“Dune” (2021): the mythic structure, explained

Foreword: if you want to learn more about Dune lore, facts, trivia and so much more, check my previous post here. For my first impressions on the 2021 movie, here.

The 2021 movie by Denis Villeneuve has been met with the general approval of audience and critics (scoring respectively 91% and 84% on rotten tomatoes at the time of my writing). Generally speaking, it seems that this latest treatment of the cult science-fiction classic by Frank Herbert managed to please the long-time book fans, science fiction lovers, and the general public too.

I loved it. It is of course possible to have different points of view and I would like to discuss them in the comments – but please, let’s be civil about it – and in this post, I am not trying to change anyone’s opinion.

A lot of people described the story enthusiastically, using terms like “epic”, “awe-inspiring” and “powerful”. Why? The answer lies in how tightly it adheres to a solid mythic structure, and the deep roots it has in archetypal territory.

I agree that the pacing is a bit unusual – the emotional peak takes place mid-runtime, and this left some people hanging, wanting for more – but this is a choice. This allows for a solid third act that, even though it doesn’t have the intensity of the first two, allows for a richer character arc of the protagonist, and satisfying closure.

I will discuss all this here, the plot, its connection to Myth, archetypes and more in particular with the Monomyth. My hope is that getting a deeper understanding of a story, helps to enjoy it better. Of course be warned, there are deep spoilers ahead.

Ready? Let’s dive into it!

Act 1 The Beginnings.

The movie opens with a brief and minimalist exposition from the point of view of Chani: an interesting choice which anticipates the theme “giving voice to the dispossessed”. A few very effective scenes describe the situation on Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, and the conflict between the Harkonnens, the cruel colonizers, and the local Fremen population.

Then, one day, the Harkonnens are asked to leave, by Imperial decree. From the point of view of the local population, the reasons for this are unknown, and the arcane political plots behind the Imperium are as distant as the alien worlds on which they unfold.

Cut to Caladan, the peaceful planet which is also the Ordinary World:

Paul (the Protagonist) is having breakfast with his mother, and the scene contains an important reference to the value of Ceremony. This paints the picture of a world where customs and traditions have a very important role – and at the same time hints at the fact that this will be a story rich with symbolic meanings.

This is also the way Villeneuve chooses to anticipate that what is coming next will be a staged Rite of Passage: a Ceremony.

The script makes excellent use of these moments as opportunities for world-building. We are introduced to elements of the Imperial Etiquette (the wax seals, the rings), and to several important political actors of the Imperium: the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, the Space Guild and – even though they are not directly mentioned – the Mentat Order all appear in the scene that follows.

House Atreides is also displayed in full, even though Gurney is not amused. He never is, anyway. We get to know many members of the family, each with a special role and relationship to the young Duke.

Duncan Idaho is some sort of best friend – older brother, and incarnates the virtues of the fearless warrior. Gurney Halleck, on the other hand, is more reflexive and mature, better fitting into the role of Mentor. Although strict and somewhat unforgiving, he shares some important insights with Paul.

The Herald represents, well, directly the Herald archetype. A visitor from another world, he is here to deliver an urgent message. This is the Inciting Incident, the Call to Adventure that spins all the story into motion.

The Duke, bound to his sense of honor, accepts the call. This will be another theme recurring throughout the entire story. The Atreides family follows tradition and is solidly rooted in its past. This is their pride but comes with a shadow, that every member of the dynasty must face.

The Refusal

On the other hand, Paul is not so excited about the change. He tries to refuse in many ways: he asks to be part of the preliminary expedition with his friend Duncan, and he doesn’t want to follow the family tradition. This is made clear during the conversation with his father, when he questions the whole matter of legacy and inheritance.

Duke Leto is understanding and compassionate, and suggests that Paul will have to find his own way to leadership. The father-son relationship in this story is full and satisfying. I love that “Dune” takes its time to build its world and deepen these story elements. It’s one of the main reasons why it’s so engrossing.

The Threshold into the Other World cannot be passed without a test.

This is very appropriately represented during the meeting with the Reverend Mother (a Guardian), who subjects Paul to the deadly Gom Jabbar test.

Note that this happens much sooner in the book, right at the beginning. In the movie, it’s delayed, so it gains more weight once Paul’s character and relationships have been established.

Rather than choosing a direct way to represent Paul’s ordeal, Villeneuve shows us how his pain is mirrored by Jessica’s. The two characters suffer together, and it’s a test for both. This gives an opportunity to understand how deep and visceral is the bond between Paul and his mother. At the same time, another element of world building slips in: the “lithany against fear” that is so iconic, it’s the subject of entire spin-off stories and songs (like this, by Tool).

Journey to the Extraordinary World

When the preparations are finally over, the Atreides family moves to their new planet, Arrakis. The shock of arriving to such a completely alien new world is powerful.

For Paul this will be a powerful initiation into an entirely new stage of his life, marking the passage from adolescence into adulthood.

Again, the story takes its time to show hints of the new geography, culture, traditions. The sandworms, the gigantic creatures which inhabit the sands and will have such a central part in the story, are introduced here.

Act 2 – The Road of Trials

Like Hercules in Greek myth, Paul has to face many trials while in the new world. An especially dangerous one comes in the form of the hunter-seeker killer device, which he faces alone in his room. It’s an important test of his skills, on the mental and physical level. Paul is on his way to becoming a hero.

Just a quick side note to give credit to the fact that Baron Vladimir Harkonnen really shines (of a dark light) as the Antagonist. He is obscure, cruel, gross; but also brilliant and manipulative, always one step ahead of the helpless protagonists.

It’s a larger-than-life character inspired by classic and modern archetypes: he emerges from black ooze like a repulsive, biblical Beelzebub but also has a tragic, epic tone like a contemporary Macbeth or Colonel Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now”.

Going back to Paul’s adventures, in a pivotal moment of the second Act, the Atreides meet Liet Kynes, the Imperial Planetologist. She (in the movie; it’s a He in the book) has a very important role as a Hero of the Two Worlds, she connects the Harkonnen with the Atreides; the Fremen with Paul; the desert and the cities. After the Atreides win her trust, she will give Paul some critical advice that will save his life.

For more about meeting friends and foes, see here.

The first encounter with the Sand Worm acts as a Test (for the whole Atreides family, who prove that they follow loyalty and honor – in contrast with the greediness and cruelty of the Harkonnen) and also as another Threshold for Paul: for the first time he is exposed to a large quantity of unprocessed spice and he experiences a powerful vision, therefore entering a new stage of existence.

The Approach to the Dark Cave, is represented when the scene moves to Salusa Secundus and the audience is introduced to the ruthless Sardaukar, the brutal elite special troops employed by the Emperor. They will fight for the Harkonnen, a consequence of yet another dark plot by the Baron.

And this takes us to the Dark Cave: the Atreides shields are disabled by a traitor (more on this later), and Harkonnen troops and Sardaukar invade the planet. It’s a massacre.

The Traitor is Doctor Yueh – a Shapeshifter character. He is motivated by revenge and a (feeble) hope to ever see his wife again, but nevertheless his treason is ultimate and brings death and enormous suffering. He is however consumed by his own irredeemable gesture, and tries to remedy at least in part by saving Paul and Jessica’s lives and making sure that Paul receives the Ducal Ring.

Paul and Jessica manage to escape: Paul tests his skills and succeeds (he can use The Voice now – an important step), saving their lives,

And they escape the city, now in ruins. They look one more time at the pillars of smoke rising from what used to be their home. Everything is lost.

The dramatic climax (the peak of the conflict) takes place in the heart of the Atreides stronghold. It’s a dark hall, symbolizing once again the center of the labyrinth, a very literal Dark Cave.

The camera once again lingers on a bull head on the wall. That’s the bull that killed Leto’s father (Paulus Atreides). The Old Duke, as he is commonly referred to in the books, was a proud and impulsive man, who against the better judgment of his advisors, loved bullfighting in the arena as a show. Until he was eventually slain by a bull. The animal’s head was displayed in Castle Caladan’s dining hall as a warning against vanity and excessive self-confidence.

It’s therefore very symbolical that Leto lies powerless and the bull’s head is the first thing he sees when he comes about. He is following his father’s footsteps: the Old Duke was made blind by his own arrogance; Leto by his sense of duty and, maybe, too much confidence in his plans and his advisors.

This scene is breathtaking and has a distinct classical flavor. Its tragic tone and the use of light and shadows remind me of a Caravaggio:

The Entombment of Christ (1603-1604).

And this makes the juxtaposition with the Baron, arrogant, savoring his triumph like a villain from a Shakespeare drama (or a James Bond movie) all the more effective.

The editing switches back and forth between the imminent death of Duke Leto, and the young Paul in the desert – the Ducal Ring in his hand, he knows for a fact that he is the new Duke now.

Fun fact, a similar historical episode happened in real-life, the Ducal Ring of Normandy was for a long time at the center of controversy and political fights, until it was destroyed in 1469.

The Ring (an obvious symbol for a “power object“) passed from generation to generation can be considered the Reward, but it comes with a high price. Doctor Yueh’s plot to assassinate the Baron fails, killing only the twisted Mentat Piter (and a few unfortunate Harkonnen guards) in the process.

Paul ad Jessica are alone in the desert. And this is the moment when they have to make sense of what’s yet to come. It’s a classic Oracle moment.

But in a very interesting and refreshing take, Paul is a very Reluctant Hero and will keep this quality until the very end. He can see his future as the Chosen One unfold before his very eyes, but he is not at all happy with what he sees.

In another cave he starts to conceive a possible plan to emerge victorious from the conflict ahead. But this is anticipating the next movie, so we will not go there right now.

Act 3 – The Magic Flight.

Strong in his new decision, Paul has to escape the relentless Sardaukar troops, still hunting him. Duncan (one of his mentors and his best friend) sacrifices his life in order to save him – an important death and resurrection threshold that creates a satisfying closure for this major character.

And so Paul can fly away. In an almost suicidal move, he rides away a deadly sandstorm using a ‘thopter.

He manages, thanks to the advice from the planetologist (effectively the last crucial contribution from this character, before the end of her arc). Kynes, shifting again, assumes the form of an Oracle now.

If this isn’t a “use the Force, Paul” moment.

During the flight, Paul receives one particular powerful vision which contains a revelation about (nonetheless) the meaning of life.

This is very meaningful.

In the book, this passage is revealed much earlier, in a conversation between Paul and Thufir Hawat (it’s quoted as the First Law of the Mentat). In the movie, this “ah-ah!” moment is turned into a vision, delivered by a still unknown Fremen (it’s Jamis, see below) during the “Meeting the Divine” stage.

Here is when the meaning for the Ordeal must be understood and internalized by the protagonist. This gives a sense of the difference between writing a novel versus writing for the screen.

And so we get to the final Resolution.

The Death and Resurrection happens on multiple levels: the storm, which leaves Jessica and Paul almost dead (and destroys the ornithopter in the process); the attack by a gigantic sandworm – which leaves without attacking (we will learn why later); and the final encounter with the Fremen, which poses a new threshold and therefore, a challenge.

While Stilgar (who will be a new Mentor for Paul, in his coming life stage) is reluctant but ready to welcome Paul, the young Duke will need to fight a deadly duel in order to overcome his new tribespeople’s mistrust.

It’s a life-or-death situation, a new Guardian and who is there to remind that for the Kwisatz Haderach to be born, Paul needs to die. This will happen in the duel, which therefore acts as a “New Life” chapter, and the climax of the third act. To add another level of symbolism, the scene takes place at the sunrise, a liminal moment of change between night and day (which on Arrakis mean life and death).

This may not be the emotional peak of the film – the reason why some commenters lament the “weak ending” – but in fact it serves as the perfect culmination for the story.

The problem is that the duel can be perceived as a fight with a random guy who just cannot accept Paul as one of theirs, but this low-key (but no less deadly) moment is effectively a Rite of Passage that marks the transformation of Paul, his Initiation Ritual into the next stage of his life.

Also, the Fremen who challenges Paul to a deadly duel is Jamis, the same man who appeared in his vision about the meaning of life. Paul’s abilities make him see every possible future (think of alternate timelines), even one in which Jamis is his mentor and shares wisdom with him. Instead, in the current timeline, events play out in a different way and Jamis becomes his mortal hero. It is still a valuable lesson to learn, so in a certain sense, the character still acts as a mentor and introduces Paul to the Fremen’s culture and philosophy, but in a very different way.

The story starts with one Ceremony (the Imperial Herald) and ends with one (the Fremen Duel), thus going full circle and marking the transition for Paul from one life, to another, to another.

And this, as Chani remarks, “is only the beginning”. Dune part 2 has been officially announced and will hit theaters in 2023. I, for one, can’t wait.

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