Dune 2: A libertarian odyssey?

Who could have predicted that Ayn Rand’s individualist ethos would underpin one of the most hotly anticipated Hollywood films of 2024?

Power, politics, and faith are just a few of the many complex themes that writhe through director Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious and sweeping adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction epic, Dune.

Against the desert backdrop of the arid and barren planet Arrakis, Dune: Part Two picks up where its predecessor left off. In the aftermath of the Harkonnen massacre that claimed his father’s life, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), find refuge with the native Fremen.

Leaderless and divided, the indigenous tribe of sand dwellers remains scattered throughout the uninhabitable outskirts of Arrakis. Although their planet is a fertile ground for spice melange, the universe’s most coveted commodity, the Fremen are split into disparate tribes with competing dogmas. As a result, they have been unable to unite under a common banner and mount a significant resistance against the technologically advanced and heavily armed Harkonnen colonizers.

In one scene, Chani (Zendaya) highlights the cultural differences to Paul: “Your blood comes from dukes and great houses; here, everyone is equal.” Though they share a common destitution, the Fremen remain divided over a prophecy that hails Paul as a unifying messiah, a figure meant to lead them to freedom, akin to a sci-fi Moses.

Javier Bardem, portraying a local Fremen leader, ardently believes in Paul’s divinity. Serving as a tastefully employed source of comedic relief, he praises even Paul’s most trivial actions as evidence of his prophetic role, exclaiming with wide-eyed enthusiasm, “Only the true prophet would be so humble as to deny being the one.”

The story of Dune skillfully explores the notion of false prophets and blind worship, suggesting that the Fremen’s unwavering devotion to a creed, which they believed would liberate them, ironically becomes their source of oppression.

Frank Herbert, having worked briefly as a speechwriter for a Republican senator, subtly weaves political undertones into his narrative. Encompassing everything from environmentalism to colonialism and class struggle, Dune juggles a bevy of salient themes.

Herbert, a libertarian, harbored an ardent distaste for centralized power, whether religious or governmental. “Power attracts pathological personalities,” he wrote in one of his later novels as a scathing critique of the USSR.

The Harkonnens, depicted as pallid, hairless, sadistic brutes with a thirst for power, symbolize the Soviets. As the story goes, Herbert chose the name Harkonnen after finding it in a California phonebook, struck by its Soviet-like sound. Austin Butler’s portrayal of an androgynous, mass-murdering sociopath offers a compelling parallel to a communist general. And Villeneuve’s decision to portray the Harkonnen home planet in stark black and white further accentuates the eerie, apocalyptic aura.

In Dune, the political elements are intricately woven into the hero’s journey. Paul Atreides, reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Frodo Baggins, is thrust into the forefront of a conflict and a narrative beyond his control. Much like with fate dictating the course in epic tales, Paul cannot choose the circumstances he faces — he can only decide how to play the cards he has been dealt.

And play them he does. Moving beyond the sullen and tepid demeanor he displayed in the first film, Paul leverages his influence with the fanatical Fremen. He aspires to unite them under his leadership, aiming to lead a resistance to avenge his father.

Visually, there is little left to say about Dune 2 that hasn’t already been exhaustively praised by critics, who are unanimously correct in recommending that the film is best experienced in the largest and loudest cinema possible. Composer Hans Zimmer’s pulsating score makes for the perfect accompaniment to such immersive scenes as when Paul first learns to mount and ride a sandworm (essentially waterskiing on sand) while the skyscraper-sized predator barrels through dunes and desert. 

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And the sandworms aren’t just for joyrides — they’re apparently the main source of transportation for the Fremen. At one point, fleeing the encroaching Harkonnen, they relocate a whole tribe, including children and the elderly, across the planet on a sandworm, raising the question: How do they all get on and off? 

The contemporary science fiction film genre, diluted into a stream of Star Wars remakes and indistinct big-budget Marvel movies, finds a refreshing resurgence in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two. The film’s blend of captivating visuals and Hans Zimmer’s emotive score, along with its libertarian overtones and myriad other themes, make for a rare case in which a sequel is eagerly awaited.

Harry Khachatrian (@Harry1T6) is a film critic for the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog and a computer engineer in Toronto pursuing his MBA.

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