George Lucas was known for putting his influences on film – a dash of Akira Kurosawa here, a pinch of Flash Gordon there – and Dune was one of the most famous.
The sand-covered wasteland of Tatooine is a clear riff on Arrakis, “Spice” is prominently featured in both worlds, each has a mysterious Emperor operating in the shadows, pulling the strings yet remaining unseen and unnamed.
To begin with, the Jedi Order is similar to the Bene Gesserit, and Star Wars even has a mysterious Emperor operating in the shadows-
– pulling the strings yet remaining unseen and unnamed, to begin with (the exogorth, or space slug, from The Empire, Strikes Back, and the Sarlacc from Return of the Jedi).
Of course, Dune isn’t an entirely original work, and one of the main similarities between it and Star Wars is that both rely on the concept of a hero’s journey and a prophecy of a Chosen One.
Luke Skywalker can be understood as a variation on Paul Atreides, but the stronger and more intriguing parallel is between Paul and Anakin Skywalker in terms of the monomyth.
To that end, Villeneuve’s Dune, which premieres in 2021, brilliantly exemplifies not only those parallels but also how amazing Lucas’ prequel trilogy, which began with The Phantom Menace, could have been.
The Phantom Menace’s problem wasn’t intergalactic trading, as Dune demonstrates.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace promised to be a totally different kind of Star Wars film from the first paragraph of the opening crawl.
The now-iconic yellow writing that greets audiences in the original trilogy predicts civil strife, dark times, and filthy gangsters; in The Phantom Menace, they are told of “trade route taxation.”
Any way you look at it, it’s not as exciting a tease for what’s to come, and the idea of cosmic trade has long been a rod with which to beat George Lucas’ first Star Wars prequel.
In some ways, that’s correct, but as with most of the prequels’ flaws, the issue is one of execution rather than concept.
The Phantom Menace’s political scenes and ideals are rooted in the story Lucas started in Episode I, and it’s true to real-life that this is how corporations or political prelates gain and retain power.
Such ideas are important and intriguing, but The Phantom Menace never makes them feel that way: instead, it feels burdened down by them-
-straining to find the correct balance of them in the tale, and hampered by leaden acting and bad dialogue.
Dune, on the other hand, explores comparable concepts and themes.
The taxation of trade routes is replaced by the mining of Arrakis’ spice melange, but the essential idea remains the same: a shadowy force manipulating strings and getting everyone to cheer the puppet show before it’s too late to notice anything is wrong.
Dune’s Emperor isn’t seen, unlike in Star Wars, but his presence is felt regardless.
The principal struggle is between House Atreides and House Harkonnen, a deadly, vicious rivalry that provides some of Dune’s most thrilling thrills and most fantastic combat set-pieces, but its political elements are far more powerful.
The machinations of the various factions in Dune are much more enthralling here, and better blended into Paul’s story rather than feeling more disparate.
Dune doesn’t always foreground these – the focus is instead kept on Paul’s hero journey –
but the machinations of the various factions in Dune are much more enthralling here, and better blended into Paul’s story rather than feeling more disparate.
Part of this is due to the fact that the filmmaking is superior to that of The Phantom Menace, with a stronger script, better performances, and cleaner editing.
But, unlike The Phantom Menace, Dune treats these themes more like Game of Thrones: in HBO’s program, the scheming, the darkroom chats, and the power maneuvers were what made the series famous long before dragons took to the skies.
Dune has a similar feel to it, with intriguing individuals bouncing off each other, a true feeling of urgency to the political maneuvering, and intrigue that is, well, actually intriguing.
All of these elements were present in The Phantom Menace’s tale, but they were never fully utilized because Lucas’ strengths as a worldbuilder were overwhelmed by his faults as a screenwriter.
Dune brilliantly blends its politics and uses them to make some similar themes about corruption, power, and greed as
The Phantom Menace, but with a much greater balance that lets each aspect function independently while perfectly fitting the broader total.
Anakin Skywalker vs. Paul Atreides: How To Tell A Subversive Chosen One Story
Since the 1977 release of Star Wars, there have been analogies drawn between Paul Atreides and Luke Skywalker, with both following broad strokes of the monomyth-
– both answering their call to adventure and considerably increasing their mystical powers (the Voice for the former, the Force for the latter).
It’s a fair comparison, but Anakin Skywalker from the prequel trilogy is a more true analogy to Paul, and it’s Paul’s story in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune that demonstrates how those films could have better depicted Anakin’s rise and fall, and his status as the Chosen One.
There are some clear similarities between Paul and Anakin, much like there are between Dune and Star Wars in general:
both are at the center of messianic prophecies held by religion-like sects, both are taken from their homes and must deal with the struggles of that transition and growing up in general-
-each one’s relationship with their mother is key to their arc, both will have vague visions of the future that are open to interpretation and will help lead them down darker paths.
It’s unclear how effectively Dune sequels if they materialize, will finish Paul’s story, but even in Part One.
It’s already shaping up to be better than Star Wars, building a similar groundwork to what’s done in The Phantom Menace and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, but with much superior execution.
Timothée Chalamet is a far more talented actor than either Jake Lloyd or Hayden Christensen, which undoubtedly helps Dune, but despite the criticism (and unwarranted hate) they received, neither of the prequels was the actual problem with the prequels’ failings.
It’s possible that Lucas began Anakin’s story too soon; a shift for the prequels could be to incorporate at least some of Anakin’s Attack of the Clones story into The Phantom Menace, and certainly have him be older, which would alleviate a key problem with The Phantom Menace that Dune avoids:
this is supposed to be the Chosen One’s story, but he’s oddly absent and lacking in agency.
Anakin is a bit of a bystander in The Phantom Menace, and he feels oddly shoehorned into some of the bigger events; it’s only in the later films that he takes a more central role and we get into the meat of his arc; the story and his age mean that elements the franchise will lean on.
Like Anakin’s romance with Padmé and brother-like friendship with Obi-Wan Kenobi, aren’t developed enough in Episode I.
Dune, on the other hand, is mostly about Paul’s trip. It’s an honor he may share with his mother, Lady Jessica played by Rebecca Ferguson, but Paul’s narrative and where it’s going feel relatively established, if not totally defined.
He’s a fascinating character in his own right, capable of displaying true heroism, displaying his great abilities, and, most importantly, making his own decisions.
Although he may be on a predetermined course, Dune appears to allow Paul some control over it, making his decisions much more powerful, something that The Phantom Menace lacks.
Another significant strength of Dune is Lady Jessica’s prominence: being split from Shmi is a component in Anakin’s journey, but she is a passenger in it, and viewers don’t get enough of their relationship.
Jessica, on the other hand, is undoubtedly Dune’s most powerful character, and her presence in Paul’s life complicates, challenges, and expands his story.
All of this points to one important (and frequently missed) distinction between Dune and the original Star Wars trilogy.
Dune is a subversion of the traditional hero’s journey, even if Luke is tested and seduced by the dark side.
Paul Atreides is an anti-hero at best, and he’ll eventually turn into a villain; Dune 2021 is fully aware that Paul isn’t a hero.
His arc is far more complex and layered, flipping the concept of the Chosen One as he progresses down his path to becoming the Kwisatz Haderach; notably, to get to this point, he must commit a murder, to enhance his impressive but dangerous abilities, and to become a leader, he must open himself up to corruptive and corrosive influences.
It manages to draw on the monomyth while simultaneously emphasizing the fallibility of heroes and the perils of putting too much faith in them.
This makes Dune more analogous to the Star Wars prequels, in which Anakin Skywalker, thought to be the Chosen One who will destroy the Sith, transforms into Darth Vader, one of history’s most powerful dark side users.
That should be an incredible story, and if The Phantom Menace had been more like Paul’s in Dune, it would have better set up Anakin’s dark side turn, establishing key relationships, his powers, what he’ll be tempted with more, and his own feelings and personality much more, allowing viewers to truly understand the character rather than simply be shown the story.
What’s so great about Dune’s subversion is that, at least at the end of Part One, Paul is still the hero audiences have to root for, moving the story far beyond a binary good or evil, whereas once Anakin shifts, the story loses some of that sense (in part because it’s already known where he ends up).
Anakin’s narrative is confused, badly written, and feels hurried in the later Star Wars prequel films, but Dune demonstrates how brilliant it could be given the appropriate starting point, telling the grand tragedy Lucas plainly meant but failed to bring off.
Where The Phantom Menace Failed, Dune Succeeded
It’s evident that what makes Dune so fantastic are qualities that could have made Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace brilliant, but despite their parallels, it’s also worth considering why one works and the other doesn’t.
After all, George Lucas is a phenomenal director who is responsible for bringing one of cinema’s greatest sagas to life.
It’s debatable whether Denis Villeneuve is better than him, as both have demonstrated mastery of their craft at various periods in their careers, but what counts most is how they approach these subjects.
Villeneuve has a deep respect for Dune and a thorough comprehension of the source material
(Lucas had the latter, but whether he still had the former by the time of the prequels is debatable), and having the novels to work with is obviously a significant help, but he also made it a collaborative endeavor.
Although it’s easy to conceive of Dune as his creation, the script was co-written by two other people (Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth).
That was something that helped make the original Star Wars trilogy great: Lucas working with Lawrence Kasden on the screenplays, Ivan Kershner as a director on The Empire Strikes Back (which is a much more assured movie in that department).
And Marcia Lucas as an editor with much more input to tie everything together and refine the rougher edges, whereas Lucas relied more heavily on his own singular vision for the prequels, with seemingly no one to challenge him.
The Phantom Menace may have been a much stronger film if people had pushed him a little harder and he had been more interested in storytelling and character development than with his universe and CGI (as again, it has some great ideas in there).
Unfortunately, that was not to be, but Villeneuve’s Dune will suffice.
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