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Dune: The Last Glimmer of American National Mythology

It’s been three years since the first “Dune” movie was released. This science fiction text, once known as the “Graveyard of the Masters,” has taken on new life in the hands of director Denis Villeneuve.

After the first part gained good reputation, the highly anticipated “Dune 2” was released to the audience last week. Currently, there are more than 200,000 reviews on Douban, and the movie’s rating is stable at around 8.3 points.

The “Dune” series is undoubtedly one of the highest quality Hollywood blockbusters in recent years. After the superhero era led by Marvel has shrunk rapidly, the “Dune” movie relies on the classic science fiction stories of the last century and incorporates modern science fiction aesthetics to once again create a huge universe for us.

However, in this brown and yellow desert universe, what moves us is no longer who is going to save mankind, but the old but alluring question: Who are we?

01. National myth

In the last section of “Dune 2”, Chini left Paul and his galactic crusade, walked onto the dunes alone, and summoned the sandworms to return to their hometown. The last shot of the movie freezes on Qini’s complicated face – her trembling lower lip, moist eyes, twisted eyebrows and determined eyes.

If you recall the original work, you will find that the ending chosen by director Villeneuve is surprisingly consistent and even more shockingly conflicting with the original work. Here is a quote from the last paragraph of the original work:

“That’s what you’re saying now,” Qini said. She looked at the tall princess across the hall.

“Don’t you know my son so well?” Jessica said softly, “Look at the princess standing over there, how arrogant and confident she is. It is said that she has extraordinary literary attainments. We hope she can be in those things in the future She finds solace in it; apart from that, she has nothing else.” Jessica showed a wry smile, “Think about it, Qini, that princess will have no title, but will live a life worse than that of a concubine – – Although you are a queen, you will never get a moment of tenderness from your husband. And we, Qini, who are burdened with the status of concubines – history will call us wives. ”

The original work also ends with Chini’s reaction. However, in the original work, Chini only competes for a position next to Paul. In the movie, Chini’s departure was due to political differences with Paul, and she hoped to liberate herself in her own way. People and hometown.

Chini’s character and storyline are more independent. But this agreement and conflict, in addition to the character level, also hides all the secrets of the 60-year entanglement between the novel “Dune” and the movie “Dune”.

From our perspective, it is difficult to understand why Americans are so obsessed with the text “Dune.”

Ever since “Dune” became a huge success after its publication, the Western film industry has been trying to adapt it into a film. During this period, there were some adaptations that failed, such as Jodorowsky’s version. Although the film itself did not ultimately enter filming, the art settings made by designer H.R. Giger for the film profoundly influenced subsequent science fiction films and television.

There was the David Lynch version that was successfully filmed but controversial. Of course, there is also the American TV series “Dune” that did not create much splash, and the “Dune” real-time strategy game produced by Westwood Studio.

If the Chinese audience is unfamiliar with “Dune” and the history surrounding this text, they will probably be puzzled after watching the movie: Why would Hollywood spend such a large investment on the production and almost all-star casts to film it? A cliche story from the 1960s? Why is Dune so important to Hollywood?

The answer is also simple: “Dune” can be regarded as the “national myth” of the United States.

There is a famous statement in “The Lord of the Rings”: History becomes legend, and legend becomes myth. The basic purpose of any national myth is to answer a question: “Who are we?” As a country of immigrants, the United States does not have a traditional national history, so it naturally has no myth. It is a country founded on “ideas”.

This also determines that the United States does not have an identity based on history in its national consciousness, but only a political identity based on ideas: No matter where you come from, as long as you come to the United States, you are a new person, and this is a new world.

The “myth” of America is essentially progressive, which may also explain why science fiction has emerged, grown and grown into a mainstream genre in the United States. American identity is forward-looking, and American national mythology also tells you that who you will be is more important than who you were before.

“Dune” plays exactly such a role. It is a text that appeared in the 1960s. In addition to the Cold War background, it echoes the national liberation movements in the third world after World War II. Since the end of World War I, when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson proposed the “principle of national self-determination,” the United States has shown a state of intertwined and contradictory idealism and realism in diplomacy.

At that time, the United States generally still believed that it was a righteous and powerful force, a “city on a hill”, and had the obligation to lead the world into a new era. The resolution of the Suez Canal Crisis in 1957 also benefited from the United States and the Soviet Union helping the Arab world and pressuring Britain and France to finally give up jurisdiction over the Suez Canal.

Therefore, it is difficult to say that the release of “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1962 was not affected by the Suez Canal Crisis. In real history, T.E. Lawrence wanted to promote the liberation of the Arab nation, but ultimately failed.

“Dune” began serialization in 1963. Its most basic character relationships and story structure are basically a replica of “Lawrence of Arabia”: the foreign protagonist integrates into the local ethnic group with a mission, and gradually begins to identify and accept the culture and consciousness of the local ethnic group. form, and eventually led the local ethnic groups to overthrow the brutal rule of the foreigners.

And this story pattern is exactly the myth that the United States tells itself: Although “I” am the heir of that powerful empire, in the end I will bring progressivism and lead the weak to liberation. In this process, “I”, as the new world, draws a clear line from the old world.

This motif, coupled with the original author of “Dune” Frank Herbert’s in-depth study of desert ecology, his fascination with Middle Eastern culture, and the clear metaphor of using spices to refer to oil, formed the “Dune” An all-encompassing text. Eventually, it became the “national myth” of the United States.

The status of this “national myth” can be clearly seen by looking at the reference to “Dune” in later American popular culture. For example, “Star Wars” is actually a “Dune” that removes complex elements, simplifies good and evil, and incorporates the glorious victory of World War II in American history. And “Star Wars” naturally has an unshakable position in American pop culture.

As for this “Lawrence of Arabia”-style story structure, it has become a basic paradigm in Hollywood movies. “Dances with Wolves”, “Pocahontas” and “Avatar” all fall into this category.

It’s easy to understand why Hollywood attaches so much importance to “Dune”: America’s national myth must be taken seriously.

As one of the most outstanding science fiction film directors today, Villeneuve has lived up to expectations and brought a version of “Dune” with a contemporary aesthetic. So, half a century has passed, what has remained unchanged in this version of “Dune” and the original “Dune”, and what has changed?

02. There is no savior

Sixty years after “Dune,” Americans told the story of “Lawrence of Arabia” over and over again. But by 2024, this story is somewhat old-fashioned and reactionary. The core of this cliché and reaction is, who is the subject in this story?

The main subject in the myth is, of course, the white savior “Lawrence”. The same is true in the original work of “Dune”. All the plots revolve around how the protagonist Paul embarks on the path destined to become “Quessaz Hardrach”, and other people are either obstacles or help. In this process, there is no Subjective.

Paul himself suffered greatly: “They were my friends and now they are my followers,” but this was inevitable. Just like in the original novel, Lady Jessica and Qini are just two vases who help Paul and obey Paul to become the savior.

Since Herbert, the original author, is obsessed with metaphysical thoughts about human destiny, in the original work, Paul himself is like a walking “famous saying machine.” In addition to speaking for the author, the character’s personality is actually very vague.

This is the core difference between the movie and the original work: the movie strengthens the subjectivity of the characters. Many characters and relationships that were very thinly portrayed in the original work have been greatly strengthened in the movie.

The original work “Dune” completed a great world building because it was well detailed and had endless room for imagination. The ecology of the Dune planet is the focus, and for this purpose there is a dedicated character, Lieutenant Keynes, who serves as a guide to lay out the planet’s ecology and describe the cultural traditions of the Freemen in detail.

As for the remaining parts, such as the Astronautical Guild, the Sisterhood, the Emperor, and the political structure of the entire empire, these parts have relatively little description, leaving a lot of room for the reader’s imagination.

Each faction has its own setting, although due to space limitations it cannot be expanded upon. For example, the Harkonnen family is characterized by cruelty, but how cruel it is and how the family operates specifically are not explained too much.

Fed-Rosa Harkonnen in the original novel was basically a tool of the Sisters – used to create obstacles for Paul at the end. In the movie, the subjectivity of these characters is strengthened, and the omitted parts of the original work are expanded. For example, the pure black and white Harkonnen Jedi Prime is not only visually impressive, but the pure crazy character of Fede Rosa is also highlighted. This makes it logical that he would eventually challenge Paul.

From the beginning to the end, Qini did not believe Paul’s theory of “Destined Savior” and believed that it was all just a conspiracy by the sisterhood. We can say that Qini, who did not believe in the existence of a savior from the beginning and was full of subjective spirit, is the core character of “Dune 2”.

As a member of the sisterhood, Lady Jessica knew exactly what she was doing. The moment she gave birth to Paul against the orders of the sisterhood, it showed that she was not a character willing to be manipulated. At the same time, as the conspirator behind the scenes, she guided and forced her son Paul to take that path. At the end of the movie, Lady Jessica realizes the terrifying prospect of a grand galactic crusade and understands that she has done something extremely terrible.

In fact, Paul himself did not believe in the savior, but the environment forced him to take the path he wanted to avoid – if he chose to give up, the result would be the failure of the Fremen and the destruction of the Atreides family, as well as The failure and demise of justice.

If he embarked on that path, he knew very well that the result would be jihad throughout the galaxy and the death of 60 billion people. Until the end, Paul still knew in his heart that his choice might be wrong, and fate held his hands.

Looking back, just like the national myth the United States told itself sixty years ago, we have seen the myth shattered over the years – the United States is not a “city on a hill”, wars are rife around the world, and “resistance” has even evolved in the Middle East. type society” this kind of social form.

In such a society, there is no mythical story about defectors from advanced countries bringing advanced technology and ideology and eventually becoming the savior.

This is also the amazing thing about “Dune”: if you only watch the first part of “Dune”, this is indeed a national myth of Manifest Destiny. But as the story continues, the protagonist turns to his opposite: he leads the Fremen in a pan-galactic jihad, and the oppressed in turn become the oppressors. Paul’s savior aura fades, and he will become a tyrant.

03. What else can we expect from Dune?

Seeing the end of “Dune 2”, it is obvious that the story is not over. Paul’s sister has not been born yet. If there really is a third part of the movie, how will this story be interpreted?

The original author Herbert completed a great world-building in the first novel, but at the textual level, “Dune” combined this world-building with an old-fashioned prince’s revenge to form the effect of a national myth.

From the second part of the novel, Herbert has been reflecting on such myth construction. But the narrative of the novel obviously gave way to the author’s didactic impulse – in the book, the author expressed various opinions on human nature, society, the world, the universe, and evolution. The characters are constantly engaged in ideological battles and wars with each other. The author also wants to use the prophecies of destiny to think deeply about heroes and anti-heroes.

But after all, the focus of the novel is the story, and the main reason why the movie “Dune” is successful is that it successfully visualizes the Dune universe.

It may be speculated that the story of “Dune 3” will diverge from the original work and focus more on film and television expression. Chini also has the opportunity to become a more important protagonist and confront Paul, who is becoming the opposite of himself.

As one of the most famous contemporary auteur directors, Villeneuve’s excellence lies in his ability to capture many “unspeakable things.” For example, the scene when Paul first met the sandworm; or the black and white fireworks that exploded like ink on Jedi Prime in the second part.

It is these “unspeakable things” that inject human beings’ respect for giants beyond their control into the hearts of the audience.

“Dune 2” inherits the Villeneuve-style aesthetics of “Dune 1” very well. In the first part, the extremely restrained presentation of sandworms left a deep impression on the audience, while in the second part, a very stunning passage took place on the main planet of Harkonnenjedi, Fed-Rosa… Harkonnen’s birthday ceremony.

This section was shot in infrared, with extremely strong contrast in black and white tones and black ink-like fireworks under the white sky, rendering Jedi Prime into a different world. Coupled with the ubiquitous triangle elements, this is a rare original visual design in science fiction movies in recent years.

In fact, the original work does not describe the appearance of the Harkonnen family’s Jedi Prime, which leaves ample room for the adapters. This version of Villeneuve’s visual presentation, while drawing on designer H.R. Giger, also generates new imagination and creativity.

Although the story basis of “The Revenge of the Prince” seems quite old-fashioned in the 21st century, the visual creation of the “Dune” series will make it leave an important mark in the history of science fiction and film.

We can call it the last glory of Hollywood science fiction movies, or the last afterglow of American national mythology. In this era where AI drawing is becoming popular and AI video production has begun to take shape, the emergence of “Dune” has a special significance that we cannot measure.

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