Books & the Arts / March 8, 2024

Desert Planets

A desert landscape, magical spices, an occupying force, a native warrior community, and a handsome young hero, bred to liberate them—Dune: Part Two seems to have it all. But does it?

What’s Missing From “Dune: Part Two”

While Frank Herbert’s original series was about the dangers of messianism, Denis Villeneuve’s rendition wields ambivalence like a secret weapon in its effort to avoid the tough questions.

Jorge Cotte

Dune: Part Two

(Courtesy of Warner Brothers)

Dune: Part Two, the latest installment of Denis Villaneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s enduring (and supposedly unadaptable) science fiction series, carries a great weight on its shoulders. It must succeed as a continuation of the first movie without losing new viewers and while bearing the box office’s dreams for an industry that has flagged in comparison to last year. It must give the thrill of a big science fiction blockbuster, while seeming to undermine the transparent teenage fantasies that flourish throughout those stories.

A desert landscape, spices with magical properties, an occupying force, a community of native warriors, and a handsome young hero, bred and trained to liberate them all—Dune: Part Two has all the right elements of success, including a star-studded cast. Timothée Chalamet transforms from waif to despot; Zendaya guides the audience’s perspective with her pensive eyes; Rebecca Ferguson giving us “Reverend Mother”; Javier Bardem is both affable mentor and zealot; and Austin Butler sheds the Elvis accent and all of his hair.

Villeneuve streamlines the vast scope of Herbert’s story into a series of sweeping set pieces, more plentiful in this installment and meticulously executed. The film charts Paul Atreides’s swift rise while characterizing that rise as a cautionary tale too. For just as Paul needs to save his family and his adopted planet, Arrakis, from the occupying Harkonnens, Villeneuve must salvage knowing self-critique from the jaws of teenage fantasy clichés.

When we first meet Paul and his family in Dune: Part One, the Atreides are part of the intergalactic aristocracy and are bequeathed Arrakis by imperial decree. Arrakis is a stark, unforgiving planet. But its deserts and deadly worms also produce “spice,” the most valuable substance in the galaxy. The Atreides hope to turn around the family’s fortunes with the power of the spice production in Arrakis. They exchange the comforts and oceans of their home world for it. Yet, little do they know they have walked into a trap set by a rival family with whom they have been feuding for centuries.

In Dune: Part One, we follow Paul and the Atreides as they are stripped of all their advantages. Paul and his mother, Jessica, are left in the vast desert of Arrakis seeking safe haven with a group of Fremen, the people indigenous to the planet. Now, in Dune: Part Two, we return to Paul, who hopes to gather his strength against House Harkonnen—the villainous family that secured a planetary takeover with the emperor’s clandestine support.

Paul’s prospects are as limited as the water supply in Arrakis, and his only potential allies are the Fremen, who are understandably suspicious of outsiders. But Paul proves his worth as a warrior and earns their hospitality. Meanwhile, Stilgar, a Fremen leader, takes Paul and his mother into the Fremen’s Sietch, the cave warren where they live out of view of Harkonnen eyes. There, Paul is greeted by rumblings among some Fremen that he might be their messiah. Paul says he doesn’t want to lead; he just wants to fight alongside them.

Current Issue

Cover of April 2024 Issue

The Harkonnens have the guns and technology, but at nearly every turn they are outmaneuvered by Paul and the Fremen. The Fremen are fierce fighters who have been hardened by desert life, and they know how to resist the Harkonnen occupation by interrupting spice extraction in every way possible.

Led by the Baron (played by a grotesque Stellan Skarsgård), the Harkonnens are cartoonish villains, and, barring Skarsgård’s game performance, their depiction feels like a shortcut in Villaneuve’s imagination. The Harkonnens are bad guys who dress in black, kill their underlings on a whim, and assemble their armies in rigid formations reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films. It’s not just that they are a cliché; it’s that caricatures are not that menacing.

The real threat to the galaxy, then, is not in a war between good guys and bad guys but in how belief can turn into violence, and self-defense into a despotic bid for power. The Fremen’s religion preaches the hope of a savior, the “Lisan al Gaib,” and as the film goes on Paul seems to perfectly fit their prophecy. Paul knows too much to be fully taken in by the religious fervor, but even his mother has a messianic prophecy that she works to bring about: She is a sister of the Bene Gesserit, a mystic cabal of political operators who advise those in power but who are also engineering the rise of their own messiah, the Kwisatz Haderach. For most of the film, Paul resists these projected messianic narratives—until he succumbs to the temptation to wield the faith of thousands as his last resort.

One of the reasons the Dune novels have been difficult to adapt is that Paul’s story is at the center of a vast scale of conspiracies and machinations. There are the Imperial House Corrino’s ambitions and their manipulation of the Atreides and Harkonnen for their own gains, and there is the Spacing Guild (left out of Villaneuve’s version altogether) that controls all interplanetary travel and depends entirely on spice. Computers have been replaced by highly trained humans, called Mentats. The Bene Gesserit have their own centuries-long eugenicist project, of which Paul is one of the most recent products. And in the novel, Paul’s story unfolds over a longer period of time. He becomes immersed in the ways of the Fremen. He spends years waging guerilla campaigns against the Harkonnen. He has a son with Chani.

The Nation Weekly

Fridays. A weekly digest of the best of our coverage.
By signing up, you confirm that you are over the age of 16 and agree to receive occasional promotional offers for programs that support The Nation’s journalism. You may unsubscribe or adjust your preferences at any time. You can read our Privacy Policy here.

Villaneuve compacts the storyline for clarity, keeping the most essential portions, if losing some of its intricacies. Yet some important elements get lost in the cuts. The awe we might feel of a man both empowered and reduced in the face of galaxy-sized projects is replaced by the awe of vast landscapes. For a film invested in grand spectacle, the desert embodies the ambivalence of a world where nothing is ever just one thing: It is a source of wealth, but also a place of death, a hostile home, a visual splendor, and an impassive vastness.

Villaneuve and cinematographer Greg Frasier capture the desert in its varieties, but their palette also limits the world to shades of bleakness. It can be striking to see a figure framed as an iconographic silhouette against a near-monochromatic backdrop, but too much of the same image weaken its profundity. There are only so many ways to look at the undulating waves of the sand against a broad beige sky, especially when the Fremen sartorial style is just as beige. Camouflage makes sense, of course, but even when we see inside the Fremen living quarters, the only pops of color are their watchful blue eyes.

Blue eyes are a symptom of spice intake. For the Fremen, the spice is a part of life. It’s in the food they eat and the air they breathe. But for Paul there are some serious side effects, including prophetic visions out of his control. In Herbert’s novel, the effects of these visions are a more central and dramatic concern. They are fragmented and unclear, but they show Paul a religious war with an unfathomable cost and blood on his hands. Paul tries to find a way to avoid that future. But the prophecies don’t just elude his control; they fracture his sense of self. He struggles to keep his grasp on a reality that passes through his hands like a fistful of sand.

In Villaneuve’s rendition, these visions are more discrete and less fragmentary. Rather than disorient viewers, the visions hardly compete with the excitement and set pieces that surround them. We lose the sense of the mystical that percolates throughout Herbert’s novels and the ability to see possible futures other than the one Paul sees. For the most part, we are stuck within Paul’s perspective, learning the world of Dune as he does. We like Paul. His heart is in a good place, and we want to see him win. We also know how this kind of story works. Our hero starts with nothing; he resists his calling, before inevitably gaining the power he deserves. The film’s very form is structured around Paul’s ascendance, and his harrowing visions are mere speed bumps on his path to victory.

As Part Two unfolds, the film tries to distance us from our hero’s choices by foregrounding Chani’s point of view. Through Chani’s eyes, we see the costs of Paul’s rise and how Paul walks right into the choices in his visions. It is Chani’s face, her reactions, her pleading that offer a moral conscience to a world that, like its landscapes, gets bleaker and bleaker. She counsels him against the actions that lead to the end of the movie and make Paul’s nightmares a reality for everyone else.

While the original series was all about the corrosive power of adulation and the wayward paths on which messianism can lead us, Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two is like so much film and television today: It wields its ambivalence like a secret weapon. It offers up set pieces and violent victories for viewers to revel in and draws Paul toward an apocalyptic end that becomes increasingly unavoidable. But the film doesn’t complicate our feelings as much as it performs ambivalence for us. The film warns us against the very thing it gives us. We watch from reclining chairs as Paul starts a holy war—our hands are clean. We get the heroic battles and the guilt on the side. Our hero is tortured so we don’t have to be. All we need to do is just sit back and put up our feet.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Jorge Cotte

is a writer living in Chicago. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New Inquiry.

More from The Nation

Prisoners at a prison in Tel Mond, Israel, 2004.

Bringing a Seminal Palestinian Resistance Novel to the World Bringing a Seminal Palestinian Resistance Novel to the World

Talking with the translators of Wissam Rafeedie's The Trinity of Fundamentals, a book whose genesis is as extraordinary as its contents.

Q&A / Rayan El Amine

Pacita Abad Wove the Women of the World Together

Pacita Abad Wove the Women of the World Together Pacita Abad Wove the Women of the World Together

Her art integrated painting, quilting, and the assemblage of Indigenous practices from around the globe to forge solidarity.

Books & the Arts / Jasmine Liu

Kid Cudi in Las Vegas, 2024.

The Many Evolutions of Kid Cudi The Many Evolutions of Kid Cudi

In Insano, the rapper and hip-hop artist comes back down to earth.

Books & the Arts / Bijan Stephen

From “Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction,” Aaron Douglas (1934).

The Cosmopolitan Modernism of the Harlem Renaissance The Cosmopolitan Modernism of the Harlem Renaissance

A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art explores the world-spanning art of the Harlem Renaissance.

Books & the Arts / Rachel Hunter Himes

Transatlantic Tragedy: “Grenfell” Moves from Britain’s National Theatre to a Brooklyn Stage

Transatlantic Tragedy: “Grenfell” Moves from Britain’s National Theatre to a Brooklyn Stage Transatlantic Tragedy: “Grenfell” Moves from Britain’s National Theatre to a Brooklyn Stage

An interview with Gillian Slovo, whose new play about the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire in London just opened in New York.

Feature / D.D. Guttenplan

Katy O’Brian and Kristen Stewart.

Blood, Guts, and Queer Bodybuilders Blood, Guts, and Queer Bodybuilders

The Kristen Stewart–helmed erotic thriller Love Lies Bleeding filters a study of sex, violence, and the limits of human will through a romance that begins in a New Mexico gym.

Books & the Arts / Beatrice Loayza