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‘Dune: Part Two’: Cinematic Spectacle, Faith Skeptical

The emergence of a “messiah” figure is a common trope in sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero narratives. Whether Harry Potter, Aragorn, Neo, Luke Skywalker, or any number of superheroes, the messianic hero usually rises to prominence in a period of war or oppression—often fulfilling prophecies along the way—to address injustice and defeat an evil regime. It shouldn’t be surprising that audiences find messianic narratives irresistible. They’re downstream from the Greatest Story of Jesus Christ—what Tolkien called the “true myth.”

Frank Herbert’s Dune novels are a prime example of the messianic narrative (the second novel of the series is titled Dune Messiah), and they’re rife with religious themes that draw from Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. This is vividly apparent in the new Dune films from director Denis Villeneuve, one of today’s most thoughtful and gifted filmmakers. Villeneuve’s follow-up to 2021’s Dune is a messiah story of incomparable cinematic scale.

It shouldn’t be surprising that audiences find messianic narratives irresistible.

Dune: Part Two’s family drama is Godfatheresque, its ruling-class politics Shakespearean in scope. The world-building detail is unparalleled. The immersive experience of sight (has blockbuster cinematography ever looked so gorgeous?), sound (Hans Zimmer!), and sandworms is utterly epic—especially on an IMAX screen. There are several moments of cacophonous triumph that left me awestruck. Dune Two is among the most impressive sequels I’ve seen.

Yet this isn’t a rousing, feel-good messiah story. And as much as the film pulled me into its world and gave me a bravura moviegoing experience, I left the theater ready to exit that world—and especially grateful that this messiah story isn’t the messiah story.

Messianic Rise

Spoilers ahead.

The sequel’s narrative focal point is simple enough: the messianic rise of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet). Heir of House Atreides (which has Davidic overtones), Paul comes of age among the Fremen people on the desert planet Arrakis, a sort of “holy land” of immense strategic importance, frequently invaded or occupied by this or that regime. There are clear echoes of the imperial-occupied Holy Land where Jesus’s messianic rise took place. And the biblical parallels don’t end there.

Paul is a humble and reluctant messiah, at least at first. And like Jesus, he dignifies the marginalized, including women, in stark contrast to the male-centered imperial culture of the day (especially the misogynistic, gladiatorial men of House Harkonnen who evoke pagan Rome). We see echoes of Jesus’s testing in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1–11) when Paul goes through a time of preparation in the sandy wilderness of Arrakis. He later has a “death and resurrection” moment that cements his messianic status. And when a religion starts to form around Paul—who the Fremen come to see as the long-prophesied Lisan al Gaib (or off-world prophet)—imperial leaders take notice and ponder how to deal with this problematic source of regional instability.

But as the Paul Atreides messianic rise accelerates, the ways his story is unlike Christ’s become clearer.

Conquering Militant Messiah

Far from a self-denying savior, Paul becomes increasingly motivated by fleshly desires and tempted by world-conquering ambition. He takes a lover, for example—the Arrakis warrior Chani (Zendaya). And his treatment of her throughout the film deteriorates.

In a moment that nods to the Genesis 3 temptation of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Paul drinks the “Water of Life,” a poisonous blue liquid that—if it doesn’t kill you—purportedly gives you superhuman knowledge. “You’ll see the beauty and the horror,” his mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), tells him after she partook of the drink herself.

In more stark contrasts, Paul embraces militancy and revenge. He seeks greater power. The oppressed Freman people want a conquering militant messiah, and Paul gives them what they want. Many of Christ’s Jewish disciples also expected and desired a conquering militant messiah. But Christ was a nonviolent servant king, who gave his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:20–28) and declared his kingdom “is not of this world” (John 18:36).

While watching the final act of Dune Two, part of me delighted to see Paul lead the Arrakis Revolt against the evil imperial forces, culminating in the deaths of top Harkonnen baddies, the submission of Emperor Shaddam (Christopher Walken), and Paul’s consolidation of power. But Villeneuve wants us to feel conflicted watching it, and I certainly did.

Paul hasn’t turned out to be the unstained, virtuous messiah we instinctively desire. The look on Chani’s face in the film’s final shot is a proxy for many in the audience—and indeed, many in our secular age who resent institutional religion. She feels betrayed and manipulated. She never bought into the “Paul as messiah” narrative, but she’s mad so many of her people did. Above all, she’s mad Paul himself did.

Messiah Myth as Means of Control

Dune Two feels like an artifact of a post-Christian age, and Chani represents religious skepticism (in contrast to Javier Bardem’s Stilgar, who represents sincere-if-naive belief). Chani gives voice to the questions and doubts of a growing number of “nones” who see religious faith as a feel-good smoke screen for nefarious power grabs.

“You want to control people? Tell them a messiah will come,” she says at one point. “They’ll wait for centuries.”

Dune Two feels like an artifact of a post-Christian age, and Chani represents religious skepticism.

The film portrays Chani as a more “progressive” denizen of Northern Arrakis, in contrast to the “Southern fundamentalists” who are all too eager to acknowledge Paul as messiah and fight for him in a holy war. Chani sees how religious narratives can serve the interests of those in power by reinforcing hierarchies and encoding behaviors in the name of faithful devotion. Certainly, given the track record of so many power-hungry and abusive religious leaders in history, some of the skepticism Dune Two raises is warranted.

Chani’s nemeses are the Bene Gesserit, a mysterious magisterium of women who perpetuate narratives, manipulate bloodlines, and make “plans within plans” to move chess pieces around the table, always to their advantage.

“We don’t hope,” says one Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother. “We plan.” This cynical admission is all the more damning because “hope” is exactly what they sell to the masses. The Bene Gesserit epitomize religious hypocrisy: pushing a narrative that benefits them, even if they don’t believe it themselves.

This outwardly pious order of “sisters” has clear Catholic overtones, and in the Dune universe, they’re arguably the most sinister villains. They perpetuate prophecies concerning the “Kwisatz Haderach”—a superhuman they hope to breed into existence, thus giving them an ever-tighter grip on power. In the name of doing humanity a service, the Bene Gesserit are wielding religion for colonialist aims. As Chani says, “This prophecy is how they enslave us.”

As much as Dune Two plays with religious archetypes and the universal appeal of “messiah” narratives, it adopts a decidedly skeptical posture toward the religious enterprise. Is the messiah narrative of Christ—indeed, the entire New Testament—merely propaganda to inflame religious fervor and consolidate power among religious leaders? Are the writings of the apostle Paul, like the machinations of Paul Atreides, less the product of divine orchestration than of fleshly opportunism? Christians might have good answers to these contemporary questions, but we should know they’re in the background of a film like Dune Two, because they’re on the minds of a growing number of people.

Dune Two’s skepticism of religion is nothing new. It’s the familiar Marxist critique that religion is a means of social control, a narrative apparatus used by the hegemony to entrench its authority and subdue the restless masses (“the opium of the people”). But the critique gets a post-Christian, contemporary spin. Because at least in Villeneuve’s rendering of Dune’s world, the beauty and transcendental power of religious tropes are on sincere display.

There’s a conflicted, almost contradictory posture here. It recognizes—even relishes—the beauty, mystery, and galvanizing hope of faith in a supernatural messiah. But it also sees behind the curtain, recognizing—and rejecting—the power structures harnessing religion for power-seeking ends.

This is why I call Dune Two a “post-Christian artifact.” It captures something of what I’ve called the “push and pull of post-Christian culture”—the simultaneous attraction and revulsion of faith, the desire to retain religious aesthetics and some habits while discarding religious systems of authority.

Challenge for Christians

I’m not sure if Villeneuve has a Christian faith. Having grown up in Quebec, the French-Canadian filmmaker was likely influenced by Catholicism to some degree. Certainly, theological ideas are often front and center in his films, particularly Prisoners (2013) and Arrival (2013). Dune Two reveals the director engaging faith more directly than ever.

It’s interesting that, similar to the pro-life bent of Arrival, a significant character in Dune Two is an unborn baby who spends the film in her mother’s womb. In a culture that often refuses to grant personhood to preborn babies, it’s refreshing to see a movie so directly depict the humanity of a child in the womb.

Still, whatever interest Villeneuve has in Christianity is clearly conflicted, as the Dune saga leads audiences to question “messiah” mythologies and be wary of religious narrative gatekeepers.

Dune leads audiences to question “messiah” mythologies and be wary of religious narrative gatekeepers.

Christians can find an opportunity in this film. Widespread longing for a true, good, and beautiful messiah is real. This is a starting place for evangelism in a post-Christian age. But warranted skepticism about manipulative messiahs and hypocritical religious leaders is also real. And so the opportunity comes with a challenge: to model a Christianity that doesn’t feel phony or suspicious. How do we do this? By focusing always on Christ’s glory and his kingdom rather than our own.

If we go down the Paul Atreides path, falling in line with worldly patterns of power and glory, the Chani-type responses will grow. But if we instead model a countercultural kingdom, decreasing so Christ might increase (John 3:30), then the “true myth” of Messiah Jesus will be harder to ignore.


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