Just Deserts
By Gavin Smith

Dune: Part Two
Dir. Denis Villeneuve, U.S., Warner Bros.

A cosmic bildungsroman in which a young man masters the mystical powers of a sacred order, discovers that his mortal foe is kin, and finally vanquishes a perfidious emperor for the good of the galaxy—but enough about Star Wars. It took three films for George Lucas to complete his hero’s excellent adventure, but Denis Villeneuve gets it done in two. (Or does he? A third installment may be on the way, based on Frank Herbert’s much shorter and weirder 1969 sequel, Dune Messiah.)

Yes, Dune: Part Two is a tad more dour and self-serious than Part One, but its sense of monumental spectacle is undimmed, if you can say that about a film whose grey and ochre visuals are as artfully gloomy, diffuse, and monochromatic as this one. From the opening guerrilla attack on a spice harvesting rig—reprising Part One’s opening scene to remind viewers that insurgency is still the name of the game—to the final sword duel showdown (shades of Hamlet, but with a happy ending), the vigorous action scenes deliver the goods. Moreover, Denis productively supplements or elaborates on passages of David-and-Goliath battle in Herbert’s novel, and that’s just as well since there’s a fair amount of mystical mumbo jumbo to get through.

To recap: Part One envisions a galactic empire consisting of an assembly of planetary noble Houses all competing for advantage while subordinated to the imperium of the Padishah Emperor, as yet unseen. The existence of this empire and of interstellar travel itself are predicated on a mind-expanding substance known as “spice,” harvested on the desert planet Arrakis (referred to as “Dune” by its indigenous inhabitants, the Fremen). “Power over spice is power over all” explains the Emperor’s daughter, Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh) in her intermittent diary voiceover in Part Two. Pulling the strings behind the scenes is the powerful all-female Bene Gesserit, a shadowy religious order endowed with mystical psi-powers that has for centuries been pursuing its own eugenic agenda through the arranged-marriage manipulation of the bloodlines of the noble houses towards a hazy endgame that will produce a Kwisatz Haderach, “a man powerful enough to bridge time and space, past and present.”

Betrayed by the Emperor, the Atreides dynasty has barely established governance of Arrakis at his decree before it is exterminated in a sneak attack by its centuries-long sworn enemy, the planet’s previous tenant/overlord, the degenerate, decadent Harkonnen, personified in Part One by a Jabba-the-Hut–esque Stellan Skarsgård and Dave Bautista. (The verdant, sweetness-and-light, albeit highly formal home world of the Atreides House lets us know they are a decent lot; by contrast the dark-satanic-mills industrial wasteland of the Harkonnen’s monochromatic steam-punk planet leaves us in no doubt that they are bad news.) Part One ends with Atreides prince and heir Paul (Timothée Chalamet) and his Bene Gesserit mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) escaping to the desert where, after a ritual fight to the death, they find sanctuary among a subterranean community of Fremen, under the protection of its leader, Stilgar, played by Javier Bardem.

So, now what? The Harkonnen prosecute a largely ineffectual search-and-destroy campaign against the formidable Fremen resistance of the planet’s northern hemisphere, unaware of the far vaster fundamentalist population in the supposedly uninhabitable southern hemisphere. Meanwhile, after Paul completes a Fremen rite-of-passage vision quest in the desert, love blossoms with stern Fremen warrior Chani (a boyish, creditable Zendaya), the literal object of his prophetic dreams in Part One. Their courtship is on the battlefield, but for a change, the romance is not only reasonably believable, since the actors have chemistry and Villeneuve handles it with barely an ounce of sentimentality, it’s also integral. When it comes to the doubtful Paul’s reception as “Mahdi,” i.e., messiah, by Stilgar and his faction of religious Fremen, Chani and the younger Fremen secular cohort want no part of it. (Shades of Life of Brian: “The Mahdi is too humble to admit he’s the Mahdi!”)

There’s a sustained push-pull between the Paul who wants to avenge his father and who adopts the Fremen name “Muad’Dib” (“That is a powerful name. Now you are our brother” Bardem pronounces, managing to keep a straight face) and the Paul who contemplates with profound dread his prophesized destiny as “the voice from the outer world who will lead [us] to paradise,” and ignite, as described in one of his haunted visions in Part One, “a Holy War spreading across the universe like unquenchable fire.” This tension is at the core of both the film and of Paul and Chani’s attachment.

Dune: Part Two keeps faith with the mysticism and ritual that make Herbert’s fiction hard to take for many but which also sets it apart from most science fiction for better or for worse. After Lady Jessica opts to drink the ostensibly poisonous Water of Life in order to succeed the dying Fremen’s Reverend Mother, her mind absorbs the accumulated consciousnesses of generations of Bene Gesserit missionaries whose teachings have shaped the fundamentalist religious sentiments of Dune’s inhabitants. This transforms her into a kind of all-seeing oracle cum Mahdi cheerleader, but since she’s carrying her dead husband’s unborn daughter, this child-to-be is infused with the same mystical powers and precognitive awareness, and, in one of the film’s loopier choices, conducts an ongoing dialogue with her mother from the womb.(In a blink-and-miss-it one-shot cameo, Anya Taylor-Joy pops up in one of Paul’s visions as Alia, his grown-up sister.)

When it’s time for Paul (or Muad’Dib, if you prefer) to take the final step in his spiritual journey and become the Kwisatz Haderach, it’s just a matter of imbibing the Water of Life, dying, and, after a while, being resurrected with help from Chani’s ministrations. Announcing that “My vision is clear now—I see so many possible futures,” the Mahdi’s back and ready to get it on with that interstellar Holy War, now that the Fremen “used to be friends, [but] now they are followers.” As this jihad influencer, Chalamet proves up to the challenge of this role, shaking off his emo vibe to convey the gravitas and conviction required to play this “sincere” but conflicted youth who overcomes his Hamlet-esque irresolution and embraces his apotheosis. If this isn’t the obligatory “character development,” they teach in screenwriting 101, what is?

The climax of Dune: Part Two is as expected. The Harkonnen are no match for the massed forces of the fanatical Fremen of the south, riding atop giant sandworms (we’re told how these creatures can be mounted and ridden, but not how they’re steered or what keeps them from plunging back down into the depths of the desert sands). Nukes are detonated, bodies are hurtled and hacked and impaled in gutsy hand-to-hand combat, and then it’s time to depose the Emperor (an almost wizened Christopher Walken), who’s paying the planet a visit for no clear reason, and go one on one with demonic Harkonnen rising star Feyd-Rauther (Austin Butler), a kill-crazy pretender to his uncle’s throne last seen defeating all-comers in a gladiatorial arena that makes Madison Square Garden look like a pickleball court—a sequence shot with an infrared camera to no discernible effect. (Scale really matters to Villeneuve: the massed ranks of his Harkonnen legions seem intended to outdo Star Wars: Episode IV’s Nuremberg rally finale to the power of 10—take that, George!) Once Feyd-Rauther is dispatched, the hand of Princess Irulan must be claimed, a power play that puts Paul/Muad’dib/Mehdi/Kwisatz Haderach on the Imperial throne and leaves true-love Chani out in the cold. When the one you love becomes a god-messiah, that’s bad enough, but when, unlike his father, who believed “in the rules of the heart,” he abandons you for an arranged marriage, it’s pure stoic heartbreak. Zendaya really goes there, mostly wordlessly as Chani is left to play with the sandworms in the final scene.

What’s that about a Holy War? (Villeneuve discreetly jettisons Herbert’s use of jihad and other Islamic terms.) War against whom? Well, whaddya got? Paul’s ascendance doesn’t sit well with the 90 great Houses, who’ve also dropped in for a visit, and so they’re next in line. To be serious though, Villeneuve smartly opts for an open-ended, portentous close, which pointedly foreswears the heroic triumphalism of your run-of-the-mill space opera.

Science fiction and mysticism make for uneasy bedfellows at the best of times. 2001: A Space Odyssey’s stargate sequence, dazzling though it is, is a kind of evasive maneuver to avoid an anticlimactic cul-de-sac—how do you top the last two hours with a genuine payoff? It takes the film “beyond infinity” into a realm where science and logic go out the airlock and the spell—i.e., the contract with the audience—is broken. (It’s a tribute to Kubrick’s mastery that science-fiction fans nevertheless stand by the film.) Though it seldom does, there’s no real reason why science fiction can’t engage with the metaphysical à la Solaris; a rare instance where it’s a good fit in a pop vein is Star Wars, perhaps because it adopts a very simple Manichean form. Hard science fiction readers may instinctively reject mysticism because it’s a kind of fuck you, bypassing the intellect to appeal to some inchoate sense of spirituality that denies the terms of the genre. It’s anti-science and anti-reason.

The galactic civilization that is posited in Villeneuve’s Dune, with its throwback to a medieval social structure and Victorian colonial values, shows no outward sign of any institutional religion (unlike the syncretic one delineated in Herbert’s novel) and the visionary Bene Gesserit, with their somber, high-catholic style, are seemingly the high priestesses and custodians of a religion with no overarching deity. They’re effectively pagan. Meanwhile, the need for spice and its narcotic mind- and perception-expanding properties is analogous to LSD, peyote, mushrooms, marijuana, etc.so far so scientific. That it bestows superhuman powers such as precognition is comfortably within science fiction. But the enhanced consciousness induced by spice also, for those suitably conditioned, grants access to a metaphysical realm in which parapsychology is subsumed in an anything goes mysticism of prophecy. The awaiting of a messiah by the Fremen and the Bene Gesserit’s long-game efforts to produce a Kwisat Hadderach (it’s never explained to what end, but arguably its goal is to install a deity) are both ultimately the stuff of myth. Real world events in Dune are governed by forces that can’t be explained away, and so effectively mysticism, not spirituality or rationalism, is this universe’s dominant underlying ethos. (In a way Dune’s counterpart is Lord of the Rings, in which science is entirely irrelevant.)

While a little bit of mysticism can go a long way, reluctantly I have to do a 180. Dune manages to yoke mysticism to a story of anti-colonial, anti-monarchical sentiment akin to fundamentalist religion-fueled social upheavals, such as the Iranian revolution. (In the novel the Emperor’s full name is Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV.) Forces as disparate as Islamic fundamentalism and the worldwide evangelical movement demonstrate that the spiritual realm, however incompletely understood, has an undeniable sociopolitical impact—and tends to backfire when it meets with the secular world. With Paul’s Imperial ascendency, carried on a wave of Fremen fundamentalist fervor, Dune: Part Two ends up as just another reaffirmation to The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”