Why Dune II undermines its protagonist's achievements

08 March 2024 · Adam Fontenot


I wanna talk about Dune, and this is my blog, so we’re gonna talk about Dune. This post will contain spoilers for the films Dune I and II. Please mind the caveat that I haven’t read the Dune books, and I’m unfamiliar with most writing, academic and otherwise, about Dune.

There is a lot to say about Dune II. The film seems to invite comparison, criticism, and debate. Obvious responses range from the perfunctory — “ambitious” — to the superlative — “the most ambitious fantasy epic since The Lord of the Rings.” True, but doesn’t capture what makes it interesting.

There’s enough ambition in recent cinema. The arthouse and import markets are more widely accessible than ever. Even in the mainstream, Martin Scorsese is making three-and-a-half hour period pieces for Apple TV in English and subtitled Osage. Dune II is long, and it’s slow paced, and that makes it, if not ambitious exactly, then at least proof of what the popcorn munchers are now willing to put up with. (In my case, I also put up with a projector with a dozen dead pixels.)

In reaction to this emphasis on Dune II’s artistic pretensions, one might espouse the notion that the film succeeds primarily as pure entertainment. I mean, yeah, it’s really good? I don’t claim to know what brings people like me back to the theater. Certainly not two hours of inhaling our late arriving neighbor’s perfume. I enjoyed every minute of Dune II, that much is true. Judging the film purely on this axis is overly simplistic, though. The way I enjoyed Dune II is more like the way I enjoyed Ben-Hur than Mad Max: Fury Road.

I want to try out some ways of characterizing the kind of story Dune II tells, and try to work out how this kind of storytelling might be at the root of what makes the film work.

Kings and Queens

Royalty feature heavily in theater. Drama’s love of kings derives not (or not only) from their patronage but more directly from the fact that they are Subjects, writ large. The dramatic monarch is a being with nearly unlimited power to shape the world. They enact the ideal of a human being in that their stories employ a dichotomy of will and world in clean schematic form that comports with how we understand ourselves.

There is a terrific film, Deux jours, une nuit, which illustrates this point by way of contrast. In the film, the bosses of a manufacturing plant manage to fire Sandra, a young mother on medical leave, by bribing her coworkers to vote for her dismissal with a bonus. She rejects the result as illegitimate because they voted publicly, and pressures her manager to redo the vote with secret ballots. Granted this reprieve, she spends the weekend — the remainder of the film — trying to convince her coworkers to vote for her come Monday.

Sandra is a woman with no power in a desperate situation. The film depicts human comradery and the material forces that break it down, and asks how, or whether, people can have a sense of freedom when they lack control over their circumstances.

The characters of classical drama have moments of power and success, weakness and failure, they see the fulfillment of desires and reversals of fortune. Many a royal Macbeth has faced his Birnam Wood. These men and women nevertheless have their wills and desires sharply defined; the world is shaped by them and their contests, like landscapes carved in a war between giants. They are maximally free in that they possess the capacity to determine the conditions they will face.

Sandra resembles most modern protagonists in that her story defines its world without reference to her; she is not active in its construction. Her story is not about her efforts to shape this world. Instead, it forms an unalterable backdrop to her struggle against its effects.

Most modern characters reside somewhere in the middle of the spectrum I have drawn between deific beings who shape the world with their wills and powerless humans buffeted about by an environment they cannot hope to control. That said, we have largely relocated the former to the realm of fantasy.

Perhaps the superhero comes closest to enacting this character type in its original form. They are never seriously threatened by ordinary people, who exist in their stories as a kind of foil. Their worlds are stages for combat, shaped physically by their conflicts. Yet these characters are not free to act in the way of the queens and kings. Their limits are set not by the world itself so much as by metatextual considerations.

A “hero”, for example, is by definition a character possessing goals aligned with the survival and well-being of ordinary humans. Villains possess the opposite set of motivations, and their stories are about their attempts to pound one another into submission with raw force, not to win a contest of wills or political intrigue.

By contrast, the real life King Henry II participated in two major controversies. The first was his effort to define and cement his power as monarch in contradistinction to that of the Church, a struggle that ended in the murder of the Archbishop Thomas Becket. The second was a feud between himself, his wife Eleanor, and his sons over his possessions and the inheritance of his kingdom. This boiled over into military conflict when several of his sons, along with Eleanor, rebelled against him.

With comic book characters, at least on the big screen, “their” interests are never really their interests. They are never petty. They do not engage in decade-long quarrels with the Catholic church over the right to levy taxes. Even anti-heroes, in addition to their propensity to violence and unsavory language, are by definition among those who show up when it’s time to get the gang back together to save the Earth for the umpteenth time. Their interests are still ours, they’re just unreasonably grumpy about it.

No one really believes in this royal character type any more. Power like this is parochial at best, and fleeting. Fictional worlds shaped entirely by their characters are the stuff of the stage, and this stage, today, is a small one. George and Martha dominate the terrain of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but this is possible because they are giants only in the space of their small home.

Even our ideas of history no longer focus on the capacity of individuals to shape their present and future. “Great man” theories have no traction, and this limits our capacity to accept them in fictional contexts as well.

The Lord of the Rings in space

Aragorn possesses the kingly virtues, by right and by nature, and governs the world as he wills. Simultaneously, the Rings books accord him heroic status and rule of Gondor by inheritance, but modern readers will fail to see a connection between these two facts. If Aragorn had been a bad king, as many of the Numenoreans were, Gondor would have had to tough it out, and perhaps even fallen into decay. If he had lacked the capacity for the leadership others entrusted to him, he would never have become king in the first place.

As readers (or viewers of an adaptation), we accept this account not because of any particular theory of kingship but because we understand Aragorn as a traditional protagonist. Aragorn is the only human being who can use the palantíri without corruption. Arthur takes the sword from the stone. Luke is the only Jedi with the power to confront Darth Vader. Thor is the only guy who can lift the big hammer.

If, as I have suggested, we struggle to accept these characters, how does Tolkien avoid making Aragorn’s story risible? In two ways: the inclusion of antagonist characters of equal or greater power, and with a extratextual imposition curtailing the ways Aragorn’s power can be expressed. Gandalf, Galadriel, Aragorn, and Elrond could potentially mount a frontal assault on their enemy, Sauron, but the moral cost would be too great. Because they are restrained, the focus of the story lies instead on the actions of a couple of nobodies who destroy Sauron’s power through an Achilles’ Heel mechanism.

Paul Atreides seems cut from similar cloth. Never, in Dune II, does there seem to be a credible material threat to his aims. He starts the film down and out, of course, but people instinctively flock to his leadership. His family’s military commander, Gurney Halleck, a William Marshal type, turns out to be alive and to know the secret location of his family’s stash of nuclear weapons. He has a willing army of millions in the south, and his opponents are bumbling idiots or smirking capricious newcomers.

Like Aragorn, Paul holds back because he knows what will unfold if he uses these powers wrongly. Something like two thirds of Dune II features him wandering around in the desert trying to escape destiny because he can foresee the violence and suffering that will come as a result of it. He’s the rightful heir of the house of Atreides, but can’t claim it directly. Like Aragorn, his coming is prophesied and awaited by the faithful.

Is Dune just Lord of the Rings in space, then, with guns replacing swords (wait, the Fremen use swords!)? Well, no, obviously not. There is no substitute for the cental Paul plot, no ring to put to the fire and set all aright. Eventually, as his mother predicts, he follows his fate to the south. From there, the narrative moves remarkably quickly. He wins the fundamentalist Fremen sects to his side in mere days with his fulfillment of prophecy, devises a plan to use nuclear weapons on his enemies, leads an assault on the capital, captures the emperor, and kills his one rival for the throne.

We accept this narrative because Dune II, as it tells this story about Paul’s rise to power, is simultaneously deconstructing narratives about rising to power. The prophecy itself is a sham, having been invented by his mother along with a religious sect in order to win him followers. He must undergo trials to prove himself, like drinking poison, but he has been trained to be able to drink poison and live. He promises to lead his followers to “Paradise”, but this is visually undercut by a shot showing them boarding starships to go to war with his enemies. His choices, especially his use of atomic weapons, results in his girlfriend breaking up with him, and she, no Arwen, is a fiercer warrior than he.

Dune II redeems the overpowered nature of its lead character with bitter political cynicism about where that power originates and how it is sustained. When Immortan Joe promises his followers “you will ride eternal, shiny and chrome”, it is not so important whether we believe him. A belief in an afterlife, a metal Valhalla, is culturally appropriate for the War Boys. When Paul promises the Fremen to take them to green places with enormous oceans, it matters that we see cynicism. Belief and its power are the thematic core of the film, and if Paul is not the messiah, the Fremen seem poised to make him so through sheer conviction. But there is a difference, and an important one, between the two.

Much of the dramatic tension of the film comes from Paul’s attempts to prove himself, as when he rides one of the planet’s giant sandworms, but to what end? The effect of these actions is to convince the Fremen that he is their prophesied messiah, and he’s not. Even if he manages to do everything that the messiah is supposed to do, it’s still the enactment of a story told for the purpose of manipulating the Fremen, and gaining power over them, for generations. What good is that to them?

Paul’s fortunes change the moment he embraces this “destiny”. Rather than fighting a war of attrition in the north, in a matter of days he’s reclaimed the place of his family on top of Arrakis, and has his sights set on even greater ambitions. On the scale of a rather plodding film, it’s hard to convey just how fast this seems to happen. There’s little depiction of the difficulty of moving an army of great size hundreds of miles north, nor of the practical concerns with taking the emperor captive. Even the fighting, carefully choreographed in earlier scenes, becomes perfunctory here — two lines of foot soldiers charging headlong into each other, with the outcome already decided.

The Dunepire strikes back

It’s at this point in the film that, as in The Empire Strikes Back, the fate of the galaxy is determined by single combat. This borders on the farcical. The emperor appoints a member of the Harkonnen family, a young man he’s only just met, to be his champion. This poor kid never had a chance. The movie, all too late, tries to set him up as a big-bad worth fearing, but doesn’t (and can’t) succeed, because Paul’s power by this point verges on absolute. He can literally see the future, now thinks in necessities instead of possibilities. Paul’s triumph is the expected victory of brains over brawn, though the film establishes that he has that too — the very first thing we see him doing in this series is practicing combat.

The film bears other comparisons to Empire as well. A central component of Paul’s transformation from insouciant desert vagabond to contender for the throne of the empire is the discovery that he is the grandchild of Baron Harkonnen.

When Luke Skywalker is revealed to be the son of his enemy, Darth Vader, the purpose of the moment is to justify an unexpected choice: Vader offers Luke an alliance with the goal of overthrowing the emperor. Downstream from this immediate impact is Luke coming to have the belief that Vader is not entirely evil, and that their relationship could be the basis of his redemption.

This moment spread outward from Empire to become a cultural touchstone. In Empire, the fact of their relationship gives us an explanation for why Vader does what he does. Rather than simply kill Luke, he comes up with a solution that would unite them while still achieving his aims. Likewise, the moment helps us understand why Luke treats Vader as redeemable, rather than an enemy to be destroyed at all costs. When this took on cultural significance, the meaning changed. To reveal that the protagonist is related to the antagonist is to imply not merely that they can change to become like one another but that they are also, fundamentally, already alike in some respect.

Relying purely on established cultural meaning in this way is lazy storytelling, and unfortunately Dune II doesn’t rise above it. Paul does not take his ties to the Harkonnens as a reason to believe he can reason with them, or to give him a moral obligation to win them away from their violent ways, but as reason to believe of himself that “fighting like Harkonnens” would be appropriate. This makes no sense at all in the context of the story; as audience we only comprehend this because we know the cultural signification of revealing a protagonist’s heritage. Even if we take for granted the racial assumption that Harkonnens are inherently violent, this at best gives us an explanation for why Paul might be prone to violence (though the film seems to have established that he is not). It does not give Paul himself a reason to start behaving more violently than he otherwise would have!

In the context of Paul’s arc, this revelation is the inflection point in a radical transformation. Paul begins the film determined not to engage the fundamentalist Fremen because of his visions, which prognosticate mass suffering and death if he does so. He reverses course only after the Harkonnens destroy the Fremen’s northern stronghold, making it clear that a long painful defeat will result from his current plans. He drinks a potion which radically enhances his powers of foresight, at which point he immediately embraces his apparent destiny as Fremen messiah figure and future ruler of the empire.

Paul defends his change of plans to his Fremen girlfriend, Chani, by stating that the path he takes is the only way. Unfortunately, we have little means by which to judge this claim. We’re shown only fleeting images from his visions, and they not only don’t explain his actions, it isn’t even clear what he means by the claim that no other choice is possible.

No other choice for whom? Whose aims does he prioritize? If Paul takes the path he does because otherwise the Harkonnens will remain in control of Arrakis and his father will remain unavenged, but trades for this the collapse of the empire and a horrific civil war, that’s an interesting thing for him to do. It reflects the private ambitions and unique loyalties that we expect from a royal character. Dune II, instead, muddies the water by giving us no clear sense of what choice, exactly, has been made.

Chani, understandably enough, dislikes this profound change in Paul’s personality and drive. She takes on the role of viewer insert in the film. We’re clearly meant to disapprove of Paul’s exploitation of religious fanaticism, and Chani embodies this. In fact she does so too much. Dune II deftly emphasizes showing over telling, but it’s possible to “show” so much that the audience feels shouted at, and that happens with many of Chani’s scenes. Nearly every time Paul does something we’re meant to feel skeptical of, we’re handed a cutaway to a reaction from Chani, who emotes her strong disapproval. We don’t need this level of confirmation that, in fact, the movie knows it’s a bad thing to seed prophecies about yourself in an isolated community over multiple generations just so you can come along and fulfill them.

Would you still love me if I were a worm?

Chani promises Paul that she will stick by him so long as he “remains true to himself”. Her rejection of him when he changes course is the most overt sign that he’s gone astray.

While this allows her to serve as the film’s moral center, it also frustrates our efforts to see her, like Paul, as a complete person. How would she respond, for example, if Paul told her that his visions revealed that the Fremen would be wiped out should he not take the specific path he does? I think we have to imagine, hewing as she does to righteous means, that her opinion would be the same. Yet the film misses the chance to give her depth by having her struggle with questions like these. Everyone else in the film is granted a point of view, while she is burdened with carrying the point of view of the filmmaker.

Paul and Chani consummate their relationship in a scene immediately after he successfully rides one of the giant sandworms of Arrakis for the first time. This is not just amusing symbolism, but another instance of Chani serving as audience surrogate. Timothée Chalamet has, so to speak, wooed us with his feats, and Dune II consistently succeeds in its efforts to feel like a true adventure film, with Paul a swashbuckling protagonist despite our misgivings.

Villeneuve’s chops as an action director shine through here; there’s none of the grunting and panting that typically conveys effort in blockbusters; here the whole story is told with the camera. Paul’s platoon of believers proclaim him the “Mahdi” (one of several elements in the film clearly inspired by Islam), and the brilliance of the film is such that for a minute we feel that they’re right. We want them to be right.

The subservient attitude of Paul’s Fremen acolytes points up Chani’s insistence on her own independence. “I’d like very much to be equal to you,” Paul tells her early in their relationship. This line sticks in one’s memory precisely because the world of Dune is such a thoroughgoingly unequal one. There is absolutely no pretense that Paul is the equal of anyone else in the story. He is a Duke, the heir of the house of Atreides. He has preternatural gifts of leadership, prodigious fighting skill, and strong tactical capabilities. He is literally born to play the specific role he does, with his future-sight giving him textual awareness of his own position which serves as a kind of plot armor, which the film emphasizes while simultaneously deconstructing. If he has “main character syndrome”, it’s because he is the main character, and he knows it.

Outside of Paul himself, the universe displays overwhelming inequality. With the empire carved into family-run fiefdoms, brutality becomes the necessary condition of survival and success. As the emperor explains to Paul, he killed Paul’s father “because he was weak”, where “weak” serves primarily as proof of incompetence. Villeneuve does not depict the emperor as especially evil, but as a cunning and bureaucratically capable man placed at the top of a world in which violence is the only reliable mechanism of governance.

When Paul declares himself the equal, or (rather) aspiring equal, of Chani, what does this “equality” comprise? He seems to gesture toward liberal notions of political equality that have no place in this world. Paul is, after all, an outsider. He comes among the Fremen as an obvious Lawrence-of-Arabia type, promoting the idea that they will guide themselves to freedom, but always with the implicit premise that he will be at the front as their leader and inspiration.

Perhaps he means merely sexual equality? This seems plausible enough, in light of the relative good treatment of women by the northern, non-fundamentalist Fremen. Yet he cannot mean this in a way that comports with modern feminist notions (a brief joke about mansplaining notwithstanding). Fremen society remains heavily segregated, and emancipation for the women of Arrakis never becomes a serious suggestion.

The women of Dune

Moreover, never does the enslavement of women we see in the world of Dune become a political subject. Paul wants revenge on the Harkonnens, and (at least secondarily) victory for the Fremen, but we have not a shred of evidence that the condition of Baron Harkonnen’s slaves ever crosses his mind.

When women are, like Chani, depicted as political actors in this world, it is in their capacity as individuals. The collective interests of women have no significance. Comparing this to how seriously the film takes the status of the Fremen illustrates the severity of this omission. Their ability to defend themselves and make independent decisions features centrally in the film, and Paul’s status as white savior serves as a clear threat.

Dune II certainly likes to point out to us when women are being mistreated, but in the absence of any serious attempt to make this relevant to the actions and decisions of the characters, these depictions serve crudely as mere illustrations of the violent, despicable natures of the film’s antagonists. Contrast Fury Road: George Miller wants us to ask what women’s freedom looks like under conditions of chaos and collapse, what it means to be unified against misogyny.

Political power for women in Dune comes primarily in the form of membership in a religious order, the Bene Gesserit. The official power structure of the empire flows from the emperor through his vassals, a hierarchy based on authority and brute strength. This contrasts with the subtle methods of the Bene Gesserit, who work by influence, manipulation, and subterfuge.

Their goals remain vague, at best, in Dune I and Dune II. They, in conspiracy with Paul’s mother Jessica, have laid the foundations for his power by spreading the prophecies among the Fremen, while at the same time attempting to bring about the birth of one who could fulfill them.

As their plans for Arrakis materialize, they seek to determine whether Baron Harkonnen’s nephew Feyd-Rautha can be manipulated to their interests. (He is, it turns out, easily taken in by attractive ladies.) This episode serves to illustrate the vast power of the Bene Gesserit. Their schemes span across decades or centuries; they have the ability to directly manipulate the minds of others; their envoys have the ear of those with formal power, including in the halls of the emperor. It’s not clear, in other words, why they’re not already running things. Could it be that they are restrained to passitivity by an authorial intervention?

Paul, oddly, is a feminized character. His mother breaks the rules of the Bene Gesserit (who admit only women) because she wants to give him an edge, teaching him to use the Voice — the power to cause others to instinctively obey through speech. Likewise, Paul becomes initiated in Dune II to their most sacred ritual, drinking the Water of Life, which places him in a profound trance and gives him the ability to see the future. We’re introduced to this act in the film when Jessica does it, in order to become one of the order’s spiritual leaders (a Reverend Mother).

Paul’s decision to drink the liquid takes on more significance from the fact that doing so is fatal to men. The fundamentalists interpret his survival as another proof of his messianic status, but more directly, it codes Paul as female. His potency derives from his ability to utilize the “feminine” powers of the Bene Gesserit in the male spaces of the empire. The profound transformation in his attitude and behavior derives, as we have seen, from the insight wrought by the Water of Life (Dune’s “tree of knowledge”, to which his mother beguiles him). He likewise proceeds to use the Voice to silence his enemies, many of whom believe that his participation in the rites is heretical.

The climactic fight between Paul and Feyd-Rautha involves an opponent who has been decidedly masculinized. The young Harkonnen enters the film as a bare-chested gladiatorial fighter, who haughtily disables the energy shield protecting himself out of sheer machismo. His weakness, naturally, turns out to be sex. In terms of military strategy, he rains terror from above, preferring to annihilate his opponents entirely rather than outmaneuver them.

What is the significance of this all-female order achieving political power, at long last, through a man? This move mirrors the “Lawrence-esque” elements of the plot; as the white Paul enters the Fremen world as messiah, so he enters the female space of the Bene Gesserit as political agent. To its credit, this is once again something that Dune II tries to deconstruct. If Paul does what the Bene Gesserit cannot, it is in some sense as their tool, and the consummation of their plans. The film’s examination of this does not appear particularly thorough, as we’re left to guess at what they hope to achieve.

Jessica, in her dual role as Paul’s mother and Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, displays more agency than the other women of the film. She serves their aims while also preferentially aiding Paul. Over the course of the film, she changes from cynical promulgator of Paul’s cult to something of a true believer. In Dune, the power of a collective mass of people derives from faith, and so long as the Fremen trust in Paul, he can (perhaps must) become the person they believe him to be.

This fact is suggestive of what the film says, in general, about heroes and actors of the “regal” type more generally. They are, at the end of the day, the crest of a wave built on thousands or millions of people who really believe in something. The Bene Gesserit are an organization that understands this principle and manipulates it to their own advantage. The film makes this point clearly enough, and it is only its functioning in gender political terms that it leaves uncomfortably hazy.

Does the movie need a traditional villain?

The interest the Bene Gesserit take in Feyd-Rautha is never particularly coherent. He swings against their usual methods, and obviously lacks Paul’s abilities and more importantly his foresight. Once the movie actually comes to the point of bringing the two into single combat to decide control of the empire, the outcome is no longer in doubt.

For the most part, their attention only serves to build him up as a rival to Paul. They treat him as a kind of insurance plan; should the Harkonnens retain control of Arrakis, Feyd-Rautha will inherit enormous power and influence, and they want a piece of that. Fair enough. But this doesn’t suffice to make him a credible threat, and scenes emphasizing his effectiveness at violence and love for brutality only lessen him as a plausible opponent.

Paul’s struggle, in classical fashion, is an internal one. Should he stay “true to himself”, as Chani wants, he’ll remain a minor revolutionary figure prosecuting a losing war. If he chooses power, his opponents are nothing; he wins Arrakis and captures the emperor and Baron Harkonnen in a few minutes of screen time.

“Why does he take such risks?” one of his followers asks, after he chooses to fight Feyd-Rautha himself rather than choose a second. This question fails to add any tension. The filmmakers must have felt we needed an exclamation point here, but the duel only serves to undercut the profound shock of Paul’s rapid ascent.

For his own part, Feyd-Rautha never becomes an interesting character. Sheer aggression does not a personality make. The film (and certainly any sequel) needs enemies for Paul who can plausibly contest him , but it is clear that raw firepower will not suffice. By the time we’re cognizant of Feyd-Rautha as a recurring figure, Paul has already surpassed him. He becomes a dumb malevolence of the same sort as Azog, the forgettable orc mini-boss in the failed adaptation of The Hobbit.

More generally, many viewers will want more dramatic tension in Dune II. Paul is, and feels like, a character who is on the way somewhere — and he ends the film still on the way there. The film entertains, and I found the pacing to my taste, but Paul lacks a real buffer to his ambitions.

This feeling is perhaps not helped by the casual way Chalamet plays the character, at times. While on most occasions Paul feels appropriately energetic and enthusiastic, on occasion he’s overly familiar, oddly flippant, too “making chocolate of course”. One doesn’t feel him to be in conflict, even with himself.

That said, Chalamet convinces as an action star and romantic lead. He has palpable chemistry with Zendaya and every scene between the two oozes charm. The speech he gives to the Fremen toward the end of the film compels, as does his sense for the changes to his character caused by the Water of Life.

Paul, as Chalamet plays him in this second film, is a man without rivals. He rides the largest worm, he commands the biggest army, he challenges the most powerful opponents, he meets with every success. If we as viewers still find this story compelling, I believe it to be the result of the film’s persistent efforts to question and undercut these achievements. Dune II allows Paul to do whatever he wants, but reveals his accomplishments to be ultimately the work of others.

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