Dune: Part Two’s Reasonable Doubt

Zachary Lee

“Biblical” is one of the first words I would use to describe Dune: Part Two.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to 2021’s Dune earns that adjective based on its scale and theme alone. Visually, we’re treated to much more of the spice-filled, desert world of Arrakis. Thematically, the film wrestles with the ways religious fervor can be radicalized and weaponized. However, I’d argue that Dune: Part Two is “biblical” for another reason: it mirrors the rhythm and structure of Scripture in its dance (or, if you’ll permit me an in-universe term, sandwalk) between scenes of violence and life.

Dune: Part Two follows Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), recently displaced visitors to Arrakis. They’re the only known survivors after a massacre that was carried out by their sworn enemies, the Harkonnens. The duo withdraw to the uninhabitable regions of the desert where they are at the mercy of Arrakis’ native inhabitants, the Fremen. Paul’s presence amongst the Fremen is complicated, given that many of them—notably a tribal leader named Stilgar (Javier Bardem)—believe he is the embodiment of a messianic prophecy, a savior who will bring prosperity to Arrakis and eliminate the Harkonnen threat. Throughout the film, Paul wrestles with whether or not he should capitalize on his influence amongst the Fremen to get revenge.

At the start, Villeneuve draws a clear distinction between the Fremen and their Harkonnen oppressors. Rather than subjugate Arrakis to their own means, the Fremen model their lives according to the planet's rhythms. Their customs stem from their belief that each life is precious. In one sequence, Stilgar shows Jessica a sacred pool of the dead. After a deceased Fremen’s water is extracted from their body, it’s poured into this pool as a sort of homecoming. For a planet so parched for water, Stilgar explains that the Fremen would rather die of thirst than drink the pool’s water. As the two observe the ocean (38 decaliters of souls to be exact) before them, Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser frame Stilgar and Jessica’s reflections as if they’re submerged within the pool itself. The image puts them in solidarity with and amongst the dead, emphasizing that even in passing, all Fremen are one.

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As much as Dune: Part Two is an epic war movie, it weaves quiet and life-affirming moments like these into the action. There’s a liturgical harmony in the way it oscillates between scenes of Fremen customs and moments of indiscriminate violence. The epitome of the Harkonnens’ disregard for life comes when we visit their home planet, Giedi Prime. The planet is rendered entirely in black and white, such that when the Harkonnens launch fireworks, the explosions stain the sky. The centerpiece of the planet is a gladiatorial arena where we meet Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), soon-to-be-heir of the Harkonnen empire. The sadistic Harkonnen twistedly chooses to celebrate his birthday by murdering three Atreides prisoners. As the crowd erupts in applause for each warrior Feyd-Rautha butchers, I couldn’t help but feel that the “community” depicted here is a hollow and false milieu, especially as compared to the Fremen’s sacred pool. Such contrats repeat throughout the film, with Villeneuve deftly countering scenes of wasteful violence with scenes of Fremen care.

I am grateful that tucked in the sand-filled crevices of this 167-minute tale, Villeneuve repeatedly makes space to showcase the Fremen in their vibrancy. He doesn’t allow for the spectacle of violence to take over. All of the Fremen’s ways of life reorient them to the reality that they are people of the ground. It is in their embrace of their limits that there’s much to learn, in contrast to the galactic ambitions of those around them.

It is in these ways that Dune: Part Two earns its “biblical” descriptor. As Paul and Lady Jessica move toward violence, bringing the most zealous Fremen along with them, they mirror the grabs for power of biblical figures like Kings Herod, David, and Saul. In their attempts to control fate, those monarchs all brought about more violence; both the heroes and villains of Dune: Part Two fall prey to those same idols. By the time the spice settles, the lines in the sand are blurred; there exist only those with power and those without.

Yet even as we watch certain characters forfeit their souls in order to gain the world, the movie reminds us that there’s a more healing way of living. (Spoiler ahead.) By the film’s end, Paul fully embraces his role as the Fremen’s messiah; with their help, he brutally eliminates the Harkonnens. Villeneuve, however, presents this turn through the eyes of Chani (Zendaya), a Fremen woman who has become Paul’s friend and lover, even as she’s remained skeptical of his messianic reputation. Juxtaposing violence and Fremen custom once more, Villeneuve’s camera leaves the bellicose Paul behind to follow Chani as she withdraws from Paul’s moment of triumph to summon a sandworm. It’s a moment of recalibration, as Chani reminds herself of who she is. In many ways, she echoes the way of Christ more than Paul does, even though he is the salvific figure. The closing shot of her pained and defiant eyes is a rebuke against an appetite that’s all-consuming and a reminder that Christians are called not to grasp for power, but turn away.

Topics: Movies