Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “Dune: Part Two."

‘Dune: Part Two’ is a Dull, De-Islamized Sequel

Despite rave reviews, the follow-up to Warner Bros.’ space epic has many of the same Orientalist pitfalls

Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “Dune: Part Two."

Photo by Niko Tavernise

Picking up where the first film left off, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two sees the war for the spice-rich desert realm Arrakis raging on, as betrayed colonial prince Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) joins the fight on the side of the planet’s Middle Eastern-inspired indigenous population, the Fremen. The year is 10,191—according to the book by Frank Herbert, published in 1965, this is some 20,000 years in our future—and while Earthbound languages and cultures have morphed, contemporary concerns of territory, resources, and religious fanaticism remain. This is the backdrop against which these new Dune films unfold, and while they present stark, often dreamlike visions of Arrakis, these are dreams that wrestle with an Orientalist viewpoint, alternatingly attempting subversions of Western imperial thought, while inadvertently leaning into them as well. Unfortunately, like its predecessor, Dune: Part Two tends toward the latter, a failing that goes hand-in-hand with its inability to remain engaging for more than a few scenes at a time, thanks to images that lack vitality.

 

What is perhaps most dreamlike about Dune: Part Two is the way its characters move. The invading Harkonnens—Herbert’s heavily militarized, Soviet-inspired conspirators, who killed Paul’s father rather than handing him the keys to Arrakis’ spice fields—float soundlessly through the air. Meanwhile Paul, his pregnant mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their Fremen comrades move beneath the sand, emerging suddenly to launch hand-to-hand offensives with machete-like blades. This dreamlike quality extends to the way Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser allow light to pierce through the corners of the frame in initial scenes, creating a hazy effect that lingers when the film begins delving into spiritual territory. Some of the Fremen believe Paul to be a prophet, whose arrival was once foretold by Jessica’s own religious cult (the Bene Gesserit), who happen to pull the strings of power alongside an aloof galactic emperor (Christopher Walken) and his cunning daughter (Florence Pugh), who rule over the Harkonnens, the Atreides, and so forth. If there’s one thing Dune: Part Two nails as a sci-fi sequel, it’s quickly getting its audience up to speed on the existing story while establishing these political mechanics.

Like Paul, Jessica is given a position of religious importance within the Fremen ranks, which requires her to drink a clear blue poison derived from the planet’s notorious sandworms, an act which gives her the power of foresight and ends up corrupting her in the process (or bringing out an inner ambition, which had thus far lain dormant). While Paul hopes to take his revenge on the Harkonnens before altruistically handing the planet’s rule back to its people, Jessica tries to wield the Fremen’s belief in Paul’s divinity to consolidate power. Ferguson’s hypnotic presence as an ambitious, mystical matriarch is fascinating to watch, however, the film doesn’t just have her work in the shadows, but truncates her role to one that largely unfolds in the shadows too, far off-screen.

A scene from Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “Dune: Part Two.”

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

As a mother with a psychic connection to her unborn daughter, she’s a “Villeneuve woman” if there ever was one, wrestling with the anxieties of birth and motherhood as many of his characters have (in films like August 32nd on Earth, Maelström, Polytechnique, Incendies, Enemy, and Arrival). In Herbert’s book, and in David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation, Jessica gives birth during the events of the story, but by keeping her pregnant throughout Dune: Part Two, Villeneuve and co-writer Jon Spaihts add a sense of mystery to these events, and to Jessica’s supposed connection and conversations with her unborn daughter, leading to questions about from where her ambitions stem.

It’s a shame, then, that Jessica’s part in the story—which so overtly shapes the rest of Dune: Part Two—is reduced to mere plot mechanics unfolding far in the background. The film is largely concerned with Paul’s exploits as he learns the ways of the Fremen from its military leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and from his warrior love-interest Chani (Zendaya). It’s here that that movie begins to flounder, both structurally and thematically. On one hand, there’s little clarity as to the Harkonnens’ objectives beyond rooting out the Fremen revolutionaries; their overarching motive is clear, but individual battle scenes and military offensives appear at random for Paul and the Fremen to deal with, before the film returns to its stilted tale of Paul absorbing more of Fremen culture. The film has little sense of momentum.

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Zendaya as Chani in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “Dune: Part Two.”

Photo by Niko Tavernise

On the other hand, the cultural aspects of this Dune duology leaves a lingering bitterness, given how malformed they tend to be. The first film made it clear, through Chani’s opening narration, that the Atreides and the Harkonnens were dueling imperial forces, despite being established as the respective protagonists and antagonists of the story. Like the book, it crafted an imaginary Middle East that had long been the center of imperial conflicts between colonial forces; the films’ closest parallel, perhaps, is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the ’70s and ’80s and America’s subsequent response, though the nebulous, post-9/11 “War on Terror” Middle East is hard to ignore as a modern influence, for better or worse. These setups are nominally paid off in Part Two, in which the Fremen are a more central focus, but the movie’s mish-mash Arab-Persian culture ends up a bizarrely sanitized fixture.

Herbert’s Fremen spoke a language much more directly influenced by Arabic, not only linguistically, but politically. A key line in the film (subtitled as “long live the fighters”) features Chalamet speaking a new Fremen language entirely made up for the movie, whereas in the novel, this line was spoken as “Ya hya chouhada,” and anglicization of “Ya hya shuhadā,” a real slogan yelled by Algerian freedom fighters against French forces in the years before Dune was published. It also, notably, translates to “long live the martyrs,” though the idea of martyrdom in the context of Islam, when viewed through a modern Western lens, has come to conjure ideas of terrorist militancy. Similarly, the word “jihad” (or “struggle”), which frequently recurs in the novel, may conjure similar ideas for contemporary Western audiences, and has thus been scrubbed from the movies and occasionally replaced with “holy war.” Between erasing most of the Arabic roots of the Fremen’s language, and by refusing to place phrases associated with Arab freedom and consciousness-raising in the mouths of its ostensible heroes, the movie can't help but feel cowardly and apologetic in the way it translates Herbert’s influences, in a story whose coding leads distinctly to a tale of Arab and Middle Eastern struggle against colonial powers.

These changes, while seemingly minor in the grand scheme of things, are emblematic of the film’s overarching narrative point of view, one which takes Herbert’s re-imagining of an Islamic galactic power structure (with mostly Shia influences) and further re-imagines it as a patronizing tale of saviorism. That the film doesn’t go down a traditional “white savior” path and subverts its outcome doesn’t prevent these mechanics from taking hold. Herbet’s book—a product of its time—undoubtedly had its own issues of racial and cultural optics. However, by downplaying his inspirations in this specific way, while keeping their essence intact through Arabic- and Persian-inspired names and various Arabic phrases—Paul’s Fremen nickname is “Usul,” meaning “base” or “foundation”—the resultant film is Arab and Islamic in its superficial optics, but overlaid with a Western political viewpoint. It erases, in the process, the source material’s revolutionary spirit.

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Austin Butler as Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “Dune: Part Two.”

Photo by Niko Tavernise

Paul is interested in learning about the Fremen, and he does, though much of this learning depicted on-screen ends up nominal, and is portrayed through stray words of wisdom rather than cultural experience and the transformation of perspective. Paul theoretically undergoes a shift along the way, but the audience is seldom granted a window into this journey; to the viewer, the heavily Bedouin-coded Fremen are little more than a backdrop, rather than a vibrant people of their own. The extras and minor Fremen characters are cast from among Middle Eastern and North African actors, but apart from Black American actress Zendaya, their primary speaking part belongs to the white Spaniard Bardem, a decision that—despite the fun Bardem seems to have in the role of Stilgar—is optically uncomfortable at best.

Stilgar proves problematic in other ways too. As the film’s central religious fanatic, his uncompromising belief in prophecy is a major turning point for the film, though its treatment is often tongue-in-cheek. The power of belief is a central facet of the story, but Villeneuve doesn’t see it fit to take it seriously when the aforementioned belief is a sci-fi descendent of Islamic prophethood. Without the emotional sweep of this Islam-inspired faith to buoy its operatic imagery, the frame feels empty, despite being stuffed to the gills with sand and dust. The film, instead of letting its most uncomfortable emotions linger, takes a much more didactic approach. When Paul eventually turns towards desiring power (as if on a dime), Villeneuve holds his audience’s hand and guides them through the morality of this decision by cutting frequently to disapproving looks from Chani, who may as well be turning to the camera to tell the viewer “the filmmaker doesn’t endorse Paul’s naughty behavior!” (It certainly doesn’t help that Zendaya’s silent close-ups are acted as forcefully and overtly as an amateur high school play).

Until Paul’s sudden lust for power, Chalamet’s performance is similarly stilted, leading to a dull central romance that takes up far too much of the movie’s already gargantuan 166-minute runtime. However, there’s a 15-minute detour midway through, during which Dune: Part Two bursts to life, in ways that feels both instructive when it comes to making a major Hollywood blockbuster such as this, as well as like a Rosetta stone for why the rest of the movie fails to make an impact. Back on the Harkonnens’ home planet—under a “black sun” that renders the images practically monochrome—this clans’ own prince, the psychotic sadist Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler) enters the fray, in the form of a blood-soaked gladiatorial performance in an enormous, Brutalist arena. 

Butler’s giddy, unhinged physical performance is matched by a sense of vivid imagery that elevates him to the level of fearsome and demonic—an aesthetic approach that almost never applies to Paul, rendering his own crescendos largely null—while the pulsating music and innovatively conceived alien lighting designs (fireworks made of ink!) make the image pop. An immense amount of thought and artistry brings this segment to life, but the film very quickly returns to its flat, noncommittal framing of Paul that’s rarely interesting to watch, and never leaves a visceral impact. Despite being a film about mysticism, spirituality, and the mechanics of power, these ideas seldom translate into the images themselves, which are often obscured by clouds of dusty sand. The first time Paul straddles and rides an enormous sandworm, you barely see it, despite Hans Zimmer’s thundering score attempting to imbue the scene with pomp and circumstance (thankfully, Zimmer keeps the Orientalist ululating to a minimum this time, opting instead for a more thematically appropriate thundering bass).

Eventually, all the movie’s various character turns (many of them sudden and ill-conceived) conspire to create a climax involving two characters who have never met until that very moment. In addition to feeling emotionally empty, this too is emblematic of the way the film often introduces concepts and ideas only the moment they become relevant—as if this world ceased to exist outside the corners of the frame—while insisting they’re important enough to be paid off right then and there. Apart from a handful of scenes involving Lady Jessica, little in the film is skillfully built to using foreboding atmosphere, which was the first film’s major strength despite it having many of the same weaknesses. And so, despite Dune: Part Two nominally wrapping things up in the form of major character decisions, the lack of weight carried by the filmmaking and performances renders its climax very much akin to that of its predecessor: little more than a cliffhanger portending events that will, hopefully, be more interesting in the next installment.  

Published on March 1, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter