Shai-Hulud; Planned Parenthood

Discussed in this essay:
  • Dune (1984), dir. David Lynch
  • Prometheus (2012), dir. Ridley Scott

I was once at a conference at the Free University of Berlin at which the Cambridge classicist Simon Goldhill was speaking about interdisciplinary work at universities and, finding him at my table at the awkward reception afterward, I chose to make small talk by asking him about his own discipline. I wanted to know which translation of the Iliad I, as a casually interested person, should read: Pope or Fagles? He told me to read Fagles if I was interested in the Iliad and Pope if I was interested in the seventeenth century.

My first thought when Kyle MacLachlan climed on the back of a sandworm in David Lynch’s truly bizarre adaptation of the 1965 sci-fi novel Dune was of Prof Goldhill, because some wicked post-disco 80s guitar rock started grooving. Dune is, in a striking number of ways, a movie about the nineteen-eighties.

Talk of differences between ‘the movie’ and ‘the book’ makes me ill; to do so is to believe that there is some kind of conceptual ur-work of which ‘the movie’ and ‘the book’ are both just versions – the Platonic ideal of Dune, that exists outside either – and that is pretty dumb. One is a derivative of the other, but both are independent works of art. Nevertheless, I think a comparison is sometimes enlightening: what the deriver chooses to bring with him and what he chooses to discard; what he chooses to emphasize and what he chooses to change; the original casts an interpretive shadow over its derivative. Dune ‘the movie’ picked up on the villain’s homosexuality in Dune ‘the book’ and added a disgusting, disfiguring disease on top of it, because everyone was terrified of AIDS. (Other commentators have gone so far as to point out that the villain’s disease in the film mimics the symptoms of Kaposi’s sarcoma, the late-stage AIDS complication that was the hallmark of infection in the early 1980s.) The introduction to the antagonist clan, the Harkonnen, pans across a medical facility where body parts are harvested from red-headed lookalikes (think Martin Amis’ In the Palace of the End) to maintain the Baron’s ‘beauty’: AIDS and the gay men who carry it are a terrifying, cannibalistic (flesh-destroying in the real world, but a Harkonnen nephew breaks of a piece of a servant and eats it in the film) evil in 1984. Gross.1

Likewise, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is about whatever we are calling the second decade of the twenty-first century. (The twenty-teens?) And you can tell that it is because the humans portrayed in the film spend trillions of dollars, two years, and all their energy trying to find out what their lives mean. The navel-gazing of the postmodern era has evidently become so intense that even when we look up at the stars, the only thing we can see anymore are our own belly buttons. The hired hands of the good ship Introspection do not want to know how the ancestor species created us; they do not want to know whether they created others; they have not set out to discover or prove that we are alone in the universe: they want to know why. The human-made sentient android aboard ship provides the complete and only answer (say it with me: ‘because they could’), but none of the wild egomaniacs in his company want to accept it.

There are other levels on which this is true of both films: Dune as a Cold War film is concerned with geopolitics in a way that would put contemporary audiences to sleep. Likewise, when the Final Girl in Prometheus discovers that she is alien-pregnant, she first cannot bring herself to ask the surgery machine for an abortion (it may have been my imagination, but I think she actually hesitated a second before using the pro-life-friendly term ‘caesarean’), and second is told (Oh, convenient escape!) that the surgery machine is only programmed for male patients, and so the procedure performed on her by the machine – in what is surely one of the most horrifying sequences ever printed onto film stock – is called an ‘abdominal foreign body removal’, something that Santorum and Steinem can both agree on.

But the true moment of juxtaposition comes at the beginning of ‘Dune’Dune and the end of Prometheus, and it is when both films address the essential nature of human beings. At the outset of Dune, the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit has come to test young Paul Atreides with a poison needle known as the gom jabbar, which ‘only kills animals’. The implication is that if Paul can suppress his instinctual urge to withdraw his hand from the pain box, then reason triumphs over base urges, and that makes him human.

At the very end of Prometheus, the Final Girl is talking to Michael Fassbender’s disembodied head on the edge of the alien spaceship (long, boring story), and he asks her why she intends to continue to seek out the creator-race even though they seem hell-bent on destroying humanity. Is it to stop them? Is it to save other races? No, it’s to ask why they want to kill us, even though this question has been answered truly ad nauseam over the past two hours. Say it with me: Because. They. Can. And what is to blame for this pigheadedness, this triumph of base urges over all reason? You guessed it: Final Girl can’t control herself ‘because I am a human being’. I don’t know what Ridley Scott thinks that his humanity consists of, but one thing’s for sure: he wouldn’t have lasted a minute with the Reverend Mother.


  1. I actually resist this reading of Dune ‘the book’ for the same reason that I resist racist readings of The Lord of the Rings – the villain is gay in 1965 for the same reason that the armies of evil dudes are black in 1945: in both cases, the authors are guilty of lazy, prejudicial atmospheric shorthand, but in neither case did they particularly distinguish themselves from the mainstream society at the time. That is to say: neither book is about how being gay or being black is bad; there is simply an opportunity for a critic to advise modern audiences that neither author distinguished himself as a paragon of progressive thought. [back]