Dune: Part Two (2024) review

16 March 2024

Title:Dune: Part Two

When the first Dune movie came out, I wrote a review that was very long. To compensate for this, this time around, reviewing Dune: Part Two (2024), let me start with a short executive summary. Here it is, just three words long:

Told you so!

Every problem that the first movie had is replicated here, some indulgences are far worse because the movie no longer depends on the good-will of the book's loyal fans, and all the character problems of Paul Atreides, which I originally warned would lead his character arc very much astray of the original narrative, did, in fact, cause his narrative to be completely derailed.

Not only is Paul Atreides depicted as weak and easily dominated, instead of the "ultimate person", strong enough to weather and defeat any storm (which was the very core of the book's premise), in true 2024 fashion, he is continuously upstaged by the female counterpart that the movie created for him. I am speaking, of course, about Chani, whose character in the original novel played a much smaller role, mostly personifying the Fremen tribe's attitude towards Paul: she initially misjudges him as a weak foreigner, but then he wins her over, and ultimately she is his greatest supporter. Here, as has become an annoying norm in Hollywood productions over the past decade, the female counterpart acts as a stand-in for the screenwriters, constantly delivering preachy "incisive insights" about politics of a galactic empire that her character should know nothing about, and berating the protagonist for not fully conforming to the cultural norms of 2024 Los Angeles, even though such cultural norms would be completely divorced from the realities of the world she inhabits, the culture she was grew up into, or any organic motivations. She is a perfect example of what has come to be known as a "Mary Sue" character.

Beyond what was already said the first time around, I can report that this film truly baffled me. On multiple occasions during it I literally threw my hands up in exasperation, not knowing how to even react to the nonsense onscreen. I said about the first film that whereas the book was a story about smart people making smart choices (literally: "Plans within plans"), the film is about stupid people making stupid choices. In the second film this becomes even worse, in that the actions of the characters are -- even more than before -- never explained to the audience, to the extent that a casual viewer who for some reason is not wowed by the CGI into a complete cerebral shut-down would simply not be able to follow the story. Too many things happen onscreen that make no sense.

Since we mentioned the book's fans: never have I seen a film take so deliberate a stance of despising its own core audience. As an example, in the book Gurney Halleck is described as a gifted bard (a "troubadour-warrior") who can easily captivate an audience with his songs. One of the disappointments of the first film was that it didn't spend any time fleshing out its own characters (relying, instead -- as I wrote in my initial review -- on the audience already identifying certain actors with certain personas). Fans were asking how hard it would have been to show Gurney Halleck for one moment with a musical instrument (the book's fictional "Baliset"). Well, this film has the answer: Halleck is shown playing for three seconds, and, deliberately, the film chose to show him in those three seconds making up a scatological limerick. Thank you, film. You listened to the fans, and then decided to go out of your way in order to let us know that you did listen, and that your response is a raised middle finger.

[LATER EDIT: I feel that no matter what I say, I will not do justice to Gurney Halleck's song unless I actually reproduce it in full. I warn that in behind-the-scenes interviews Josh Brolin who plays Gurney Halleck admitted that he, himself wrote these lyrics (something that for some reason is meant to sound good, so was included as part of the film's marketing). Also, Denis Villeneuve said, and I quote, "[Getting Gurney to sing onscreen] became a weird priority for me." So, here are the full lyrics. They are much longer than the 3-second limerick I remember from the film. I suspect most of it was simply cut in the edit.

"My present keeps a company of shit
The mindless droning on of spit.
Give me words, come grass and grain
Do away with these idiots I blame
My stillsuit's full of piss, my ass caked in sand
Save me from this devil's heat, another world, another land.
Damn you fate that put me here, longing for what was once so dear

Caladan is a vision renewed
As I shrivel with this halfwit brood
My stillsuit's full of piss, my ass caked in sand
Save me from this devil's heat
Another world, another land."

For comparison, here's an actual Gurney Halleck song, from the book:

"I remember salt smoke from a beach file
And shadows under the pines -
Solid, clean... fixed--- Seagulls perched at the tip of land,
White upon green...
And a wind comes through the pines
To sway the shadows;
The seagulls spread their wings,
And fill the sky with screeches.
And I hear the wind
Blowing across our beach,
And the surf,
And I see that our fire
Has scorched the seaweed."

You decide if that's the same person.]

In terms of good things that I can say about the film, let me single out the aforementioned CGI -- not because it is impressive, but because (perhaps due to the added production time the CGI team had during the writer's strike) it managed to depict realistic sand. This was a major problem with the visuals from the first movie. Here, with the exception of one single scene, everything always looked 100% organic and there was no way to even tell what was shot on location and what on a sound stage.

This is extremely important because, as we will discuss in detail, the film thoroughly relies on its audience being constantly pounded into submission by the relentless barrage of over-the-top visuals, because any moment of functioning brain-time in Dune: Part Two will have you screaming from the sheer weight of all the nonsense. For anyone who can handle the visuals, the film has a backup plan in the form of its equally over-the-top sound design. The film is so loud, the theatre I watched the movie in was literally shaking half the time.

Also on a positive note, I'll mention that I was pleasantly surprised by Hans Zimmer's score. I normally don't like Mr Zimmer's works. I think his themes have too much of a pop sound to them, and I think his dramatic moments are too bombastic, to the extent that they take one out of the movie. But in this particular case I think he designed a unique and compelling audio-tapestry. This was a direct continuation to the unique sound that he designed for the first film, which was also very good, but had the added benefit of never upstaging the performances this time around, nor imbuing moments with emotions that were otherwise unearned.

Let me, additionally, congratulate Denis Villeneuve on the technical aspects of his direction: Villeneuve clearly achieved here what he set out to do; it's just that for the life of me I cannot understand why he wanted to do it. In a year when comic book movies are in a historic decline, Villeneuve took one of the most cerebral books ever written and decided to film it like a comic book adaptation. There is no minute in this film when Paul Atreides is not seen striking a superhero, tough-guys-don't-look-back-at-explosions pose. Repeatedly, he is captured facing the camera while in the background, framing his body, there is some gigantic explosion, an approaching sandworm, an attacking army, or some such thing. Quite often, all this is shot in slow motion, to underline how intentional these poses are. It was as if Denis Villeneuve, decided to make this into a "Zack Snyder movie" -- in a year where Snyder's own movies proved to be colossal box office bombs.

Many times these dramatic shots come at the expense of basic common sense (why, for example, is Paul standing in plain sight about 100 metres ahead of his own attacking army, who up until this point had been concealing themselves behind the ridge of a sand dune) or even a basic consistency about geography (we see people shuffling slowly back in order to avoid the path of an incoming sandworm, and then immediately cut to a shot showing these sandworms progressing in what must be at least 100 kilometres per hour). To give an example of just how bad the geography in this film is in general, in one scene Paul is outlining to his army, on a crude, makeshift map scribbled with a stick in the sand, a plan of attack where 4 forces attack the same point, converging on it from the four compass directions -- a cliche scene, stolen from every heist movie ever made -- and yet, in the very next scene we see all four forces on top of sandworms, attacking together in parallel to each other. (Again: just because doing so would create more of a comic-book aesthetic.) Is there no limit to how low an opinion a film can have of its own audience's comprehension?

I will try to be equally charitable also regarding the adaptation itself. The good news is that the adaptation retained two of my favourite sentences from the original. One is when Paul Atreides explains that he foresees the future and there are many paths in which he loses but he can see one in which he wins. The other is when he explains to Stilgar why he will not kill Stilgar in order to become leader of the tribe despite Stilgar begging him to do so. Unfortunately, in both cases the sentence was said at a very different time in the film than in the original, and the reframing changes the meaning of the sentence entirely, voiding its potency.

I'm sorry to say, these are the only good things that I can say regarding the adaptation. In the first 30 minutes of film I was able to count on the fingers of one hand the number of elements that actually came from the book.

To sum all this up, here is the very best thing I can say of this movie -- and yes, it's going to be all downhill from here. There is a reason why I was so hard on Dune (2021). It's the same reason I was hard on Inception (2010). I thoroughly dislike films that pretend to be "smart" (because it's good for their marketing) when in fact they are not (because it's good for their sales). Dune (2021) was exactly that: it was a sweeping, epic, high-budget adaptation of one of the smartest and most thought-provoking science fiction books of all time, but despite much posturing of seriousness throughout, it never did anything other than to try to be the new Star Wars (1977), albeit distancing itself as much as possible from the visual language of Star Wars so as to discourage direct comparisons.

By contrast, Dune: Part Two lacks the pretentiousness of its predecessor. It looks and feels like a Zack Snyder comic-book adaptation because that's the level of film that it is, and it is honest about it. It's not this year's Star Wars. It is this year's Rebel Moon (2023).

So, if you're looking for a film that will turn your brain off for 2 hours and 46 minutes, one that will make you come out of the theatre with a big, happy "Wow!" for all the large, loud explosions, look [and read] no further. This is the perfect movie for you. It is the cinematic equivalent of chicken nuggets, and it's very difficult to hate chicken nuggets (or have any strong emotional reaction to it, for that matter).

So, why do I continue to gripe about it? Though this adaptation either entirely invents its own material, or -- even when it follows the original dialogue word for word -- saps the narrative of any of its original meaning and replaces it uniformly with the screenwriters' own ideas, that, in itself, is not a sin. I am not a book purist. Some of my favourite films are highly unfaithful adaptations of their own source material. The issue here is simpler: it is that none of the new ideas brought forth by the screenwriters is interesting. What we end up with is, to quote Tom Lehrer, "Full of words and music, and signifying nothing". The reason I harp so much on differences from the book is that the novel, as I demonstrate below, remains, even many decades after its publication, both thought- provoking and relevant in a way that this film, much as it attempts to, fails to be.

The rest of this review will be entirely a demonstration of the above claims, not introducing any materially new perspective on the work. If you wish to avoid spoilers, this would be a good place to stop. If not:

Warning: The rest of this review goes into great detail in discussing first the initial 15 minutes of the film (with reference to one other scene later), and then -- after another spoiler warning -- to discussing in equal detail also the final 15 minutes of the film (with reference to one other, earlier scene). None of this will matter much to people who have read the book or seen the movie, but for the rest of you: you have been forewarned.

The first 15 minutes

The first 15 minutes of the film are as good an example as any for the problems of this movie, and they have the advantage of being relatively safe to discuss even with people who want to avoid spoilers, given that they are, after all, the first 15 minutes. Let us begin by recounting, in detail, everything that goes on there.

The film picks up with Paul and his mother travelling with the Fremen tribe and Jamis's body, exactly where we left them off at the end of the previous movie. A giant flying vehicle approaches and what appears to be Harkonnen mercenaries step out to the sand. The tribe hides behind a dune and Stilgar, the tribe leader, uses a secret language of hand signals in order to direct his fighters. Paul and his mother fall back to hide behind a rock. The conflict ends with the Fremen shooting with laser weapons, from a significant distance, most of the mercenaries, who in turn are only armed with daggers. Only two mercenaries are not killed in this way. One ends his life in hand-to-hand combat against Paul and the other, who attacks Paul from behind in the middle of it is killed by Paul's mother, the lady Jessica, who then berates Paul for yet again leaving his flank open. Before moving to the next scene, Paul and Stilgar have a conversation in which each believes he is the reason that the mercenaries were there in the first place, venturing so far out into the desert. We don't ultimately find out who is correct because the mercenaries are never mentioned again. This scene is intercut with images from the Harkonnen headquarters in what is incorrectly labelled "Arrakeen, Capital of Northern Arrakis", where we see Rabban Harkonnen (That's Count Rabban of Lankiveil for you) behaving in typical Hollywood baddie fashion. Here and throughout the film, whenever we see the Harkonnens, they rage, wail, and slit the throats of random people who happen to be next to them. (This tired trope, which may or may not have been fresh back in 1977 when Darth Vader did this, is repeated so many times throughout the film that one begins to wonder why all these lieutenants surrounding the Harkonnens don't give their temperamental bosses more personal space.)

So, what's wrong with this scene? To see, it helps to compare with the book. For starters, the scene never happened in the book. The only reason why it's here is to remind us who the various characters are and what they are. In reminding us, the movie is consistent about how it portrays Paul Atreides. By this I mean, consistent with his portrayal from the first movie -- completely at odds with Paul from the book. Book Paul was trained in combat by the very best of them and would never have left his flank open. He also would not be lectured about this by his mother who has much less fighting experience. The film goes to great lengths to show us that Paul is just a child, sheltered by his doting mother, when in the book, despite the fact that both their conditions are at that point quite precarious, it is mostly Paul who is protecting his mother.

OK, so the film elegantly tells us that Paul is a sheltered, privileged child, playing with daggers and needing the approval of his parents. Remember what I wrote in the first review? "Character is destiny". Remember this sentence when we get to discussing Paul's destiny at the end of the film.

What about the antagonists? Other than the lazily written stereotypes in HQ, there are the actual mercenaries facing the tribe. Of these I ask: what kind of idiots bring daggers to a gunfight? In the book there are reasons why neither shields nor laser weapons are effective on Arrakis. These are the reasons why people have dagger fights in the world of Dune. But the film never explains any of these reasons, and seems to want to have it both ways: give the baddies daggers, but the good guys guns. (Side note: lasers are not effective in Arrakis because they attract worms, but projectile weapons are OK. A more realistic confrontation between Fremen Fedaykin and Harkonnen mercenaries would have had the Fremen armed with slingshots and the Harkonnens with automatic weapons. That would have looked quite different.)

And why were the mercenaries in the deep desert anyway? Neither Paul's nor Stilgar's explanation makes any sense from an in-world perspective, and it's no surprise that these mercenaries are later never mentioned again. So: the film's commitment to world-building, as well as to the world-building already done by the novel, is worse than perfunctory. It is just insulting. And one doesn't even need to watch the full scene to know this: it became clear to me when Stilgar started using secret hand signals to communicate with his people. While secret communication methods are a staple of Dune, in the book they are used to show the multi-layered deceptive practices of the noble houses . The desert Fremen are the honourable people, who work together as a tribe. They have no cause to invent secret languages for themselves. A simple hand-signal would have done here. Giving Stilgar a special secret language to use is just a misunderstanding of the source material. (To give an idea of just how lazy the movie is with its world-building: despite occasional comments about how spice exposure leads to blue eyes, none of the Fremen are shown consistently as having blue eyes. There are blue eyes in some shots here and there, but for the most part, it's like the special effects department ran out of money. What possible excuse is there for this?)

The same is true when it gets to the setting. The caption "Arrakeen: Capital of Northern Arrakis" is an early hint of something that the film builds up to (but is never a part of the book) which is a conflict between the tribes of Arrakis's northern hemisphere and those of the south. But Arrakeen isn't the capital of "Northern Arrakis". It is the only city in all of Arrakis, and Arrakis has no municipal division into north and south. In fact, the south is considered by the empire to be uninhabited. Calling Arrakeen "Capital of Northern Arrakis" may be an early plant of a later theme, but that doesn't make it less nonsensical from an in-world perspective.

But wait: it gets worse. In the film, as soon as the Harkonnen mercenaries are dead, the Fremen "take their water". This by itself was a pleasant surprise. In the book, there are of course no Harkonnens at this point, but it would have been very much consistent with Fremen behaviour to take the water of any such adversaries as soon as they are dead. What is not consistent, however, is that the Fremen carry Jamis all the way home without draining him. In the book, Jamis is drained as soon as he is dead. For the Fremen, this is an important ritual: Jamis is returning his water to the tribe, thus repaying his "water debt" to the tribe. So far, the difference to the movie is only a technicality, because the Fremen do drain Jamis when they get to Sietch Tabr, their home, and then collect his water and dump it into a giant subterranean aquifer. Where the difference is no longer a technicality is in the fact that Stilgar tells the lady Jessica that these are "holy water" and that no one in any Fremen tribe would ever drink from them.

To this I say: wait, what?? Sietch Tabr originally did have an aquifer, and a fairly similar scene does exist in the book, but importantly in the book there is no such thing as "holy water" for the Fremen. The entire book revolves around the Fremen's extremely practical view of water. Jamis's water did go to the aquifer in the book, as does all other water that the tribe can spare, but in the book this aquifer is an extremely practical device: the Fremen have a very specific plan to use these waters in order to reboot the ecology of the planet and make it green again (a plan that I'm sure was previously supervised by Liet-Kynes, the ecologist).

This complete subversion of what is perhaps the one key defining property of the Fremen is unfortunately not accidental. What we very quickly realise is that this film's overall theme is "Religion is Bad". I think that is such a shame, to undersell Dune in this way.

To unlock why this seemingly arbitrary difference in the purpose of the water is key to the "Religion = Bad" theme, one needs to understand the larger context. In both the book and movie many years ago (in the book: a millennium ago) missionaries (the "Missionaria Protectiva") from the Bene Gesserit religious order that the Lady Jessica, Paul's mother, belongs to had visited the planet Arrakis and planted there some superstitions with the hope that if anyone from the same religious order gets into trouble on Arrakis they'll be able to use these superstitions to their advantage. In the book, these superstitions have evolved dramatically over the 1000 years since they were planted, and by the time Paul and Jessica find themselves in the desert they don't have much of a clue what was left, how much was left, and what it had evolved into, not to mention how it could possibly be exploited. Their process of feeling around this issue is a major plot arc of the book. In the movie, everything is 100% ready for the Fremen to accept Paul as their messiah based on these planted superstitions, and the Lady Jessica is perfectly aware of all of their nuances. The only problem is that the Fremen themselves do not take these superstitions seriously.

I want to believe there was good intent around this originally, when the script ideas were initially drafted. I'd like to think that Denis Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts who wrote the script were aware that, according to Frank Herbert, the only reason he ever wrote the sequels to Dune was that he felt the original book was misunderstood. His book was about the dangers of following a charismatic leader but he felt many people missed that point. I can see Villeneuve and Spaihts thinking that they need to voice these dilemmas in dialogue form. But what ultimately happened is a very 2024 thing: for lack of a better word, Hollywood "woke" culture took over.

Specifically, we are shown that every man in the tribe believes in the prophecy, and even Stilgar, the leader of the tribe, is from the first moment happy to accept Paul as the chosen one; However, every woman in the tribe openly mocks Paul, Stilgar, and the entire idea of a chosen one, and of Fremen religion at large. The women, led by Chani, always see through the deception, the men always fall for it. (And to readers of the book I'll give this reminder: Chani is in the book the daughter of Liet, the Fremen's religious leader, and it is she, herself, who inducts Jessica into the tribe by giving her the poisonous Water of Life.)

We actually see Stilgar, not in control of his own tribe, immediately seeking the advice of a gender-diverse council of elders, wherein a woman proceeds to openly mock his religious ideas (piling on to the mockery about his origins and accent, which Chani doles out behind his back). I was flabbergasted by how even a California-dwelling Hollywood screenwriter can think that the leader of a desert tribe in an honour-centric society -- a man who became leader by actually killing all other contenders to the title -- would be willing to accept this belittling attitude. Book Stilgar, the proud and honourable Stilgar, the strong and valiant Stilgar, the stern and unflappable Stilgar, who was Frank Herbert's favourite character of the entire book, is made here into a buffoon, of no real leadership. Book Stilgar would have been horrified. (And this before one even considers the kamikaze missions that movie Stilgar sends his people to. What kind of leader is this movie depicting?)

These "woke" undertones are unfortunately a running theme. Here are some examples:

  1. Chani explains to Paul that in her tribe men and women are equal, fighting alongside each other on equal terms. No, no they don't, Chani. You're living in a tribe where the only way a person can become leader is by killing his opponents. The only way to become leader is to be the biggest, strongest, and baddest. Women have various leadership roles, such as Reverend Mothers (i.e., priestesses), but there is no single Fremen tribe in which the leader is female, and that is no coincidence. This is very much a tribe with gender-based roles. It was written this way explicitly and intentionally. One cannot simply transplant 21st century liberal democratic ideals into Frank Herbert's 1965 narrative about a tribal culture in which these ideals do not fit. It makes no sense.
  2. Nowhere is it explained why Stilgar's small and isolated tribe has as much genetic diversity as downtown Los Angeles.
  3. Paul promises the Fremen to return Arrakis to its native name "Dune". To which I say: Seriously??

One of my worst pet peeves, when it comes to the Hollywood "woke" culture is how lazily it is injected into scripts. It's like somebody inputs the script, after it is written, through an automated PC-compliance filter, which automatically splices in these Mary Sue characters and some choice disparaging comments about white males and the "patriarchy". The problem is that when you do it this way, the character that you insert as your voice-of-the-screenwriter never takes any hard look on her own moral standards. Chani, as an example, after explaining to Paul that she does not believe any of this religious mumbo jumbo, and that the only reason that Stilgar (he of the funny accent) believes it is that he comes from the backwards south, goes on to tell Paul that Paul will never lead the Fremen because he is not Fremen himself. This is exactly the kind of faux pas that I expect from A.I.-written dialogue, not from a professional screenwriter with an ear for nuance. The intention here is clear, and was dual-pronged: on the one hand, we get to see Chani as a strong-minded, independent character; on the other, we echo one of Frank Herbert's actual themes from the book, which is a warning against the "White Saviour" archetype. But in A.I.-level dialogue (regardless of how it was really written) these good intentions are botched. What we end up with is Chani exposing herself simply as a racist: first in her depiction of Stilgar and his origins in the backwards south, and then in her rejection of Paul on the grounds of his race. (And remember, this is a film made in the U.S., a country with a proudly religious south. It seems the film is thinking anyone south of the Mason-Dixon line is too stupid to be offended.) Apparently, being racist is all right, as long as you're a liberal democrat.

To those who still don't understand the film's main message that religion is bad even after Stilgar's presentation of the aquifer, the Lady Jessica later goes on to explain it to the audience in voice over explicitly. She says that her intention is to subvert the entire tribe to religious nonsense because it suits her aims, and that to do so she would need to start from the weakest minds and work her way up. Truly, no anti-religion message has ever been worded quite so subtly.

And it's not like the original themes of this book are not relevant to our modern society. If you're going to be a democratic liberal in 2024, are you not going to use the opportunity to present the book's actual message, that it is very dangerous to defer blindly to a charismatic leader? Is that not an important message in 2024? Or, if you want to pick on the idea of these planted beliefs, could you not frame this more in keeping with the original, as a warning regarding culturally propagated disinformation? Is that not a done thing in 2024? Why make it about religion of all things? So disappointing.

On the same topic: why change the purpose of the aquifer at all? Are ecology and climate change not relevant topics in 2024? Is there no room for a discussion of climate engineering? Is that not a topic for "modern audiences"?

The last 15 minutes

Major spoiler warning: We've now covered both general themes and the first 15 minutes. Let us now break down what happens in the last 15 minutes of the film. We begin with a recap, on a factual level, of what happens in these 15 minutes, much as we did with the first 15 minutes. Spoilers don't come bigger than this: we will literally now describe how the movie ends.

In the climax of the movie, the emperor (Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV), his daughter Princess Irulan, his closest advisor the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam of the Bene Gesserit order, and the rest of his entourage, all arrive at Arrakis. Paul, after having whipped the Fremen into a religious frenzy (by telling them that nonsense about restoring Arrakis to its original Arrakean name), sends them to plough straight through both the Harkonnen forces and the imperial Sardaukar forces until they capture everyone.

"Everyone" also includes the three major Harkonnen baddies: Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Beast Rabban and na-Baron Feyd-Rautha. Because the film made them into caricature bad guys rather than the complex savvy political players that they all were in the book, Paul's motivations are here equally simplified: he wants his revenge for his father's death, so he kills the baron.

The next one to die is Rabban, who is killed by Gurney Halleck as part of his own revenge. Gurney Halleck catches Rabban as he is about to board a ship to escape. This was, to me, the most baffling case of bad editing in the entire film. You just showed us that the man was captured. How exactly is he now free to escape? (I can only assume that this was done in reshoots, after a test-audience voiced disappointment with whatever was Rabban's original demise.)

But the most minor of the villains, Feyd-Rautha, is left for last, possibly because in a previous scene we were told about him the same thing that we know to be true about Paul: that he is a spoiled, privileged child who loves to play with daggers but craves his family's approval. (This is the most reductionist Hollywood version of the we-are-both-the-same trope of how to build an antagonist. Even Austin Powers (1997) put more thought into it.) In this scene, after some less exciting happenings (Paul threatening to use the family's weapons arsenal to blow up the spice fields; Princess Irulan offering to marry Paul), Paul goes on to have an extremely lengthy dagger fight with Feyd-Rautha before killing him and forcing the Emperor to bow to him.

The last act by the old Baron Harkonnen before he dies is to call all noble families to Arrakis, and they arrive just then to tell Paul that they do not accept his ascendancy to Emperor status. But Paul is by this time unstoppable. The enflamed crowd chants his prophet name, Lisan al-Gaib, and Paul sends them to kill every member of the other noble houses. We see one shot of the Fremen mob boarding one of the spaceships of the noble houses in order to take over it. (Again, the editing is so bad: a moment before we see all these spaceships in the air. How on earth did Stilgar's people get up there?)

For completion: while Paul's ascendancy does trigger the holy wars in the Dune book saga, it did not start quite so immediately in the books, and specifically doesn't happen within the first book. I think Denis Villeneuve was right to show us that this is where things are heading, but apparently he couldn't nail a plausible choreography for how to orchestrate it to happen exactly in the same scene as the ascendancy itself.

Lastly, Chani, now thoroughly exasperated with Paul and the religious gobbledegook surrounding him, simply goes and leaves the room, hitching a ride on a nearby sandworm (Question: why would the emperor even land in sandworm territory?) and is off to become her very own strong, independent woman. Roll credits.

One of the reasons I chose to analyse this particular moment in the film -- aside from the fact that these are the final 15 minutes, and therefore by definition the culmination of all themes built up by the narrative -- is as a counterpoint to the first 15 minutes. Where the first 15 minutes invented everything, ignoring the original text entirely, these last 15 minutes contain so much that is verbatim from the novel. The problem -- and this is a perennial problem with this Dune adaptation -- is that it recontextualises and subverts everything it puts on screen, completely changing its intended meaning. (That's not a sin; and it's done here with great panache, but when one of the most original and intriguing narratives ever written is subverted into a pile of cliches and overused tropes, in service of a tired "modern message", I do feel that the end result is frustrating. And when a book whose world-building is oft said to be comparable only with The Lord of the Rings is dumbed down to the point that the world it presents is ridiculously inconsistent, I feel that's an insulting waste of the source material.)

To really understand what's going on in these last 15 minutes in the film, we need to examine one bit of context. In the film, as opposed to the book, we get to see a lot more of what's going on with the emperor throughout Paul's journey. This is another one of those ideas that probably sounded very good at the get-go and then became entirely subverted. In general, it's a good idea in a film to show more than just the one central character, and it certainly gives us, the audience, a better feel of who and what the emperor is before his big showdown with Paul. In the book, the chapters are preceded by quotes from books by Princess Irulan who later became not just Paul's wife but also his biographer. In the book, her depictions of him share the same mythical qualities as the Missionaria Protectiva tales. In the film, this was translated into many voice-overs by Princess Irulan in which she narrates the situation on the emperor's side, which is an interesting choice because at that time she would have had no particular interest in Paul. So far so good, but the problem is with what we are actually witnessing from the Emperor's perspective. At first, we are told that the emperor is devastated by the destruction of the Atreides house. This, initially, makes little sense because he is the one who ordered it. It is only later, in a conversation between the princess and Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, that we learn the truth: it was Mohiam pulling the strings on behalf of the interests of the Bene Gesserit.

Again, this is a case of good intentions leading to bad outcomes. The good intention is to advance the theme of showing religion as bad. The scene paints the Bene Gesserit as some deep-state conspiracy pulling the strings behind the power. It also works well with the gender politics theme: the true power is held by women throughout the galaxy.

Let us now compare this with the novel's ending. The novel's ending is a masterclass of writing. In a single scene, Paul faces off every conflict that was brewing throughout the novel, dealing with friends and foes alike. We see him using everything of what he had learned along the way. And everyone he deals with is, at least in some aspect, either his equal or his superior. Paul prevails time after time by finding how each strength of his opponents can also be a weakness.

There is no point to recount all of these here, because mostly they belong to plot-lines that were cut wholesale from the movie. To give an idea how much was cut: in the book Paul does have a military victory, and we do get quite a lot of explanation regarding how he got that victory, but he is still not in a position to win against the emperor's own armed forces, the Sardaukar, including the emperor's own bodyguards. Paul never breaches the emperor's ship. Instead, he invokes his word of honour as Duke of House Atreides, promising the emperor that neither he nor any of his entourage will be harmed, and invites them to his base of operations to parley. This is important because during this parley, in which Paul is sworn to nonviolence, he faces three different attempts on his life, by three different people. Of these, only one, Feyd-Rautha's, made it to the big screen. The other plot lines were cut.

To make matters worse, in the film the emperor's entourage is padded with people who have nothing to do. As an example: in the original, Count Fenring was in the group. This personal friend of the emperor is (for reasons I will not mention because they are book spoilers) one of the only people in the world who can truly defeat Paul Atreides. In the film, Count Fenring is never a character, but Lady Margot Fenring is, and this person (not a gender-swapped version of the Count) is on Arrakis with the emperor, apparently just there to look pretty.

The main change from book to film, however, is the focus of the scene. Let us break it down, beginning with the film's focal points. In the film, this scene is about Paul finally getting his revenge on the Harkonnens for killing his father. He slaughters Vladimir Harkonnen while the baron is defenceless (and yet the film never seems to question Paul's moral high-ground for it). Beast Rabban is then killed by Gurney Halleck (who has been grumbling for the entire length of the film how he deserves retribution because Rabban gave him a scar or something; for comparison: in the novel, Halleck has many scars long before arriving on Arrakis; his beef with the Harkonnens is not petty but very serious, being around the loss of his sister and his own years enslaved in the Harkonnen slave pits. Most importantly, however, in the book Paul does not let him have his revenge). This only leaves Feyd-Rautha. It seems to me that the only reason why Feyd-Rautha even appears in the script is that the killing of Vladimir Harkonnen is so anticlimactic: the baron is morbidly obese and poses to Paul no physical threat. Feyd-Rautha is in the movie in order to give Paul a chance to dagger-fight his way to a physical victory.

So, what do we learn? That this story is about revenge. That straight up murder is just fine as long as it's done by the good guys. And that men are children who are only happy when engaged in silly, brutish exchanges of physical blows.

The theme of religion is brought to a close by Paul's victory eliciting cries of "Lisan al-Gaib!" (which makes no sense as a climax, because we've seen the Fremen men do this again and again, no matter what they witness Paul doing), and by Chani, the strong, independent woman, thoroughly rejecting both Paul himself and his messianic religion.

In the book, on the other hand, revenge isn't at all the issue. The baron and Beast Rabban are killed offscreen as part of the larger fight. (We are told that the baron was killed by Paul's sister. Rabban's killer is presumably some anonymous Fremen fighter.) In the book, Paul's endgame is to marry Princess Irulan and ascend to the imperial throne, supplanting the emperor. For this, he needs to work through every single conflict in the book, clearing his way step by step towards his goal. (To give an example of a conflict involving a friend rather than a foe: in the book, Paul and Chani love each other, and Paul uses every means at his disposal to convince Chani that she will never leave his side and will always be his true love, even though for political reasons he must marry Irulan. Her status is repeatedly compared to that of the lady Jessica, Paul's mother, who never married duke Leto. This is a far more interesting conflict, then to simply have Chani disgusted by Paul's acceptance of Irulan's marriage proposal, and to have her leave him jilted, angry and disappointed. I certainly did not buy how the script tries to reframe for us Chani being jilted by Paul as Chani gaining her independence.)

And yes, in the film, instead of Paul forcing his way into marriage, Irulan is proactively offering her hand to him. Why? Because in that same much-earlier conversation between Princess Irulan and Reverend Mother Mohiam, the truthsayer tells the princess to offer herself to Paul. In other words, the bowing of the emperor to Paul is meaningless, because the emperor himself is a puppet. Moreover, Paul's entire ascendancy to emperor is equally meaningless because he will be, through Princess Irulan (a Bene Gesserit herself) playing into the hands of the Bene Gesserit and controlled exactly in the same way that old emperor was controlled by Mohiam. The film is thus a topsy-turvy, funhouse-mirror distortion of the book.

As another example, consider that in the film Gurney Halleck refers to the family's atomic weapons arsenal as "This is real power!" when in the book perhaps the most major theme is that the only real power on Arrakis is "Desert power", which is to say, the power of its people. This was Paul's entire journey: to recruit to his cause the people of the desert. Stating now that it was the family weapons arsenal that was the true power all along undermines the film's entire narrative.

[LATER EDIT: The glorification of "atomics" here echoes the lasers-vs-swords moment in the first 15 minutes. The writers are systematically deleting the core of Frank Herbert's book, which is namely an investigation of the potential of humanity -- in this case, the power that can come from adversity -- in favour of what I guess they think would be a more palatable moral for their American viewers: "The bigger gun wins". This is, yet again, an instance where Herbert's vision, which was discarded offhand in the adaptation, proves prescient and relevant, whereas the film version is childish and comic-book-like. What the six decades since this book was written taught us about warfare is that war continues until one side no longer wishes to fight, which is why it is so impossible to win against fanatics who will never lay down their arms no matter how outnumbered or out-gunned. The dark side of Paul's rise to power is that he unleashes unto the world a holy war -- in the book literally called a jihad -- taking over the entire empire by the force of outnumbered and outgunned fighters who are fanatically loyal to him. Surely, a Hollywood screenwriter would be able to see that this, when presented in 2024, provides all by itself, with no need for any tweaking, already ample stage for a very thin allegory. It's like they went out of their way to avoid speaking about anything of true substance.]

For completion: in the book, the "atomics" are used only for one purpose, namely to puncture the force shield around the area where the emperor and the Harkonnens are, in order to enable there to be a battle in the first place. In the world of Dune, using atomics against people is an offence punishable by the destruction of one's entire planet. Paul is splitting here political hairs in order to get him his win over the emperor without losing political legitimacy. This is a hallmark of the entire book: it is about careful political wheeling-and-dealing, done by people with a great deal of foresight, not about mindless sword-fights. (Incidentally, the film includes also the massive dust storm that takes place during the battle, but uses it only for its visual drama. In the book, it is this dust storm that further decimates the enemy shields, and -- even more importantly -- prevents the enemy ships from leaving the planet. Without this information, the final battle makes no actual sense. Yet again, the movie tells us to check our minds out at the door, or else not understand or enjoy the CGI spectacle.)

But this subversion of the power of atomics is intentional. It informs the final showdown with the emperor in that Paul merely needs to threaten to blow up the spice fields in order to bring the emperor to his knees. Here, comparing Paul's actual threat from page to screen is illuminating. In both cases, Paul is threatening to destroy the spice fields and by this stop all spice production (in the movie: by an atomic explosion; in the novel: using an elaborate biological chain reaction that will ultimately kill all sandworms), but who he makes this threat to and what the reaction is, is quite different. In the film, this is a one-shot trick that immediately forces the emperor's hands. In the book, that wouldn't have worked. Instead, Paul is threatening the spacing guild. It works, because its members are addicted to spice and would die without it. This rids him of one threat he needs to deal with (an immediate attack by the other noble houses). In the book, long after this threat, and long after Paul had won over the Bene Gesserit, and after Princess Irulan was willing to offer her hand to Paul (without getting any OK from Mohiam -- or at least before there ever was such an OK), the emperor nevertheless tells her "You don't need to do this, Daughter. We've other resources". (All of which is true. We soon after see what other resources the emperor has hidden.)

More important than Paul's threat itself is, however, the reaction to the threat: in the film, Mohiam exclaims "He's bluffing!". That is nonsensical. She is the emperor's truthsayer. Shaddam makes his decisions based on the reality she communicates to him. If Paul is bluffing, why is the emperor surrendering? And if Mohiam is not able to tell a bluff, why is he using her as a truthsayer? In the novel, by contrast, Paul uses the fact that the spacing guild members can see the future to his advantage. He uses the fact that they know exactly that his threat is serious, in order to get them to capitulate.

And in terms of the larger import to the book's themes: this is the crux of it. The charismatic leader is not bad just because he isn't native (which, as we discussed, is a racist argument). The charismatic leader is dangerous because his motivations are not the same as those whom he leads. Paul's earnest threat to destroy spice production would not only have crippled the empire; it would have destroyed the Fremen's entire way of life, potentially killing all of them. In the novel, when Chani first hears of this plan, she reacts in shock and sees the plan as blasphemous... but both she and the Fremen are at this point too invested in following Paul to reject the plan as madness. We, the readers, however, have plenty of time to reflect on this idea that Paul must seriously be willing to kill all of his followers, in order to advance his own cause.

The last item to discuss regarding these final 15 minutes is the dagger fight between Paul and Feyd-Rautha. Despite the fact that it is not the core of the conflict in the book, and despite the fact that Paul's journey is not about revenge in the book, nor is book-Paul a person who prefers solving his problems with fists and daggers, this dagger fight does take up quite a lot of words in the book's final chapter. So, it is worth comparing how this fight is depicted on page and screen.

To begin with, in the book Paul's "revenge", if there is one, is against the emperor, who illegally conspired with the Harkonnens to bring down his house. Feyd-Rautha held no power at the time of the massacre of House Atreides, so the idea of Paul taking his revenge against the na-Baron makes little sense. But he was na-baron, which makes him baron now that Vladimir Harkonnen is dead. Thus, the two sides are political equals, both young heirs to the title of their house, both with claims of some legitimacy to Arrakis. Paul is not there to kill Feyd-Rautha or even to humiliate him, but rather to demonstrate publicly that he is the sole legitimate claimant to Arrakis. He can easily avoid this fight; he can easily have Gurney Halleck fight in his stead. He can easily kill Feyd-Rautha in one of a myriad ways. He chooses to fight a fair fight.

The other thing that is clarified before the fight even begins is that Paul knows that he may lose his life in this fight, but Feyd-Rautha cannot win: the Fremen are already militarised, and if Paul dies they will take over Arrakis in his name, hailing him as a martyr.

But the biggest difference from the screen version is that the book's fight is unique, captivating, and spectacular to read, because it is a battle between two superbly-trained, fiercely intelligent people, and the fight is a demonstration of their differing characters. As everywhere in Frank Herbert's Dune, there are tricks here within tricks within tricks. Each fighter comes with an arsenal of hidden weapons, some less legal than others. Feyd-Rautha, for example, strikes Paul with a poisoned blade -- which Paul knows how to counteract but pretends he does not -- and Paul does exactly the same back, feeling that doing so is within his right of retaliation. However, Feyd-Rautha, when he is losing, tries to use even less legal tricks that can provide him with an instant win, but Paul, when Paul is losing, refuses to use such tricks of his own. These are not just some generic dagger-yielding dudes, a baddie and a goodie battling each other. But in the film, none of that remains. The fight is utterly immemorable.

If I really dig deep, and struggle to find some hidden meaning in this generic bit of swordplay, it is this: remember that sentence that I said survived from the book but completely lost its meaning because it was taken out of context? That was Paul saying to Stilgar that it would be madness for Paul to challenge Stilgar to the leadership of the tribe, because Paul is not so stupid that he would kill Stilgar and lose his best warrior right before a battle. Paul did not want to become head of the Fremen tribe instead of Stilgar; he wanted to become head of all the tribes above all the other leaders, not supplanting them but using them as his subordinates. He is actually telling Stilgar that the tribal method of ascendancy by fight to the death is detrimental to the tribe, that it is foolish and the behaviour of a primitive people. When we are later shown that this is one-to-one exactly the way that leadership of the empire at large behaves, this makes the empire to be exactly as primitive. This is the message of the film.

Final words

To bring this long review to a close: the kindest thing I can say about this film is that all these baffling choices that the film makes are so consistent, so in keeping with a blandly inoffensive Hollywood mentality, that one inevitably reaches the conclusion that they were done purposefully, with intention. All the pieces fit too well together. It is not just a chicken nugget meal, it is a remarkably competently made chicken nugget meal, from what I'm sure Hollywood hopes is an endless conveyor belt of chicken nugget meals. In that case, even if the characters in front of the camera have been reduced to stupid people making stupid choices, maybe those behind the camera are very smart people making financially smart choices. But -- man! -- those smart choices are so infuriatingly dumb.

There's nothing wrong with a chicken nugget meal. I'm sure millions of viewers are now consuming it without a second thought, on their way to the next chicken nugget meal on the conveyor belt. There is very little to hate about it. It's just that the recipe was for Beef Stroganoff. And if this review is very long, it's just because I felt I had to open the fridge door and point out, one by one, that all the Beef Stroganoff ingredients are still there, in the fridge, unused.

To echo my original review: the worst of it is that I think this will dissuade the very people for whom this book was intended from reading it in the first place and discovering the marvel that it is, because what this film is, at its core, is a re-imagining of Dune as a Y.A. novel.