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‘Dune: Part Two’ — False Messiahs and the Shifting Sands of Power…

‘Dune: Part Two’ — False Messiahs and the Shifting Sands of Power…

Denis Villeneuve’s masterpiece is a cinematic sci-fi triumph — and a stark cautionary tale.

Stillsuits. Sandworms. Telepathic preborn babies. The weird world of Dune is a wonder to behold.

With Dune: Part Two, director Denis Villeneuve has done what was previously thought to be impossible: He successfully adapted Dune to the big screen in a way that does justice to the complexity and emotional weight of the original story. Frank Herbert’s seminal novel, originally published in 1965, is considered one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, and even his son Brian, who served as executive producer for both Dune films and consulted on the script, has said that this version is the definitive film adaptation of his father’s great work.

For those who haven’t seen the first Dune, it is hard to discuss what unfolds in Part Two without spoiling the story, so read on at your discretion.

Dune is the story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the son of Duke Leto Atreides, who is made duke of the planet Arrakis by the Emperor of the Imperium. The story takes place in the year 10191 and is set within a far-future feudal system in which royal families are given entire planets as their fiefs to rule and govern. Central to the story is Arrakis itself, a desolate desert planet that is the only known location of the Spice Melange, a psychoactive substance that grants enormous health benefits and a longer lifespan, in addition to allowing space navigators to chart safe paths between the stars, making intergalactic space travel possible. In short, Arrakis is the most important planet in the universe, and befitting its harsh environment, it has been known by another, more ancient name: Dune.

In the first Dune film, Paul became prescient through exposure to the spice, thereby leading to dream-like visions of the future which revealed him to be a long-awaited messiah for the natives of Arrakis, the Fremen. Whereas Part One was focused more on setting the stage of the universe and providing glimpses of Paul’s future, Dune: Part Two is very much the fulfillment of what was only hinted at in Part One. Through a bitter betrayal of his family, orchestrated by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) of House Atreides’ sworn enemies House Harkonnen and the power-hungry Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken), Paul’s father is killed, and he and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) are cast out into the desert to find refuge with the Fremen.

Dune: Part Two brings the viewer deeper into the Fremen culture and their harsh way of life of surviving in the deep desert. Paul is fully immersed in the ways of the desert by Fremen leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and Fremen warrioress Chani (Zendaya), who plays a much more central role in Part Two than she did in Part One. These two characters and their relationship to Paul are representative of a dichotomy of faith that lies at the heart of the film.

There is a deeply religious thread that runs through the story of Dune, and it is in this thread that the true crux of the story lies. The world of Dune is a complex universe filled with political factions, warring houses and a history of mythic proportions. While Frank Herbert did not die a Catholic, he was raised in the faith and was greatly influenced by all the world’s major religions. In viewing the world of Dune through a Catholic lens, it very much fits into the via negativa line of thought — that is, it is an exploration of how religion, and therefore power, can be misused and abused. Herbert wrote Dune as a warning against religious fanaticism and how power seems to necessarily attract people who are corruptible, and in this sense, Dune: Part Two succeeds in telling the tragedy of Paul Atreides — and indeed, it is a tragedy, for Paul is the epitome of an anti-hero. While the Fremen eventually come to revere him as their savior, they do so only after Paul spends a good portion of the film wrestling with this self-fulfilling prophecy; for as his visions show, his ascendancy to power sparks a holy war that leaves billions of dead across the galaxy.

Continuing in the tradition of the first film, Dune: Part Two is rich with religious imagery and archetypes in the unfolding of its narrative. Lady Jessica belongs to the Bene Gesserit, a religious order of women inspired by the Jesuits whose missionary intentions are far darker than they seem.

There are also clear allusions to several key elements of Catholic theology: early in the film, Lady Jessica drinks a mysterious blue liquid called The Water of Life, and through this “baptism by spice,” she is transformed into a Reverend Mother, a religious sage whom the Fremen look to for guidance and wisdom. Water itself is also a precious symbol representing life, and the Fremen treat it as sacred. Then there is the rather obvious parallel between Paul’s journey and the life of Christ, albeit an inversion of it, for Paul’s promise of turning Arrakis into a “green paradise” will come at a great cost of others’ lives and not his own. While the Fremen religion as depicted in the film more closely resembles Islam (and indeed, Herbert himself included clear and direct references to Islam in the original Dune novel), it’s easy to see a clear Abrahamic and biblical influence as well.

While Villeneuve did take certain liberties with the story that differ from the novel to make it better suited for film (those who’ve read the original novel and have seen the 1984 David Lynch version of Dune know how much of a catastrophe that turned out to be), the spirit of the story very much remains. More importantly, the emotional weight of Paul’s decisions — and his seemingly inescapable destiny — translates powerfully to the big screen. These moments become arguably among some of the greatest of modern cinema as they’re brought to life by Hans Zimmer’s masterful and otherworldly score, for which he previously won an Academy Award in 2022.

Though the scale of Dune is grandiose, it stands apart from other science fiction stories through the intimate human relationships and struggles that it hinges upon. That said, few scenes in recent memory are cooler than watching Muad’dib mount the back of the hulking, gargantuan Shai Hulud with his worm hooks and tame the mighty beast in a breathtaking Fremen rite of passage — a visual feat that Villeneuve has brought to magnificent life in his iteration of Dune.

The film is visually and technically rife with all the makings of a great blockbuster, but on an even deeper level, what makes Dune so impactful is the way it explores the existential questions of placing faith in something greater than oneself — whether that be a government leader or a religious one — and the skepticism that often comes with it. It taps into that innate human quality of faith, into the fact that humans are deeply religious beings, for better or for worse. It is also a philosophical examination of the nature of power and its forms. Watching through a Christian lens, one can’t help but feel triumphant sorrow for the character of Paul Atreides and his rise as Muad’dib, the Lisan al Gaib, Voice from the Outer World. He is unwittingly cast into a role that he never wanted in the first place, but it becomes unavoidable as the nature of what he must do to gain political power over his opponents comes into clearer focus. Thus, the burden of sin remains heavy and all-encompassing, even thousands of years into the fictional future.

As a film. Dune: Part Two builds a world that is visually and emotionally captivating, filled with fascinating cultures and characters and a grand sense of scale. It also heeds a dire warning: power often comes at a cost. As such, our relationship to power ought to be less like the Fremen’s false messiah Muad’dib, who gains his power through sheer force and the blade of a crysknife, and more like that of the one, true Messiah, whose power is meek and made perfect in weakness.

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