Dune: Part Two is a pointed examination of the books’ most subversive ideas SuperNayr

The ending of Denis Villeneuve’s first Dune film made it possible to read this telling of Frank Herbert’s opus as a grim but optimistically opened narrative about a young man embracing destiny to become a liberator. The film framed Paul Atreides’ wisdom as his most invaluable tool, and it presented his moral clarity as a sign of his walking a righteous path. As in the book, you were meant to see Paul as a complicated but sympathetic figure at the beginning of his Shakespearean hero’s journey. But Dune: Part Two lays bare what it takes for a person to become a mythic figure and challenges you to understand just how profoundly bleak this tale has always been.

Picking up essentially right where Dune ends, Dune: Part Two delves deeper into the aftermath of House Atreides’ fall and chronicles Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica’s (Rebecca Ferguson) continued fight for survival on the desert planet Arrakis. Even with Jessica’s powerful Bene Gesserit mind-sharpening techniques at their disposal, being stranded on Arrakis is tantamount to death between the brutal storms and titanic sandworms. And after seeing his friends and family slaughtered by the Harkonnens, Paul has every reason to feel almost unimaginable despair. 

But after only being able to see glimpses of Chani (Zendaya) in his increasingly prophetic dreams, finally meeting her in person fills Paul with an overwhelming sense of wonder — both at her individual strength and the strength she embodies as a member of the Fremen, the only people who know how to survive in Arrakis’ desert landscape. Though Dune: Part Two continues to build on the first film’s intricate mystery about how Paul is almost certainly the chosen one fated to lead the Fremen to paradise, the new movie uses Chani and her fellow northerners like Shishakli (Souheila Yacoub) to illustrate what the actual work of sustaining a revolution looks like. 

Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser once again present Arrakis as a breathtakingly expansive, desolate place of beauty and danger. But Dune: Part Two uses its time on the planet to more thoughtfully explore how the Fremen see the desert as part of themselves. That idea is woven into the pacing and choreography of almost all the film’s tense clashes between Baron Vladimir Harkonnen’s (Stellan Skarsgård) soldiers and the Fremen, whose deep knowledge of Arrakis’ landscape makes them unmatched warriors.

Fremen like Chani and Shishakli see their fight against their oppressors as a battle they have to win for themselves, and they find it absurd how much faith southerners like tribe head Stilgar (Javier Bardem) put in ancient myths about a messiah. But in Paul, Stilgar cannot help but see an answer to his people’s prayers for deliverance. And when the young prince insists that he wants to serve the Fremen rather than control them the way his family once controlled the planet, even Chani is compelled to consider whether there might be something special about him.

Especially through its depiction of the women closest to Paul, Dune: Part Two paints a more detailed picture of how deeply interconnected this universe’s cultural systems of power are beyond their shared reliance on Arrakis’ spice. Despite being incredibly insular, there are religious threads that connect the Fremen to the Bene Gesserit in fascinating ways. And while there are some members of the Machiavellian sisterhood who want Paul dead, others, like Emperor Shaddam IV’s (Christopher Walken) daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), are secretly fascinated by his seemingly inevitable rise to prominence within the Fremen’s ranks.

In addition to further complicating the story at hand, Dune: Part Two’s fleshing out of the Bene Gesserit through Irulan and other newcomers like Lady Margot Fenring (Léa Seydoux) provides even more insight into the sisterhood’s deep history and its goals. Much in the same way the film emphasizes how the Fremen have mastered the art of desert survival, it also makes clear that the Bene Gesserit are almost always in their own element, thanks to millennia of carefully planned political engineering.

This is true of Irulan as she covertly chronicles history’s events by her father’s side, and Margot as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) sends her on an important mission to the largely colorless Harkonnen homeworld. But the Bene Gesserit’s knack for survival and scheming are most brilliantly personified in Lady Jessica as she, like her son, is swiftly accepted by the Fremen, who see her abilities as yet another sign of Paul’s godhead.

By foregrounding Chani and Jessica so strongly in Dune: Part Two’s story and using their arcs to add more context to Paul’s transformation into Muad’Dib, Villeneuve and co-writer Jon Spaihts make it almost impossible to misinterpret the film as a straightforward white savior narrative. Herbert wrote Dune as a multifaceted critique of that trope with Paul serving as the ultimate representation of neo-imperialism’s capacity to connect but also destroy entire civilizations all under the auspices of social or economic progress. At times, it was harder to see those concepts at work in the first Dune because of how you were meant to be swept up in the mystery and newness of Paul’s life on Arrakis. But Part Two is far more explicit with its articulation of how dangerous the very idea of a Kwisatz Haderach is, and the film takes care to highlight how many players mean to wield that concept as a weapon.

Both Herbert and Villeneuve’s authorial intentions can’t be dismissed when thinking about Dune: Part Two’s presentation of a white prince becoming a messiah figure to a group of people who are intentionally coded as Muslim through almost every aspect of their fictional culture. That said, the film is still a piece of entertainment, and one in which actual Muslim and MENA actors are largely relegated to the background or to the periphery of large-scale battles where untold numbers of Fremen lose their lives.

Those battles and their artistry are part of what make Dune: Part Two such an effective spectacle and a masterful showcase of Villeneuve’s ability to realize worlds that are as beautiful as they are terrifying. For all of its heady solemnity, the film is categorically breathtaking and dominated by nuanced performances made that much more powerful by Hans Zimmer’s richly textured score. But the most impressive thing about Dune: Part Two is the way it manages to weave all of its threads together into a fascinating tapestry — one whose story is poised to become even more monumental and portentous if Villeneuve gets the chance to keep expanding on it.

Dune: Part Two also stars Josh Brolin, Austin Butler, Dave Bautista, and Anya Taylor-Joy. The film is in theaters now.

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