charismatic leaders, and he wanted Paul to be more perceived as a dark figure,” Villeneuve says.

Gurney Halleck reunites with Paul and presents him with his family’s atomic arsenal, marking a turning point in Paul’s life.

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There lies a problem inherent to sci-fi. Dune, for all intents and purposes, is structured like a traditional sci-fi epic — the hero survives a massacre and returns stronger than ever to enact revenge on his attackers. Audiences would perceive Paul to be the rightful protagonist, and certainly many read his victory at the end of Dune as triumphant, despite all the sticky implications of him being a white savior of the oppressed Fremen. But “Frank Herbert didn’t want to do a white savior story. He wanted to do the opposite,” Villeneuve says.

Herbert’s solution would be to write Dune: Messiah, which sees Paul regret his ascension and explicitly compare himself to Genghis Khan and Hitler. For Villeneuve, the “benefit of time” gave him the chance to introduce this concept earlier by weaving in the innate tragedy of Paul’s ascension to Fremen messiah and setting up his downward spiral to villainy.

“In order to achieve that, I made sure that in Paul’s dramatic arc and the story, that all the elements were there, I just played with them a bit differently,” Villeneuve says. “At the end of the movie, you see that Paul made choices that in order to protect some people, he will become what he was trying to fight against.”

Throughout Dune: Part Two, Paul wrestles with the fate created for him by hundreds of years of Bene Gesserit manipulation and eugenics. At first, he embraces their prophecy out of a sense of revenge, but as he endears himself to the Fremen people, especially his would-be lover Chani (Zendaya), and is plagued by visions of an apocalyptic future where his armies reduce the galaxy to ash, he begins to reject this manufactured fate. But the great tragedy of Part Two is that while Paul is trapped by his fate, he’s the one who ultimately chooses to lock himself into it. And Villeneuve wanted there to be no doubt that Paul is the one who chooses to use this prophecy for his own gain.

“It’s very tragic,” Villeneuve says, “[that he will] lose everything and betray the people he loved.”

The film shifts into the perspective of Chani (Zendaya), who rejects Paul as messiah.

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The way Villeneuve made Paul’s turn toward his dark fate is clear: “It will be seen from Chani’s perspective.”

Combined with Paul’s story of fighting fate is the romance between Paul and Chani. Chani falling in love with Paul goes hand-in-hand with the Fremen accepting Paul as one of their own, but there’s a deliberate split as the Fremen start to embrace Paul as their prophesied messiah. In a departure from the book, Chani becomes Paul’s one nonbeliever, arguing, “This prophecy is how they enslave us.” When Paul embraces his status as messiah, Chani sees it as the ultimate betrayal. That makes the film's final shot, of Chani staying on Arrakis and riding off on a sandworm as Paul and his army of believers leave to conquer the Great Houses, so much more powerful. It’s an explicit statement that Paul is no longer the hero of the story; Chani is. And that was the intention of the script Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts wrote.

“At the end of the movie, you see that Paul made choices that in order to protect some people, he will become what he was trying to fight against.”

“The movie is structured on the love story between Paul and Chani,” Villeneuve says. “The idea was to make sure that we will unfold Paul’s story through this relationship, and that the very specific [turning point of] Paul will be seen roughly more from the perspective of Chani. And that is a very important shift. I changed the nature of Chani’s character to create a perspective that I hope Frank Herbert will agree with in order to achieve his goal.”

Villeneuve’s Dune films still can’t totally avoid the well-deserved criticisms of how they use MENA imagery, but Part Two goes out of its way to undermine the white savior myth the first film sets up. If Chani’s anger over Paul’s choice, or Chalamet’s sinister performance toward the end of the film, doesn’t convey this to audiences, then one of its final shots will: a pile of bodies engulfed in flames, as Paul and his Fremen army rejoice over their victory against the Harkonnens.

Dune: Part Two is playing in theaters now.

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