The Orientalism of Dune

by Mir Ali Hosseini

Most cinemas have been open for some time where I live. After having been indoors in restaurants and bars a few times, I was slowly reintroduced to the pleasures of sharing a space with strangers. And finally it felt like the right moment to, once again, set foot in a cinema.

After about one and a half years, I wanted my return to cinema to be epic — literally epic. Dune’s synopsis seemed to promise exactly that:

A mythic and emotionally charged hero’s journey, Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people.

So, despite being unfamiliar with Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (1965), I chose to watch Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 adaptation.

I wanted my first post-lockdown cinema experience to be a sheer re-enchantment with the silver screen. So, not only did I pick a film which could surprise me the most, but also, I intentionally avoided reading about it. Even though I never read any reviews before watching the film, all the review titles I came across seemed to indicate that a great work, maybe even a masterpiece, is awaiting my presence in cinema.

Well, Dune did surprise me — though in a way which I wasn’t expecting.

Before going on to explain why, I should offer a tiny more bit of context: I went to the cinema with a good friend of mine. We are both Middle Easterners living in Europe, and both have a background in the humanities.

The story of Dune unfolds in Arrakis, an inhospitable and bleak sandy planet (hence “dune”) which is home to a mysterious native people called Fremen. The planet Arrakis supplies the most precious and extremely rare resource in the universe called “spice,” a kind of drug which bends the limits of time and space, and helps unlock human potentials necessary for interstellar travel.

Paul, the “brilliant and gifted” hero of Dune, is a white man of noble descent, the heir of the House Atreides. Duke Leto Atreides, Paul’s father, is ordered by the Galactic Emperor to take over Arrakis from the House Harkonnen, which has failed to effectively govern the unruly Fremen. Unlike the brutal Harkonnens who ruled with violence, Duke Atreides seeks to establish an alliance with the Fremen.

Only a few minutes into the film, we realized that the plot draws, at times to a comical extent, upon world history. House Atreides is generically Western European — their looks, names, and way of life. House Harkonnens, on the other hand, is strongly reminiscent of the Soviet Union — their brutal methods in governance aside, the head of the house has perhaps the most stereotypical Russian male name, Vladimir. And finally, there is Arrakis — the fictional equivalent of the oil- and mineral-rich lands of “the Orient.”

From early on, all these elements distracted us from the fact that the film is supposed to be a work of science fiction. Of course, by saying this I don’t mean that science fiction must not draw upon reality — quite the contrary. Our irritation was caused by how crude and unsophisticated Dune’s references to reality were.

Be that as it may, the film could still have turned out to be a brilliant critique of imperial competition — after all, the novel from which the film is adapted was written at the height of the Cold War.

It didn’t.

As the film continued, we felt more and more detached from the screen. The characters were flat. The story felt unengaging. The worst problem, however, was how uncomfortable we felt with the depiction of Fremen.

Fremen were dark-skinned. Their clothing, stripped of its science fictional elements, was almost exactly like any other Hollywood depiction of Middle Eastern and North African traditional garment. One of the Fremen characters, Chani, even wore something almost like hijab.

The moment in which my friend and I completely gave up came when a group of Fremen who seemed to have gathered to welcome Paul in Arrakis, greeted him by chanting “Lisan al-Ghaib, Lisan al-Ghaib” — and so was our slightest suspicion that we’re getting it wrong shattered: not only did Fremen literally speak Arabic, Paul, a white man, turned out to be the Shiite Messiah! At this very moment, in a perfectly synchronized fashion, my friend and I looked incredulously at each other, just like the times when somebody unexpectedly makes a blatant racist remark.

What is problematic about the Fremen is not just their generic appearance or language. Fremen are savage and tribal. They are indifferent to life, unlike the European Atreides who value individuality. The Fremen are depicted as a wise people. Their wisdom, however, is not the result of an active pursuit of knowledge, but a mystical by-product of their harsh conditions of life and of consuming “spice.” These stereotypes are so textbook that it feels like Dune is the result of a meticulous reversed engineering of what Edward Said famously called “Orientalism.”

There is nothing wrong per se, it could be argued, about drawing upon stereotypes in art. Maybe Paul and Atreides are what the French literary theorist Gérard Genette called “the focalizer” of the story; that, in other words, we see the Fremen through their problematic perspective. Maybe Dune aims to criticize — although in a very unnecessarily roundabout way — colonialism and imperial aspirations. But Dune is no political art, precisely because it fails to keep the viewer engaged. An epic story, above and beyond anything else, must be entertaining. For anyone faintly aware of discourses around colonialism, the Orientalist references in Dune are so blatant that the film becomes impossible to enjoy.

I don’t consider myself to be hypersensitive in these matters. I don’t believe that everything written by white men is inherently and intentionally racist. I try to appreciate an artwork’s merit despite its flaws. For instance, there exist racist references in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but there is no denial that The Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson’s adaptation of it are in many ways brilliant and thoroughly entertaining. The problem is that in Dune the crux of the story rests on Orientalist notions. It is, thus, on a fundamental level impossible to appreciate Dune’s artistic merits, if there exists any.

Unless you have heroic abilities to not register such bizarre references, or you simply just don’t care, I would advise against watching Dune — especially as your first post-lockdown cinematic experience.


Mir Ali Hosseini is a humanist by trade. For years, he has studied philosophy and literature in Tehran, Freiburg, and Leuven. He writes theoretical, political, and cultural criticism across the web and sometimes in print.