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“Dune: Part Two” Should Be a Warning Against Extremism — Not a Violent Spectacle

The epic sci-fi film tries to deliver an antiwar warning, but its beautification of violence undermines its message.

Sandworms charge forward in a scene from Dune: Part Two (2024).

“Somebody help me,” a young Paul Atreides cries. He is gripped by a vision of the future in which charred corpses burn, and his soldiers wave his banner and slaughter innocents. “I see a holy war spreading across the universe like an unquenchable fire,” he kicks and screams. “A war in my name!”

The young Atreides’s terror in the 2021 film Dune becomes reality in Dune: Part Two. On the surface, the sequel cheers Native people fighting colonial rule. Peel one layer, and the film becomes a warning against political and religious extremism. The warning comes in the climactic and ominous image of Fremen (a desert-dwelling people) going to war. Although not shown in Dune: Part Two, in the third book in the Dune series, Dune Messiah, which director Denis Villeneuve also plans to turn into a film, the Fremen people’s revolution grows into a galactic holy war that kills 61 billion people and sterilizes whole planets. Dune: Part Two is an antiwar film hidden inside a war film.

It is a timely warning. Fanaticism is rising. Former President Donald Trump is propelled by Christian nationalism even as Indian Prime Minister Modi is fueled by Hindu nationalism. Dune: Part Two could have been a popular film that warned audiences against fanaticism, but it fails in its approach. The antiwar content is overwhelmed by war spectacle. Moviegoers may leave with the exact opposite message from what author Frank Herbert intended when he wrote Dune in 1965, and we need to heed his warning now more than ever.

We are not just watching Dune. We are living in it.

Not Another “Hero”

Fremen freedom fighters pop up from holes in the sand. In a ballet of death, they roll, jump and stab the enemy Harkonnen occupying soldiers, who guard a giant metal harvester stripping a precious mineral known as Spice from their planet. Nimbly stepping like dancers, the Fremen leave dead colonizers in their wake. Among the Fremen is a fierce, handsome newcomer Paul Atreides (played by an effective Timothée Chalamet), the runaway duke who makes common cause with them.

Dune: Part Two picks up seconds after Dune. In the first film, we were introduced to a galactic feudal empire where far-flung planets are tied together by Spice-fueled space travel. To cross the cosmos, pilots of the Spacing Guild eat Spice mined from Arrakis, or as the Fremen call it, Dune. At the center of this futuristic feudalism sits Emperor Shaddam IV, who leased Arrakis to the cruel House Harkonnen. Leery of the rising Duke Leto of House Atreides, Shaddam offers Arrakis to Leto in a ruse to rid himself of a rival. The emperor’s shock troops and Harkonnen soldiers attack the Atreides in their new stronghold on Dune in the night. They wipe out the Atreides, killing the duke as his wife, Lady Jessica, and son, Paul, flee into the desert, where the Fremen find and take them in.

If you feel like you’ve seen Dune: Part Two before, it’s because you have. Did you catch Avatar or The Matrix or Lawrence of Arabia? Well then you also saw Dune: Part Two. Distill the plots and you get the “hero’s journey,” an archetypal myth of a young hero called to adventure, who must journey through a foreign world of violence, face a crisis and symbolic death, and be reborn with new powers and knowledge in order to conquer and renew the world.

Dune: Part Two, whether intentionally or not, reinforces a subgenre of the hero’s journey, the white savior narrative in which a white protagonist goes into an “underworld” (the ghetto, slave plantation, Arrakis) to rescue people of color (slaves, the Fremen), faces danger (slavers, racist cops, the Harkonnens), and liberates the oppressed people, which in turn rejuvenates the social order with new justice.

In Dune: Part Two, a strapping Paul Atreides undergoes a white savior hero’s journey. He sails through tests. He wins a knife fight with a Fremen. He rides one of the immense sandworms, mile-long giants that ram through mountainous dunes at top speed. He battles Harkonnens. He is a pupil of Chani, a Native woman sharply acted by Zendaya, and of course, they fall in love. He moves up the ranks at lightning speed. He is renamed by the Fremen, Paul “Usul” Muad’Dib.

He is a charismatic leader, feted as the “Mahdi,” the “Lisan al Gaib,” the “Prophet from the Outer World” who will lead the Fremen to destroy the Harkonnens and transform Arrakis into a green paradise.

Dune author Herbert hated all of this. He wanted us to hate it too.

Hamlet in the Desert

What separates Dune: Part Two from the typical white savior hero’s journey is that director Denis Villeneuve reveals that it’s all based on a lie. The Fremen believe Paul is the messiah, as written in prophecy. Yet Paul knows full well the prophecy was authored by the Bene Gesserit, a black veil-wearing, secret sisterhood whose members plant false religions throughout the universe. If one of their order, such as Paul’s mother, the Lady Jessica, needs safety among natives, she can use Bene Gesserit superstitions to gain power.

The Northern Fremen are more nationalist, less religious. The Southern Fremen are deeply fundamentalist. Chani is a Northern Fremen, and as she comes to love Paul, she is alarmed by how the Southern Fremen believe he is the messiah. In bed, she expresses worry because Paul’s mother, now a spiritual guide to the Fremen, fans the flames of religious belief. While fleeing a Harkonnen attack, Paul and Jessica argue. Paul says, “It is heartbreaking what your Bene Gesserit did to these people.” She retorts, “We gave them hope.” He yells, “That’s not hope!”

Herbert explicitly said, “I wrote the Dune series because I had this idea that charismatic leaders ought to come with a warning label on their forehead: ‘May be dangerous to your health.’” Director Villeneuve doubled down when he talked about adapting the second book in Herbert’s series, Dune Messiah, into film, “Dune Messiah was written in reaction to the fact that people perceived Paul Atreides as a hero. Which is not what he wanted to do. My adaptation is closer to his idea that it’s actually a warning.”

Dune: Part Two’s plot is a fast, tightening cycle of violence. Harkonnens bomb Fremen. The Fremen blow up Spice harvesters. The eyes of the emperor turn to Arrakis. The Southern Fremen beg Paul to become the Mahdi and lead them. Paul is like Hamlet in the desert. Visions of galactic jihad terrify. Faced with war, he drinks the psychedelic Water of Life, a drug that grants him prescience. Finally, at a mass gathering, he holds up his knife and vows to lead them, “to paradise!”

But the real war in Dune: Part Two is not between the Fremen, the Harkonnens and eventually, the full might of the emperor’s shock troops. It’s between the content of the film and its form. The warning against fanaticism at Dune: Part Two’s core — about how lies can become a source of power and a just struggle can transform into bloodthirsty slaughter — is overwhelmed by its spectacle of war.

This is, in part, Villeneuve’s fault. He directs each frame like a Renaissance oil painter. The final battle has gorgeous atomic fireballs framed against a dry desert. Out of the smoke, giant sandworms emerge, their maws swallowing the emperor’s soldiers. Fremen fight like Alvin Ailey dancers. When Paul has a climatic knife fight with the last remaining Harkonnen, Feyd-Rautha, the two parry and jab and thrust as silhouettes against an orange sun. Villeneuve’s lush beautification of violence sabotages the film’s core message.

The audience only gets a hint at the core message when Paul kills Feyd, takes the emperor’s throne and orders millions of Fremen believers to attack the other planets and force their submission. “Lead them to paradise,” he says in a numbed voice.

Fanatic, yelling, triumphant, the Fremen board spaceships. High on victory, they are poised to wage a war of liberation. The audience cannot help but cheer. A long-oppressed people seize their destiny in the name of God. Only the ominous music hints at what the movie refused to say clearly. A bloodbath is coming. Dune: Part Two succeeds as a movie, but it fails Herbert’s own message.

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