‘Dune 2’ Is a Perfect Movie Except for the Frequent Cuts to a CGI Fetus

I don't think Denis Villeneuve—who's on the record as being "pro-choice"—meant to make a fetal personhood argument, but I remain very skeptical of these scenes.

‘Dune 2’ Is a Perfect Movie Except for the Frequent Cuts to a CGI Fetus

Halfway through our showing of Dune 2, my friend leaned over to me and asked, “Was this funded by anti-abortionists?” I’d been mulling a similar, half-joking thought since one of the first scenes, which shows a CGI embryo floating in the inky darkness of, we surmise, Lady Jessica’s womb. By the time my friend whispered to me, this embryo had grown into what was more recognizably a fetus—if screenshot, it would look at home on an anti-abortion sign waved outside a Planned Parenthood. 

At this point, it had already been revealed that Jessica talks to the fetus, that it understands the political forces on the other side of the uterus wall, and that it will become Paul Atreides’s younger sister, Alia, who later briefly appears as a full-grown adult Anya Taylor-Joy in one of Paul’s visions. I don’t know much about her yet (I have not read the books but I do have a Dune boyfriend), but the film’s focus on Alia’s fetal development suggests that she becomes majorly important to the intergalactic jihad Paul/Muad’Dib wages in the coming years—so important that director Denis Villeneuve borrows from the “fetal personhood” school of thought. 

I say this slightly in jest, but anti-abortion activists have made this same argument sincerely. A March 5 post on the Students for Life of America blog is headlined, “Dune: A High-Grossing, Hollywood Hit Hinges on Pro-Life Themes” and praises the movie’s “visually stunning depiction of preborn life.” I hate to even partially agree with anything from the anti-abortion movement, but it is curious that this “Hollywood hit” about the dangers of false worship chose to use a CGI fetus to help make its point. 

After Paul and Jessica take a tumble while avoiding Harkonnen gunfire, Paul makes sure his mother is OK; he also asks “and how’s she?,” nodding towards Jessica’s stomach. Jessica is not showing at all at this point, so this is clearly meant to broadcast that the CGI fetus is inside her; I don’t think Paul’s actually worried about the pregnancy—I assume that a Bene Gesserit would only miscarry if she wants to. (Plus, the general mechanics of magic space pregnancies  8,000 years in the future are hazy to me.) The baby is fine, she says—but, as our Student for Life blogger puts it, that Paul is concerned about “her preborn baby” and calls it “she” (rather than “it”) is “refreshing, to say the least. (It’s interesting when right-wingers decide to care about pronouns, isn’t it!)

Lady Jessica herself is an extremely important character and remains so even as her pregnancy progresses; the film is not at risk of prioritizing the life of the unborn fetus over its mother, unlike the actual fetal personhood movement (which argues that life begins at conception, thus bestowing “rights” on a clump of cells that resembles egg whites). 

I’ll leave the actual film reviewing to others (check out my colleague Kylie Cheung’s take) but I really enjoyed it; its pacing was impressive, given how much plot Villeneuve had to squeeze in, and though there were a lot of fight scenes, each one made narrative sense and none ever dragged. I think I actually cheered when Paul and Chani shot down that helicopter. I know I actually cheered when they first kissed. 

But every time I got really into it, I’d be jolted out of my enjoyment by a little alien—or, as the movie went on, an almost-cooked baby Alia—taking over the screen. These latter images resembled high-quality versions of the fancy sonograms that are now sometimes available in the final months of pregnancy. They had no visual cohesion with the rest of the film, and my most generous read is that Villeneuve was trying to inject an unusual visual element into what’s otherwise a big-studio blockbuster (sort of the same way the Harkonnen fight scene appeared in black and white).

This is not the first time Villeneuve has obliquely dealt with pregnancy and abortion-related themes. In 2016, while promoting Arrival, he told The Verge he was “honestly afraid” that “the nature of the story” could allow the film to “be seen as a pro-life movie, which is not for me.” (For what it’s worth, Arrival is one of my all-time favorite movies, and I think if you interpret it as making any sort of comment on reproductive choice, you’re intentionally misreading it.) 

“I respect life, but I believe a woman must have her freedom,” he added—uninspired but fair. However, early on in his career, he was even less enthusiastic about abortion. In 2001, while discussing one of his first feature films, Maelstrom, which features a woman feeling guilty after having an abortion, Villeneuve said that he is pro-choice, but felt that abortion “should never be taken lightly.” (I just…don’t care how a man feels about a woman’s reproductive choices. Mind your own business.)

He doesn’t appear to have commented on how the matter plays out in Dune 2—but if Villeneuve’s assistant’s assistant is reading this, I’d love to chat. I don’t think he really meant to ape for the anti-abortion crowd! I just want to know what other storytelling devices were on the table for underscoring Alia’s importance. 

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