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‘Dune: Part Two’: Power over spice is strong, but power over belief is stronger

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

“Power over spice is power over all.” 

So begins “Dune: Part Two,” which from onset continues its predecessor’s fascination with power and the destructive ends to which it drives. Denis Villeneuve’s newest opus takes a thematic zag where the first film zigged.  

Audiences are dropped into the story right where “Dune” left off, with Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet, and his mother traversing the wide-open deserts of the planet Arrakis. Their noble house destroyed by the overpowering Harkonnens, they are the strong but sole survivors of a lost people. Their striving to avenge their house and combat the pervasive powers that be is the premise from which this three-hour odyssey unfolds. 

Perhaps most intriguing with that opening power quote is that it doesn’t really match the movie that follows. In fact, such a sentiment would have fit better at the beginning of the first “Dune”; that film’s story was driven largely by power dynamics and political corruption that stemmed from the correlation between spice control and people control. 

In “Dune: Part Two,” the narrative is prevailingly predicated upon religiosity. Faith — and more importantly fervor — underlies every movement of the characters, every decision and conflict. Considering that the spice was so prevalent in Part 1 and was the very first thing mentioned in “Part Two,” it doesn’t play a significant role. Here we’re concerned with lower-status people, their social actions and, most prominently, the beliefs that motivate those actions. 

These beliefs and perceptions come under heavy scrutiny, even in otherwise united camps. Within the Fremen people is a divide over the Lisan al-Gaib prophecies, which tell of a savior from the “Outer World” coming to liberate the Fremen. While the older generation — and, as they’re called, “fundamentalists” from the so Southern part of Arrakis — have full-fledged belief in the prophecies, many, including Zendaya’s Chani, are skeptical. As they perceive it, the prophecies are but myths propagated by the higher-status Bene Gesserit to keep the Fremen subjugated. 

They aren’t entirely wrong. This is where the complex role of religious belief comes into play. 

Chani and the skeptics are shown to be expressing at least partial truths. The Lisan al-Gaib prophecies have been promoted by the Bene Gesserit, who have a prophesied messiah figure of their own called the Kwisatz Haderach; if they can build a hunger for such a savior among the lower peoples, they can more easily elevate the Kwisatz Haderach when he comes. 

“Dune: Part Two” poses a difficult philosophical question: If a prophecy or religious promise is propped up by man, does that mean it’s invalid or incapable of proving true? Can generations of genuine hope and faith be rendered “wrong” just because the roots are somewhat dubious? 

One can better examine this question and its larger connotations through the character and journey of Paul Atreides. From the earliest moments of “Part Two,” he is believed to be the Lisan al-Gaib, first by a few and then, as he continues to show his merit, by many. Bit by bit, he fulfills the foretold characteristics of the one from the Outer World to the point where even the skeptics find it hard to deny him. 

The question of his legitimacy lingers, however, even after all his demonstrations of apparent worthiness. It all goes back to the fundamental dilemma of whether the messianic role he’s supposedly taking on was ever real in the first place, or merely a constructed myth that could be satisfied only by coincidence and/or selective self-fulfillment. 

From this elusive and likely unanswerable question, the film flows into a more concrete theme: Whether one sees the prophecy as valid, the collective passion it generates is strong enough to wield immense power. 

Much time is spent dealing with the importance of belief in fostering social movements. Paul’s mother, portrayed with brilliant menace by Rebecca Ferguson, puts keen effort into converting nonbelievers to bolster Paul’s reputability as the messiah; Paul himself knows that embracing the role of the savior would spark social frenzy and put him on an irreversible path to absolute rule. He spends the first half of the movie terrified of this possibility, convinced by nightmarish visions that his rule would cause widespread famine and the death of millions. 

The gradual descent of Paul from this apprehensive humility into a full acceptance of his prophesied rule can only be meaningful through the power of belief. For a people who have long been starved for justice but who have patiently outwaited the oppression by believing in a coming savior, even the slightest hint — much more, a full declaration like Paul’s near the film’s close — of the savior’s arrival is enough to spur relentless fervor. 

Controlling the spice is the chief aim of the noble houses, but as this two-part “Dune” adaptation comes to a close, it’s clear that spice is merely one method of control. The alternative is far deeper in its psychological basis, potent enough to inspire all-out carnage. The Holy Wars that approach as the movie ends will be fought not with spice control, but with religious fervor, an unyielding zeal brandished by those who at last have a leader to take them into battle. 

It is a convicting and resonant finale. Many will take it as only a cliff-hanger leading into a third movie of epic proportions; the reality, however, is that this marks the end of the original “Dune” novel, and the next adaptation point, “Dune Messiah,” depicts these Holy Wars sparingly and mostly through flashbacks. If and when we get a third Denis Villeneuve “Dune” film, the massive conflict “Part Two” teases likely won’t be portrayed with crowd-pleasing vastness. As such, we must treat the conclusion we get with much more thematic care. 

Beyond the battle, Paul’s ascension to rule is the bittersweet payoff to a troubling road. Authority has been taken, but it has come at the cost of love, of friendship, of humility. The feeling viewers are left with is not triumph, nor even relief. It’s fear. As Paul, whom we saw for so long as a moral and humble protagonist, stands dominantly in front of a people who bow and worship him as a god, we can’t help but be frightened. Not frightened at the singular “messiah,” but rather at his followers, who by complete and unabated relief are prepared to fight to the death and whatever lies beyond. 

“Dune: Part Two” currently holds a 94% critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes, a 79/100 on Metacritic, and a 4.6/5 on Letterboxd. It can be viewed in theaters nationwide. 

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