Dune 2 review: Flawed 'Space Muslims v Crusades' masterpiece

Dune 2 review: Flawed 'Space Muslims v Crusades' masterpiece
7 min read
01 March, 2024

"It has been (accepted) by all Muslims in every epoch, that at the end of time, a man from the family (of the Prophet) will without fail make his appearance, one who will strengthen Islam and make justice triumph," wrote Ibn Khaldun in The Muqqadamiah. "Muslims will follow him, and he will gain domination over the Muslim realm. He will be called the Mahdî."

In the Tunisian-born sociologist, philosopher, and historian's exhaustive 14th-century introduction to the Islamic world of theology, philosophy, ecology, economics, power and politics, there is no escaping just how influential it was on Frank Herbert's original Dune novel series.

The sci-fi series borrows and repurposes many of his observations about civilisations to build an Imperial universe set 20,000 years in the future.

From desert life versus sedentary culture, the rise and fall of dynasties and the diversity of religious practice, Herbert weaved these weighty historical concepts and themes into a sweeping narrative that delivers an epic critique of the Messiah Complex.

In the realm of Dune's Old Imperium, Paul Atreidis is his "Mahdi," albeit a reluctant one.

"There are too many characters to do them justice in a film more focused on the grandiose than the granular motivations of its side players or a more fervent exploration of imperialism and colonialism beyond 'good vs bad' and cultural aesthetics"

Now entering Part Two of Denis Villeneuve's adaptation, co-written by Jon Spaihts, Paul's journey towards embracing his manufactured fate comes into keen focus; as does the overwhelming MENA and Islamic influence on the desert planet of Arrakis and the Fremen, its indigenous habitants.

What's Dune Part Two about?

Having survived the devastating attack on House Atreides by rivals the Harkonnens in Dune — Part One, and the betrayal of Emperor Shaddam IV who supported the overthrow, Paul (Timothee Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) are forced into the desert and taken in by Fremen leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem).

This is after Paul won a fatal duel against the Fremen Jamis and much of the 2hr 48 minute runtime is dedicated to his and Lady Jessica's assimilation into and ultimate leadership over this nomadic warrior people.

As well as lead a revolt against the usurping Harkonnens and the Emperor to claim control over the planet's spice production – the most valuable substance in the universe.

Anya Taylor Joy was criticised for 'cosplaying' as Muslim at Dune Part Two's London premiere [Getty Images]
Anya Taylor Joy has been criticised for 'cosplaying' as Muslim at Dune Part Two's London premiere [Getty Images]

One of Dune Part Two's successes is how acutely it wrestles with the scheming efforts of the Bene Gesserit and the false idolatry they've for centuries laid the groundwork for.

Jessica's superpowered matriarchal order has spent many generations manipulating the Fremen tribes into believing their invented prophecy of the Kwisatz Haderach (AKA the Mahdi/Lisan Al-Gaib) – an off-worlder who will lead them to their salvation.

Aware of dynastical changes of rule, the Bene Gesserit secure bloodlines of Houses to maintain power in the universe but Jessica's self-serving plans for her first child by the fallen Duke Leto I have positioned Paul into that messianic role; a move that creates friction between mother and son as their paths diverge then realign in the third act.

Ferguson injects some of that Doctor Sleep/Rose the Hat eeriness into her performance; there's an increasingly disturbing glint in Jessica's eye as she becomes Reverand Mother and goes on a holy conversion mission to the South of Arrakis.

The ominous conversations she has with her pre-born daughter (growing in her womb) intensify the weirdness that Ferguson revels in. Searing visions, conversations about faith and divination with the Fremen and arguments with Jessica, lay the groundwork for the tumultuous voyage of the mind, body and soul Paul goes through under the influence of spice that shimmers across the vast desert dunes.

There's a rich interiority of these particular characters and Chalamet compellingly charts Paul's emotional evolution from unwilling saviour to pragmatic leader. However, the biggest motivating factor for accepting this destiny is oddly underexpressed.

His relationship with Chani (Zendaya) also comes into clearer focus and the sweet-looking pair suits the somewhat basic YA romance filter applied to it; Paul's attempt to mansplain sand-walking to the Arrakis native raises a smile.

But changes from the book mean there isn't an equal exchange of knowledge between the two that truly cements their affections or the genuine depth of their bond to each other – save for an ambiguous headband that might hint at a key plot point that has been erased from this part of the story.

There's a dearth of character development as to who Chani is beyond a member of the Fedeykin (the Fremen's fearsome guerrilla fighter group), devout to her nation but sceptical of their faith.

In the novel, Liet Kynes is her father with Sharon Duncan-Brewster playing a gender-swapped version of that character; here, there's zero acknowledgement of that relationship. Chani is no damsel-in-distress but Zendaya's ability to connect us to her journey is restrained to a typical strong female characterisation throwing a romantic spanner in the works for the male lead.

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That superficiality is more widespread in the Fremen cast. Little time is spent in establishing these people and their culture beyond fighting, survival and religious fanaticism.

Little do the group feelings and traditions that make them such a formidable, connected community permeate beyond their Islam-inspired prayer rituals.

The casting of Swiss-Tunisian actress Souhelia Yacoub is a win for Arab representation in a film that restricts actors of MENA heritage to background players.

Playing a gender-swapped version of Fedaykin warrior Shishakli, she's shrewd, funny and delivers the Fremen language (Arabic that has been tweaked for the film) with a fluid ease her castmates don't share. Most of the Fremen accents are all over the place; Chani's American accent is jarring. I guffawed when one Fremen with a Scottish lilt said Mahdi like "mardy".  

"After spending nearly six hours on Dune Part One and Part Two, I can say I had a better time with the latter. But as a whole, audiences deserve a far more satisfying return on their investment"

A nonsensical joke about Stilgar's accent coming from "the South" is a reminder that Bardem is cosplaying as a Bedouin Arab. Bardem offers a warm, frequently humorous performance but mostly at the expense of Stilgar's faith. A faith that makes mentions of Jinn and is depicted through costumes including abayas, hijabs and keffiyehs.

Ferguson's Imazighen facial tattoos and headdresses hit home not just the cultural appropriation of Jessica once she becomes Reverend Mother but the film too. That we are not privy to the secret histories and traditions she has inherited (robbed!) through this ritual is another way the film denies the Fremen a more vigorous depiction.

On the other side of the conflict is the pseudo-European Houses Harkonnen and House Corrino which intensifies the well-trodden Christian vs Muslim themes.

A visit to the brutalist, monochrome world of Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) introduces his sadistic nephew Feyd-Rautha, who wouldn't look out of place at Berlin's infamous Berghain nightclub.

Austin Butler does a decent enough Stellan Skarsgard impression and throws himself into the vicious role. In the Medival England-inspired pastures of Kaitain, Florence Pugh offers a restrained turn as Princess Irulan while Christopher Walken's Emperor offers none of the playfulness we've long been accustomed to.

Is Dune Part Two worth watching?

There are too many characters to do them justice in a film more focused on the grandiose than the granular motivations of its side players or a more fervent exploration of imperialism and colonialism beyond "good vs bad" and cultural aesthetics.

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Still, Villeneuve, with cinematographer Greig Fraser, renders an awe-inspiring cinematic space for the battle to continue. There's an almost oil painting-like texture to the Arrakis CGI, from the majestic sandworms to the ships and freighters attacking the native warriors.

Han Zimmer's earthy score of heavy drums and ululating is once again oppressive. Some action sequences are thrilling and stylish; an early Fremen ambush on Harkonnen soldiers is gripping.

A later Fremen attack on a spice harvester in wide shots and intense close-ups is riveting. But the final battle between the Fremen and Outworlders, not to mention between Feyd-Rautha and Paul, feels rushed and anticlimactic.

Sure the main conflict of this book is somewhat resolved but a true resolution is not sufficiently achieved. After spending nearly six hours on Dune Part One and Part Two, I can say I had a better time with the latter. But as a whole, audiences deserve a far more satisfying return on their investment.

Hanna Flint is a film and TV critic, writer and author of Strong Female Character with bylines at Empire, Time Out, Elle, Town & Country, the Guardian, BBC Culture and IGN

Follow her here: @HannaFlint