Paul Atreides of ‘Dune’ Is a Messiah-Figure — And a Villain | Sojourners

Paul Atreides of ‘Dune’ Is a Messiah-Figure — And a Villain

'Dune: Part Two,' Warner Bros.

The biggest movie of the year so far is Dune: Part Two, and for good reason. Already raking in more than 600 million globally, the movie is a joy to look at; the cinematography can take your breath away. But, for people of faith, there is an additional reason to see it: The Dune films and books are a poignant reflection on both the power and danger of religion, and more specifically, the concept of messiahship.

Spoilers for the Dune movies and books follow.

A soft sci-fi epic set in a distant future where “thinking machines” have been outlawed after a brutal uprising, most of the action takes place on the planet Arrakis, an unforgiving desert landscape that holds the key to the politics of the empire — spice. Created by the giant sandworms that the Fremen (the native people of Arrakis) call Shai-Hulud, spice is the key component in interstellar navigation. It is also a necessary intoxicant for the mysterious Bene Gesserit, a female-only quasi-religious order whose breeding program has finally come to fruition in Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet, in role that he seems almost destined for. The story follows Paul’s acceptance by Fremen tribes and subsequent rise to become the leader of a crusade as the Lisan al-Gaib, the messiah figure foretold by Fremen prophecies spread by the Bene Gesserit.

In this film, those who discount the pull and sway that religion has do so at their own peril. When Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh) has a conversation with her father (Christopher Walken), the emperor, he discounts the Fremen people and their newfound messiah. But Princess Irulan issues a foreshadowing rebuke: “You underestimate the power of faith.” In the Dune universe, as well as now, Princess Irulan’s warning holds true.

At the beginning of the movie, Paul rejects the mantle of leadership altogether, saying that he seeks to learn from and fight with the Fremen. Flooded with prescient visions, Paul knows that if he ventures to the south of Arrakis he will become the messiah and start a holy war that kills billions, but his thirst for domination and power wins out, and he starts the galaxy on a path that he knows will end in utter destruction.

Soon, Paul comes to adopt the messiah role as a means for revenge. His mother attempts to steer away from retribution by appealing to the memory of his father: “Your father didn’t believe in revenge,” to which Paul curtly replies, “I do.” Becoming the leader of millions of Fremen is Paul’s pathway to avenging his father and claiming control over the empire. In the end, messiahship is just a pathway for Paul’s transformation into a self-aware colonizer who will become like his rivals. [T]his is how we'll survive,” he says. “By being Harkonnens.”

As such, the movie takes a critical view of messiahship, particularly the idea of the white savior so prevalent in our media. Think about movies like James Cameron’s Avatar. The trope is simple: A white character is introduced into a functioning Indigenous society and becomes better at the core practices of that group than they are, eventually rising into leadership and saving the world.

Dune: Part Two critiques white messiahship by replaying those same tropes and then demonstrating the disastrous results. Paul, modeled after Lawrence of Arabia, is a better Fremen than those who were born on Arrakis. He rides a “grandfather worm,” the biggest one summoned in generations; he is adopted by the Fremen, learns their ways, and outdoes them at their signature practices. 

There is no doubt that Frank Herbert, the author of the books that the movies are based on, intended audiences to be disgusted with Paul. In Dune Messiah (the book, which will become source material for the next film), Paul compares himself favorably to Hitler: “He killed more than six million. Pretty good for those days ... at a conservative estimate, I’ve killed sixty-one billion, sterilized ninety planets, completely demoralized five hundred others. I’ve wiped out the followers of forty religions …”

As his son Brian Herbert points out in the novel’s foreword, Herbert sought to make clear that Paul is a bad guy in Dune Messiah because so many of his readers had somehow missed that point, despite the author’s clear attempts to strip Paul of charisma, humanity, and goodness by the novel’s end.

That is precisely what worries me about the movie. Despite the fact that Paul is clearly the central villain of the Dune series, there is a real question whether one can use the tropes of the white savior narrative to critique that same narrative. Will fans walk away disgusted by Paul, or is he just a space-version of Tony Soprano, who fans cheered for until (almost) the bitter end of The Sopranos? 

A movie that is critical of messiahship speaks wisdom into our current political reality. A recent video called, “God Made Trump,” put together by the former president’s supporters utters the following rationale for his next term as president: “God looked down on his planned Paradise and said, I need a caretaker. So, God gave us Trump.” The former president also seems keen to use such religious fervor to enact his own crusade, threatening revenge and, if he loses, a “bloodbath.”

The Dune series’ ambivalence and criticism about the role of the messiah lends some light on one of scripture’s more enigmatic ideas: the messianic secret. At several points in the gospels, especially Mark, Jesus explicitly forbids his disciples from revealing that he is the messiah. Take, for instance, Mark 8:29-30: “[Jesus] asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”

Why would Jesus shy away from claiming the mantle of the messiah? Theologians and historians have a couple different ideas: He might have thought such celebrity would lead to his premature execution, or that it was simply not yet time for Jesus’ identity to be revealed. But the prevailing theory is that Jesus shied away from claiming his messianic title for exactly the reasons that Dune: Part Two has misgivings about the role: The messiah was perceived to be a military leader who would oust occupying powers and usher in a reign of peace. Jesus chooses a different understanding of messiahship, proclaiming that his “kingdom is not of this world.” In doing so, he continually confounds his disciples, leading to one of my favorite readings of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis: “Judas was trying to throw Jesus into the deep end of the pool – make him swim.” Surely the messiah would find a way out of it.

Jesus confounded expectations with his understanding of the role of messiah, but our present moment is filled with those who are seeking exactly the type of raw power and revenge that Paul exudes. Dune: Part Two’s criticism of the messiah ought to lead us to a clear understanding that a white savior is no savior at all. Christians know that we already have a messiah, but the question remains whether we are prepared to accept his radical message of justice, self-effacement, and love, or whether we are attracted to precisely the kinds of messiahs that Dune: Part Two strikes against.