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The pro-life label and ‘Dune: Part Two’



David Ives - published on 04/23/24

Spoiler alert!
Works of art (which Villeneuve’s movies most certainly are) often have meanings their creators didn’t intend ...

Recently on his HBO talk show, alleged comedian Bill Maher said the quiet part out loud while discussing his pro-choice stance on the topic of abortion. Of his pro-life opponents, Maher noted, “They think it’s murder, and it kind of is. I’m just okay with that. I am. I mean there’s eight billion people in the world. ‘I’m sorry, we won’t miss you.’ That’s my position on that. Is that not your position if you’re pro-choice?”

While perhaps not so bluntly stated, a cursory survey of celebrity social media accounts gives the impression that Maher’s views are pretty much the prevailing attitude among most entertainers these days. Given that, it’s no surprise that when any product the entertainment industry puts out contains even the slightest whiff of a pro-life sentiment, right-to-lifers cling to it as tenaciously as Rose did to that door as the Titanic sank. 

Which brings us, along with plenty of spoilers, to Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two. Picking up right from where Part One left off, the sequel finds possible messiah Paul Atreides and his pregnant mother Jessica taking up with the desert dwelling Fremen. To help cement the perception of her son as the prophesized one, Jessica drinks some potentially fatal magic worm juice (interestingly called the Water of Life) as part of a test to become the Fremen’s shaman. Jessica survives, but success comes with the unintended side effect that her unborn child can now think as an adult and psychically communicate with her mother.

This recognition of a developing fetus as a fully human individual in one of the year’s most successful and best reviewed movies has eagerly been seized upon by pro-life groups as a victory for the cause. For example, Jordan Estabrook writing for the Students for Life of America blog exclaims, “Whether Dune Part One and Two Director Denis Villeneuve knows it, he made one of the most mainstream and Hollywood pro-life movies in recent years, and the Pro-Life Generation is here for it.”

Is the movie really that pro-life, though? Well, certainly not on purpose. Following the release of 2016’s Arrival, in which a professor decides to keep her unborn child even though aliens have granted her foreknowledge of the child’s horrible death by disease in her teens, Villeneuve was asked point blank by The Verge if he’s anti-abortion. He responded, “I was honestly afraid that because of the nature of the story, it could be seen as a pro-life movie, which is not for me … The idea that the movie would be seen as pro-life would be sad for me, because I respect life, but I believe a woman must have her freedom.”

So, unless something has changed the director’s muddled logic since that interview, it’s highly unlikely that Villeneuve purposely set out to make the Dune series pro-life, at least not from a Catholic understanding of the term.

Of course, works of art (which Villeneuve’s movies most certainly are) often have meanings their creators didn’t intend, and there are elements of the Dune movies which are inescapably pro-life, whether that saddens the director or not. In addition to the obvious thinking and feeling fetus, there is the Atreides family’s tendency to respect the dignity of all people and seek their wellbeing, as well as Paul’s reluctance to accept the mantle of manufactured messiah, as doing so will likely result in escalating bloodshed. All of this is consistent with a Catholic pro-life viewpoint.

There are other things in the Dune movies, however, that don’t quite jibe with a pro-life mentality. For instance, the Fremen, with whom we are meant to sympathize, have a tradition of settling certain conflicts with duels to the death. Also, the constant ingestion by most everyone in the movie of the narcotic spice found on the planet Dune conflicts with the Church’s teachings against the use of drugs except for strictly therapeutic purposes.

However, the most blatantly anti-life actions come after Paul finally gives in and actively promotes himself as the promised messiah. With vengeance as a prime motivator, Paul calls on the Fremen to rise up, drops nuclear bombs on his enemies, and threatens the entire known universe with holy war if he isn’t granted supreme power. No explanation should be needed as to why these doings aren’t pro-life.

Fortunately, this last bit is meant to be taken as a tragedy and not a triumph. As the credits role, there is no escaping the impression that by interpreting the role of messiah as that of a political strongman instead of following Jesus’ example of messiahship, Paul is not leading his followers to anyplace good. Disaster looms in the inevitable sequel.

So, does all of this make the Dune movies pro-life? Surprisingly, the answer leans towards yes, though with some caveats and not by the intention of its makers. Still, in a world where celebrities can get on TV and claim murdering babies is fine and dandy and not instantly be shamed into obscurity, a mostly pro-life movie is something of a win.

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