Ever since Frank Herbert published his novel, Dune, in 1965, it has been considered one of the greatest works of literary science fiction. The book is a masterpiece of world building, a complex, immersive epic with its history, cultures, languages, politics and religion all worked out in detail. What The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy, Dune is to science fiction.

For most of its existence, however, the novel has also been considered impossible to film, due to its ambiguous themes and unorthodox narrative style. At least, that was the case until French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve gave it a go.

Villeneuve split the massive novel into two films that together total about five hours. Part One was essentially a prologue setting the stage for the main story. Part Two dives into that story to spectacular effect, some critics hailing it as the best science fiction film ever.

Make no mistake, this isn’t Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a complex, layered, ambiguous tale, by turns thrilling and frightening. Like the desert planet of the title, Dune is a world of terrible beauty – one which Christian filmgoers do well to experience, on as large a screen as possible.

[Spoiler alert: This article discusses themes, plot and characters from Dune: Part One and Dune: Part Two. If you’re planning to watch either movie and haven’t yet, you may wish to do so before reading further.]

A world of terrible beauty

Dune is set more than 10,000 years in the future, in a vast interstellar empire encompassing thousands of worlds. Known as the Imperium, it’s a feudal society in which various noble houses, whose histories stretch back for centuries, compete for control over their planetary domains. Most of them have little regard for the welfare of their subjects, the servants and slaves who produce the goods and provide the services on which the Imperium runs.

The story explores questions of politics, religion, ecology, colonialism and the motivation of individuals as well as societies. Its planetary environments and cultures are diverse, as is its technology, ranging from swords to spaceships – with the purposeful omission of computers or artificial intelligence of any sort.

At the centre of the story is the planet Arrakis, an inhospitable desert world covered entirely by sand dunes and blasted by lethal sandstorms. Beneath the surface roam gigantic sandworms, ready to devour anything in their path, from individuals to entire settlements. The indigenous people are known as Fremen, a collection of fiercely independent warrior tribes who’ve managed to eke out a living in this terrible but beautiful environment.

Arrakis is also the only planet that produces “Spice,” which can prolong life, enhance mental abilities, and without which space travel is impossible, making it the most valuable resource in the universe. “Power over Spice is power over all,” intones a distorted voice at the start of the movie, as the words themselves fade up from black.

The film offers wonder and danger at every turn, brilliantly realized in Villeneuve’s cavernous cinematic vision and driven along by Hans Zimmer’s engulfing soundtrack.

Faith and religion in Dune

By design, the movie evokes a distinctly Islamic atmosphere. The desert setting, costumes, names and words derived from Arabic, as well as the soundtrack’s Middle Eastern flavour all contribute to this vibe. At the same time, Jewish and Christian themes are also present, most notably the concept of an awaited messiah who would bring peace and justice to the universe. In addition to the three Abrahamic faiths (all of which were born in desert lands) there are also threads of Buddhist, Hindu and other eastern beliefs. In Frank Herbert’s vision, all major world religious have blended into a melting pot by the time of Dune.

The hub around which Dune’s religion (and everything else) revolves is the Bene Gesserit, a mysterious order of superpowered space nuns (this is science fiction, after all). This shadowy sisterhood is the true power that pulls all the strings behind the Imperium. Over the centuries, they’ve played a long game of power politics, religious manipulation, mind control and genetic engineering to steer history and achieve their ultimate purpose, the creation of a perfect human with supreme knowledge and power.

On Arrakis, the Bene Gesserit introduced a fabricated story, complete with prophetic writings, of a messianic figure from another world who would liberate the Fremen from oppression and turn their desert world into a green paradise. But their manipulative plan backfires and begins to unravel with the rise of Paul Atreides, the movie’s tragic hero.

Paul’s tragic journey

Dune: Part One laid the groundwork of Paul’s backstory. The young son of Duke Leto of the House Atreides, Paul and his family move from their lush, ocean-covered home planet, Caladan, to Arrakis. This was by imperial edict, ostensibly for the Atreides to assume oversight of the planet’s Spice production. In reality, it was a palace coup orchestrated by the Bene Gesserit to exterminate the Atreides clan at the hands of their mortal enemies, the brutal and fascistic House Harkonnen.

Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, herself a Bene Gesserit, had disobeyed by having a son instead of a daughter (the Bene Gesserit can control this, among many other things). In response, the Reverend Mother elected to prune the rebellious bloodline. Paul and Jessica, presumed dead, flee into the desert and find sanctuary among a tribe of Fremen.

Dune: Part Two picks up their story as they engage in guerilla warfare alongside the Fremen against their Harkonnen overlords. Some of the Fremen welcome them, but others are suspicious. Paul forms a bond with a young Fremen woman named Chani, and the two become friends and then lovers. Meanwhile, Jessica assumes the role of Reverend Mother to the Fremen and begins to fan the flames of messianic devotion to her son.

This divides the Fremen between the fundamentalists who believe the prophecy, led by the tribal chief, Stilgar, and the skeptics, including Chani, who recognize that it was concocted by the Bene Gesserit to control the Fremen. Paul himself resists the messianic adulation at first, but gradually gives in, driven by his desire to liberate the Fremen and to avenge his family. In the end, Paul kills all his enemies and leads the radicalized Fremen into a holy war against the Imperium that will cost billions of lives. It’s a conclusion filled with triumph and tragedy that’s worthy of Shakespeare.

Through Chani’s eyes

One of the core strengths of Dune: Part Two is its cast, all of whom are superb, although a few deserve special note. Javier Bardem steals the show as Stilgar, whose religious fervour is balanced with perfectly timed moments of comic relief. Rebecca Ferguson, one of today’s finest actresses, conveys Lady Jessica’s nobility and menace with the subtlest nuance of facial expression. And Timothée Chalamet is the ideal Paul, tracing the hero’s tragic arc from naïve boy to raging warlord without a single false note.

However, the heart and soul of Dune: Part Two is Chani, portrayed with heartbreaking power in a masterful performance by Zendaya. It can be argued – and has been by various critics – that Dune: Part Two is Chani’s story. She represents the audience, through whose eyes we witness the story of her beloved Paul unfold, from idealistic youth to false messiah.

Early in the movie, Paul confesses to Chani through tears that he doesn’t want to lose her. She gently reassures him that he’ll never lose her, as long as he remains himself. But of course, Paul doesn’t remain himself. To Chani’s growing dismay, he heads down a path that leads to embracing his mother’s religious propaganda, launching a holy war and marrying the emperor’s daughter, Princess Irulan, so they can rule the Imperium together. Chani’s look of betrayal at Paul’s moment of triumph hits harder than anything else in the film. The final scene of the movie doesn’t focus on Paul, but on Chani as she turns on her heel and leaves his war council to find her own way.

A mirror and a warning

When Dune the novel was first published in 1965, it reflected the socio-political concerns of the time. The book addressed the complex interplay between power politics, religious manipulation, fanaticism, colonialism and imperialistic greed for resources, at the expense of indigenous populations and the environment. In response to readers who mistook the novel for a straightforward hero’s journey, Frank Herbert wrote a sequel, Dune Messiah, to disabuse them of that illusion.

Although the world has changed much since the mid-1960s, Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptations of Dune are just as relevant now as the novel ever was, perhaps more so. The specifics may be different, but the socio-political concerns at their root remain: violent political conflict, socio-economic stratification, corporate greed, religious misconduct, radicalism, prejudice against indigenous peoples, abuse of women and ethnic minorities, destruction of the environment. Villeneuve’s Dune movies hold up a mirror and offer a warning against all of these.

Even more than the first film, Dune: Part Two has been a resounding critical and financial success. Nevertheless, some responses on social media have provided a degree of meta-level irony. On the one hand are those who decry the diversity and ambiguous themes as wokeness and prefer to see the film as a straightforward triumph of good over evil. On the other are those who consider it a cautionary tale about the evils of religion, nationalism and capitalist greed, nothing more.

Such polarized, tribalistic attitudes, even when it comes to interpreting a work of fiction, lie at the heart of the troubles which the movie mirrors and warns against. They should be resisted, especially by followers of Jesus who engage the film – after all, it speaks to concerns that are present in the church as well as in the world.

Dune: Part Two is not Star Wars. It’s not the kind of movie where audiences clap and cheer at the end. Rather, there’s hushed silence followed by quiet, thoughtful conversations, once the credits roll. The movie is a cautionary tale that delves into difficult, complicated issues. But it’s also a grand, heroic journey, beautifully realized, that leaves audiences breathless. In God’s providence, it can be engaged and enjoyed as both.

Of messiahs, false and true

“If anyone tells you then, ‘See, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Over here!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Take note: I have told you in advance. So if they tell you, ‘See, he’s in the wilderness!’ don’t go out; or, ‘See, he’s in the storerooms!’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24:23-27)

More than anything, Dune is a warning against the dangers of a messianic figure who gains a following, rises to power, and leads his followers into disaster and bloodshed, theirs as well as their enemies’. This warning has been borne out by history and echoed in the Scriptures.

The Abrahamic faiths have all anticipated a powerful leader who would defeat evil and restore peace and justice to the world. During New Testament times, several such figures arose with pretensions to messiahship, and Jesus warned there’d be others to come. In the book of Acts, Gamaliel recounted a pair of examples of men who rose up, attracted a following and were subsequently killed, their movements coming to nothing.

At the start of Dune, Paul Atreides shares some common traits with Jesus. He’s born of a woman through a special birth foreseen by prophecy, leaves his privileged home to live among the poor, undergoes a series of tests in the wilderness, and works to bring freedom and justice to the oppressed. But then, their paths diverge as Paul becomes a false messiah. Driven by revenge, he rises to military leadership, kills his rivals, and leads his followers into a holy war against their enemies.

This is precisely the type of messiah that the Jews of Jesus’ day were hoping for – a powerful military figure who would destroy their Roman oppressors and lead them to political triumph. However, Jesus turned all their expectations upside down. Rather than destroying their oppressors, he told his followers to love and pray for them. Instead of a powerful military leader, he came to them as a humble servant. Rather than killing his enemies with the sword, he died for them on the cross. Instead of a temporary earthly kingdom, his resurrection ushered in the eternal Kingdom of God.

Among all the thought-provoking themes in Dune: Part Two, the most valuable is its unflinching portrayal of false messiahship, drawing attention in bright relief to Jesus, the true Messiah. If for no other reason, his followers deserve to treat themselves to the movie, in all its cinematic splendour.

[Note: This article does not constitute an endorsement of Dune: Part One and Dune: Part Two by Focus on the Family Canada. Consult the full reviews at Plugged In to help you determine whether Dune: Part One and Dune: Part Two are appropriate for you or your family.]

Sources and further reading

Alex Abad-Santos and Patrick Reis, “Dune: Part 2 explained, for someone who has no idea what Dune is,” Vox, February 29, 2024.

Rebecca Cusey, “The meek inherit nothing in ‘Dune: Part Two’: What happens when a savior chooses not a cross but a sword?Christianity Today, March 1, 2024.

Giles Gough, “Dune Part Two is a potent warning against the misuse of religion,” Premier Christianity, March 5, 2024.

K. B. Hoyle, “‘Paul Atreides must die’: Dune as Bildungsroman,” Christ and Pop Culture, November 9, 2021.

Wendy Ide, “Dune: Part Two review – sci-fi sequel is immense, breathtaking wonder,” The Guardian, March 3, 2024.

Zachary Lee, “Dune: Part Two’s reasonable doubt,” Think Christian, March 5, 2024.

Clarisse Loughrey, “Dune: Part Two review – audacious, intimate, and menacing like no other blockbuster in existence,” Independent, February 26, 2024.

Brett McCracken, “‘Dune: Part Two’: Cinematic spectacle, faith skeptical,” The Gospel Coalition, March 1, 2024.

Charles Pulliam-Moore, “Dune: Part Two is a pointed examination of the books’ most subversive ideas,” The Verge, March 1, 2024.

Alisa Ruddell, “Dune and disaster, or, why charismatic leaders should come with a warning label,” Christ and Pop Culture, December 15, 2021.

Dana Stevens, “The spectacular new Dune will turn even skeptics into believers,” Slate, February 26, 2024.

Alison Willmore, “Dune: Part Two is Zendaya’s movie,” Vulture, February 29, 2024.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2024 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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