Monday, March 4, 2024

In Dune: Part Two, the Hero's Journey takes a very dark turn

There's nothing more dangerous than a savior

Consider the above photo for a moment. It's one of many, many great shots to be found in Dune: Part Two. But to me, this one summarizes the core message of the film, and of the entire Dune series of novels. This shot happens when Paul Atreides has secured the fervent support of the Fremen, who see in him the fulfillment of their messianic prophecies. He will soon lead them in battle against the Emperor of the known universe, and then against all the noble houses, and then... If you've read past the first book, you know the ugliness that follows. War will spread from world to world and consume billions of lives.

And all that horror is (literally) foreshadowed in that photo. It shows Paul standing atop a rocky shelf, giving a speech before his gathered followers. But if you focus your gaze on the multitude, Paul's barely lit silhouette transforms into a gigantic shadow that falls over a good portion of his own army. His raised arm holding a dagger resembles the shape of a scythe. That is who Paul is destined to become: a bringer of death on an interstellar scale.

When Dune: Part One arrived in theaters, I was concerned about the sequel's ability to give equal attention to the numerous mass fights and the heavy philosophical themes that occupy the latter half of the first Dune book. Fortunately, after watching in Part One a movie basically made of setup, we get in Part Two dramatic rewards galore: Baron Harkonnen starts the story believing himself to be a cunning mastermind, only to end up losing everything; local warlord Stilgar becomes a religious fanatic who eagerly enables Paul's ambition; and Lady Jessica evolves from a minor operative in the Church of Painstakingly Slow Eugenics to a ruthless manipulator, a twisted blend of John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, an unholy messenger that prepares the way for the Dark Messiah.

The film makes good use of its runtime to discuss the corrosive effects of proselytism on subjugated communities. Much like the Slave Bible in the US, the Reverend Mothers of the Bene Gesserit have spent centuries spreading doctrines calculated to facilitate their control over the native populations of several planets. Paul's rise to complete military and political power is viewed by the Fremen as the key to their freedom, but it's actually part of an immensely complex scheme of domination that not even Paul agrees with. The character of Paul Atreides is portrayed here with deep psychological awareness of the competing loyalties and urges that inundate his mind. It doesn't hurt that Timothée Chalamet is a fantastically talented actor who makes the expression of multiple simultaneous emotions seem effortless.

The rest of the cast performs impeccably as well. Zendaya serves as the audience's surrogate as she first becomes fascinated by Paul's rapidly growing skills as a fighter and leader, and later becomes alarmed  and finally disillusioned as Paul learns to enjoy power a bit too much. Austin Butler makes a surprising impression as Feyd-Rautha, bringing into each of his scenes an uncanny mixture of ethereal beauty and deadly brutality. And I must again praise the character of Lady Jessica, who in the hands of actress Rebecca Ferguson displays a fascinating breadth of personality between the loving domestic figure she is in Part One and the poisoner of entire cultures she becomes in Part Two.

This film's most striking change to the novel's plot, the handling of Paul's little sister Alia, is in consonance with the larger themes. Alia awakens as a Reverend Mother when Lady Jessica passes the test of the Water of Life. This ritual opens access to the memories of all previous Reverend Mothers; however, since Alia is still an embryo with no identity of her own, she becomes a living repository of a continuous heritage that influences events through her. In a way, this is also true of Paul: his existence  and his trajectory are the product of converging political machinations that steer him toward his inescapable tragic fate. Dune as a whole is very skeptical of the Great Man theory, which can be seen in the way Paul at first appears to be the promised hero who will fix everything, but instantly morphs into yet another blunt instrument of forces beyond human control.

Much of the plot of Dune is a curious multiplication of the standard tragic structure: the narrative beats result from the snowballing disaster that is everyone failing in turn to execute their respective plans. The Emperor fails to exterminate the Atreides family; Leto fails to humanize the living conditions in Arrakis; Doctor Yueh fails to avenge his wife; the Fremen fail to bring security and prosperity to their world; and the Bene Gesserit fail to give birth to the perfect man who will save the universe. From these successive failures come new, escalating crises that no one had made preparations for. This refusal of events to submit to human will feels much like the way history proceeds in the real world, and therein lies the secret to the continuing appeal of Dune.

The cherry on this cake of great storytelling is director Denis Villeneuve's eye for perfect composition. The landscapes of Arrakis appear as endless expanses of all the shades of brown and yellow; the sky can look inviting, dotted with millions of stars; or darkened by the unpredictable ferocity of Arrakis's sandstorms; or oppressively hot under the reign of a blinding sun.

Dune exists in a universe where not only political events, but also nature escapes any attempt at human control. You cannot tame the mighty sandworm, only ride it for a time. Humans will be lost as long as they keep trying to control the enigmatic spice that makes both physical and spiritual journey possible. This theme is reflected in the narrative device of having all major players fail in their schemes: merely having an Emperor is already a manifestation of the desire for absolute control, and therefore the precipitating cause of unending catastrophe. This has been a fundamental flaw of human history, as true in the year 10191 as in 2024.

This is the final ingredient that explains why Villeneuve's Dune produces such an alluring effect: even as it employs the trappings of ancient epic, the truths it communicates have never ceased to be relevant. We're still susceptible to the rousing speeches of a supposed savior. We're still collectively addicted to a toxic source of energy. We're still treating less powerful societies as pawns in the political chessboard. Volatility has somehow remained a constant of our time. However, if we manage to remember that fear is the mind-killer, we'll be able to identify the true intentions of anyone who shows up selling fear. Too many aspire to become a God-Emperor. We need stories like Dune to keep our eyes open.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.