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Sands of Power: Dune Review Part II

Habibe Deniz Seval
SciFi Editor and PhD candidate at University of Ottawa | + posts

Habibe Deniz Seval is a PhD candidate in Law at the University of Ottawa Centre for Law, Technology, and Society. She is also a Geek and SciFi editor of DigiCon.

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This review includes spoilers.

“Dune: Part Two” is similar (not the same) the original narrative in the novel by Frank Herbert, Paul emerges as an endearing protagonist on his epic voyage of heroism. The movie prompts a re-evaluation of the nature of heroism and its interplay with societal dynamics, moving beyond the arcs to explore a journey evocative of the trials in Homeric epics, where the protagonist’s virtues and flaws are magnified against a backdrop of fate and the broader human condition.

This movie offers a portrayal of the themes Frank Herbert sought to emphasize, providing an exploration of societal dynamics, the intricate mechanisms of a multinational empire, and a penetrating critique of religion and its pervasive influence on societies. It masterfully illustrates the unifying, albeit often blind, force of faith towards a common objective. The conclusion of the movie, where the ‘Jihad’ is referred to as ‘Holy War’, a term not exactly borrowed from the original novels, underscores Herbert’s inspiration from Islamic motifs. Herbert’s choice of terminology signifies the depth of engagement with Islamic culture in shaping the universe of Dune, the Fremen people, and the Messiah concept. However, it can be said that this adaptation is powerful enough to bring Herbert’s complex universe to life but also prompts the viewer to reflect on the profound impact of religious narratives on collective human behavior and political structures. It raises questions about the nature of belief and leadership in shaping societal destinies, inviting audiences to ponder the parallels between Herbert’s fictional world and our own societal constructs.

Moreover, the movie delves into questioning the essence of Paul Atreides’ role: Is he truly the foretold messiah, or merely the culmination of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Through this lens, Herbert critiques the traditional notion of heroism, exposing its complexities and potential pitfalls. By intertwining Paul’s personal odyssey with broader themes of power, religion, and destiny, Herbert and by extent director of the movie Denis Villeneuve not only challenges the archetype of the heroic savior but also invites the audience to scrutinize the mechanisms through which societies construct and venerate their heroes.

Dune: Part Two complicates the narrative through the expansion of the Bene Gesserit order in contrast to the Dune: Part One. This enlargement provides deeper insights into the sisterhood’s extensive history and objectives. The film parallels the Fremen’s adeptness in navigating the desert’s harshness with the Bene Gesserit’s proficiency in manipulating socio-political landscapes, a testament to their strategic influence. However, the portrayal of the Bene Gesserit raises critical questions about the film’s feminist credentials. Are these characters, as a collective of influential women shaping the fate of the universe, emblematic of feminist empowerment? Or, conversely, does their depiction veer towards a Victorian archetype of the ‘madwoman’, portraying an uncontrolled and non-feminist vision of womanhood?

The Bene Gesserit, with their complex and potent influence, invite a multifaceted analysis. On one hand, their representation as powerful women who significantly alter the course of events could be seen as a celebration of female agency and strength. On the other hand, the question arises whether their portrayal is tinged with historical stereotypes that undermine such empowerment. This ambiguity compels the audience to critically examine the of the gender portrayal within the narrative. Is the Bene Gesserit a progressive portrayal of women’s capabilities and influence, or does their depiction inadvertently echo antiquated views on women’s roles in society? One might argue that the reality is that while the Bene Gesserit exhibit traits resonant with feminist empowerment, their actions and ethos also diverge markedly from fundamental feminist principles. Is it the explicit demonstration of women in positions of power, or is it the adherence to a set of principles that advocate for equality and the dismantling of patriarchal structures? The Bene Gesserit serve as a provocative lens through which these questions can be explored, encouraging a deeper reflection on the complexities of feminism, power, and morality in a universe far removed from our own.

Moving on to the role of technology’s role in the movie, we encounter a different depiction in contrast to other science-fiction narratives. Rather than refinement of machines, the focus is different in the Dune universe but re-engineering the human species itself. This grand endeavor is epitomized by the efforts of the Bene Gesserit who are engrossed in the breeding program aimed at producing a superbeing, the prophesied Kwisatz Haderach. In the Dune universe, technology manifests not in the form of advanced machinery or innovation, but through the incredible capabilities and enhancements of the human mind and body. So, as stated earlier, this approach to technology, foregrounding bio-engineering and mental discipline over mechanical devices, sets Dune apart from other science fiction narratives, offering a profound commentary on humanity’s relationship with technology and our intrinsic potential.

The Dune universe also provides a very rich discourse to discuss political and legal aspects. It is characterized by feudal structures, imperial mandates, and a reliance on the monopolistic control of a critical resource—spice, vital for space travel, prescience, and longevity. In the movie, Paul’s threat to destroy the spice fields with atomics if the Great Houses intervene introduces a complex legal dilemma. The use of atomics against a planet’s surface is forbidden under the Great Convention (a convention that governs the actions of various factions within the universe, including the Great Houses, the Spacing Guild, and the Imperium), a foundational legal document in Herbert’s universe. This threat highlights the tensions between legal statutes and the exigencies of political power struggles, suggesting a scenario where legal norms may be suspended under the guise of higher strategic necessities.

Furthermore, the marriage alliance between Paul and Irulan represents a strategic political maneuver to consolidate power. This alliance effectively neutralizes one of Paul’s significant adversaries, and while securing Paul’s position, also sown the seeds of future political instability, as alliances based on necessity rather than mutual interests are inherently fragile. This marriage alliance mirrors several historical alliances that were crafted not out of affection but as strategic maneuvers to consolidate power, secure peace, or achieve political objectives, such as the marriage between Henry VII of England and Elizabeth of York, which effectively ended the Wars of the Roses, that plagued England in the 15th century.

If you’ve even caught a glimpse of the movie, you must talk about Lady Jessica. Lady Jessica’s role in the Dune universe indeed extends far beyond her initial appearance as merely the mother of Paul Atreides. Her actions, deeply interwoven with the Bene Gesserit’s long-term goals and her own personal convictions, are pivotal in shaping the political, social, and religious landscape of Arrakis and the broader Imperium. The depiction of Jessica traveling south to unite with Fremen fundamentalists, along with her embodiment of the Litany Against Fear through tattoos, symbolizes her deep integration and influential role within Fremen society and the unfolding prophecy surrounding her son.

One might characterize Lady Jessica as a puppeteer behind Paul’s ascent. First, from a strategic standpoint, Jessica’s decisions—ranging from her training of Paul in the Bene Gesserit ways to her alliance with the Fremen—lay the groundwork for Paul’s emergence as a messianic figure, Mahdi. Her teachings, particularly the Bene Gesserit skills of observation, emotional control, and political manipulation, equip Paul with tools essential for navigating the complex socio-political terrain of Arrakis. Second, her decision to bear a son, despite the Bene Gesserit’s order to produce a daughter for the Kwisatz Haderach breeding program, sets into motion the series of events leading to Paul’s birth and eventual rise. This act, reflective of her agency, foresight and strong-willed character, underscores her role in deviating from the established path to fulfill a larger destiny. Moreover, Jessica’s alignment with the Fremen and her adaptation to their culture—exemplified by her acceptance of their beliefs and customs, such as the tattoos signifying the Litany Against Fear—demonstrates her adeptness in leveraging religious and cultural narratives to consolidate her and Paul’s power base among the Fremen.

These tattoos symbolize Jessica’s acceptance into Fremen society, they mark her transformation and deep commitment to the Fremen cause and her personal agenda as well, signifying her transition from an outsider to an integral member or maybe even a leader of the community, highlighting themes of identity and belonging. Furthermore, her tattoos could be seen as a symbol of her unseen power, the wisdom and guidance she provides not just to Paul but to the Fremen community. Her actions and decisions are pivotal in steering the course of the narrative, emphasizing the often-understated power of maternal figures and advisors in shaping destinies. Her understanding and manipulation of Fremen prophecy and religious fervor play a crucial role in establishing Paul as Lisan al-Gaib, thereby cementing his political and spiritual authority on Arrakis. So, while Paul is undoubtedly the central figure in the narrative, Jessica’s behind-the-scenes orchestration, guidance, and sacrifices are instrumental in his rise to power. Thus, considering Lady Jessica merely as a secondary character or a simple facilitator in the Dune saga underestimates her significance. Her actions, imbued with strategic foresight and a profound understanding of the Bene Gesserit’s objectives, are fundamental to the narrative’s unfolding and to the realization of Paul’s messianic and political ascent.

To conclude, Dune Part 2 embroiders narrative rich with ambition, spiritual depth, and the inexorable pull of destiny, as witnessed in the complex journey of Paul Atreides. Amidst the echoing chants of religious themes and the valorous acts of heroism, the movie portrays the shadowed maneuvers of the Bene Gesserit and the indispensable influence of Lady Jessica, suggesting that perhaps the true mastery lies not in the overt power of the throne but in the subtle guidance from behind the scenes. The sequel masterfully unfolds the legal and political intricacies of the Dune universe, inviting viewers into a contemplative exploration of power, prophecy, and the philosophical underpinnings that hallmark Herbert’s creation. As we traverse the dunes of Arrakis alongside Paul, the narrative compels us to confront the essence of leadership and the sacrifices it entails, weaving the profound realization that “The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience” into the fabric of its storytelling.

[1] Litany Against Fear.


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