‘Dune: Part Two’ Unmasks the Danger of Prophecies | Sojourners

‘Dune: Part Two’ Unmasks the Danger of Prophecies

'Dune: Part Two,' Warner Brothers

In the first installment of director Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, the young, haunted Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) receives some wisdom in a crisis. He’s on the run from his enemies, flying an increasingly rickety aircraft through a perilous sandstorm on the desert planet of Arrakis. And then, just when it seems like he might not make it out alive, he has a vision of a wise man he hasn’t yet met.

“The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience, a process that cannot be understood by stopping it,” the man says. “We must move with the flow of the process. We must join it.” Paul heeds the advice and allows his aircraft to plummet toward the ground, ultimately saving his life.

But in the franchise’s second film, those sage-sounding words don’t quite hold up. For Paul, the mystery of life really does prove to be a problem to solve. What feels like fate turns out to be the machinations of an intergalactic conspiracy, a series of human schemes dressed up in cosmic vestments. By trusting the “flow of the process,” by taking the path that’s already been charted for him, Paul risks allowing the worst designs of the powerful to become destiny. Dune: Part Two is a striking epic with a glaring warning, harsh as desert sun: To believe in false prophecies is to make them come true.  

The sequel jumps right in where Part One left off: After House Atreides (the royal line to which Paul is heir) takes power in Arrakis, the rival House Harkonnen quickly ousts them, killing Paul’s father in the process. Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), flee into the desert, joining up with the native inhabitants of Arrakis, known as the Fremen. It’s an uneasy alliance at first. Some Fremen are suspicious of the Atreides as outsiders, while others believe Paul could be their foretold messiah, the Lisan al-Gaib. In the end, he gains their trust and then some, eventually forming a convincing romantic bond with the fighter Chani (a grounded, charming Zendaya).

This camaraderie, however, is temporary. As an age-old prophecy begins to click into place, the Fremen believers grow in their fervor. Paul is reluctant to give into their hopes for him, haunted by nightmares of a holy war spreading in his name, but Jessica is a calculating politician. She’s part of the Bene Gesserit, a powerful sisterhood that has been quietly shaping the course of history through breeding programs, religious manipulation, and political influence. Centuries ago, the Bene Gesserit planted a messianic faith among the Fremen so that one day, a powerful leader of their careful grooming might find ready supporters. Paul is one such prospective leader, and Jessica is determined to take advantage of all that hard work.

As Paul wrestles with the messianic expectations surrounding him, Jessica reminds him to make decisions in line with the prophecy in order to strengthen the Fremen’s loyalty.

“It’s not a prophecy, it’s a story,” Paul says. “A story you keep telling.” When Jessica argues that the prophecy has given the Fremen hope, her son lashes out, yelling, “That’s not hope!”

He’s right: The prophecy about him is a false one, a fabricated story, and it was not exactly written with the Fremen’s liberation or his own inner peace in mind. But understanding those nefarious origins does little to weaken the lure of dominance that the prophecy promises.  

Though Paul might be a Christ, an “anointed one,” he’s no Jesus. His road does not lead to a Roman cross. Instead of forfeiting power, he’s supposed to accumulate it. Instead of facing and exposing violence, he’s supposed to inflict it on others to a staggering degree. Instead of standing among the crowds, he’s supposed to lord over them. This kind of future horrifies Paul, but, as it turns out, being the messiah comes in handy in moments of political and military desperation. That kind of influence is hard to resist.

Part Two is a richer, more human film than Part One, and it gives its characters much needed room to develop between big sci-fi set pieces. As Paul begins to lose himself, Chani emerges as a voice of steadfast caution. In a debate about the prophecy, she points at Jessica and reminds the Fremen that “her people wrote that,” referring to Bene Gesserit-influenced scriptures. Chani opts to put her hope in collective power instead of a single, elevated outsider, saying, “I believe in the Fremen.” 

Part Two arrives in a year that’s already defined by immeasurable mass violence and cynical politics. Amid the sandworms and spaceships, the film poses some questions that hit pretty close to our earthly home: Which false prophecies do we believe? Which conflicts do we call inevitable and which social problems do we deem incurable? Which despotic messiahs do we allow to take power because we haven’t dared to imagine alternatives? 

Chani’s right. Our circumstances are not predestined. Our future is not set in stone, no matter how convenient that would be for those who benefit from the status quo. And if we’re looking for a savior, we might start by heading into the crowds instead of gazing above them.