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What You Need to Know Before Watching ‘Dune: Part Two’

A quick guide to the sci-fi epic meant to be a ‘Star Wars’ for grownups

spinner image Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya looking into each other's eyes in "Dune: Part Two."
(Left to right) Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya in “Dune: Part Two.”
Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Director Denis Villeneuve, 56, created an overwhelmingly powerful, two-movie adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune with serious Star Wars DNA, but the tale of its hero Paul Atreides is a lot harder to understand than Luke Skywalker’s. Here is some background that will give you a better shot at comprehending the most ambitious sci-fi extravaganza of the year.

You don’t have to see the first Dune to enjoy the second.

The first half of the Dune saga, released in 2021, was like the first Star Trek movie — not all that much happens; it’s mostly just an introduction to a cool, complicated world to be explored in a later movie. “Dune: Part One is like an appetizer, and Dune: Part Two is the main meal,” Villeneuve says.

There’s lots more plot in the 2024 Dune, but most viewers will find it convolutedly elusive. The film is so spectacularly, visually original, many won’t mind being deeply puzzled, yet intrigued.

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spinner image Timothée Chalamet walking in a desert in "Dune: Part Two."
Timothée Chalamet stars as Paul Atreides.
Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

It’s a revenge story.

In the previous Dune, we met Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), whose dad, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), ruled the desolate desert planet Arrakis, famous for its giant sandworms and its vast mines of “spice,” a much-craved hallucinogen with life-extending effects. House Atreides’ rival, House Harkonnen — led by the bald, deathly pale, obese fascist psycho Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard, 72) — invaded Arrakis and killed Duke Leto.

Paul fled into the remote reaches of the desert and met the Fremen, the indigenous people of Arrakis (whose culture is like a combination of Bedouin and Native American). The Fremen (sounds like “free men”) want freedom from the Harkonnens. Their warrior leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem, 54), whose name is an amalgam of “steel” and “guardian,” becomes Paul’s mentor, like Obi-Wan Kenobi with a better sense of humor. Another Fremen warrior, Chani (Zendaya), teaches Paul the Fremen ways and looks to be Paul’s love interest.

At the end of the first movie and the beginning of Part Two, Paul is out to avenge his dad’s death.

spinner image Timothée Chalamet and Austin Butler each holding a knife as they face off in a fight in "Dune: Part Two."
Timothée Chalamet and Austin Butler (right) as Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen.
Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

In Part Two, Paul strikes back.

First, he must prove his giant sandworm-riding skills, so the Fremen will accept him as the Harkonnen-stomping messiah foretold by ancient prophecies. Then he has to beat the baron’s bald, psycho nephew Feyd-Rautha (Elvis Austin Butler) in a traditional knife duel, so Paul can gain his dad’s rightful title of duke and rule. And he’s got another enemy: Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken, 80), who wants to keep Arrakis in Harkonnen hands.

All of the multiple battle and action scenes look awesome, yet not derivative of Star Wars or Marvel movies, and in Imax theaters, the sound design is marvelously quake-like.

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spinner image A close up of Timothée Chalamet in a hooded cloak in "Dune: Part Two."
Timothée Chalamet
Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The story is a lot like Star Wars.

The novel Dune was published in 1965, but author Frank Herbert struggled and moved constantly to avoid creditors until success arrived when he was 55 — a couple of years before Star Wars debuted in 1977. Herbert counted 16 points of “absolute identity” between Dune and Star Wars, including an evil galactic empire, a desert planet, hooded natives, religious themes, a messianic hero with an aged mentor, mines of spice (inspired by Herbert’s psychedelic experiences — he sometimes wrote while on psilocybin), and Alia (The Queen’s Gambit’s Anya Taylor-Joy), a powerful, Princess Leia-like sister to the hero Paul.

Herbert thought Lucas also stole ideas from books by fellow sci-fi stars Isaac Asimov and Theodore Sturgeon, and he joked that they should all start the We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society.​

spinner image Florence Pugh as Princess Irulan in a scene from "Dune: Part Two."
Florence Pugh stars as Princess Irulan.
Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The Dune world is inspired by myths and cultures from all over the real world.

Like Lucas, Herbert was a thieving magpie who wove everything that inspired him into a distinctive, highly original fantasy. Paul Atreides is named after Christian evangelist St. Paul, and the House of Atreides comes from the Greek legend of the House of Atreus (Greek for “no tremble” or “fearless”). Harkonnen is a scary-sounding Finnish name he plucked from a phone book. Paul is like Lawrence of Arabia, an outsider leading a native revolt. Paul’s increasing power threatens to make him a corrupt leader causing immense destruction, which worries Chani. Herbert worked in D.C. politics (his cousin was the commie-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy) and found power sinister. He thought President Richard Nixon did us a perverse favor by making us distrust the powerful.

Herbert got the idea for Dune’s desert planet from a government program to plant sea grass to stop sand dunes engulfing a highway in Florence, Oregon. The lovely scenes of Paul and Chani cautiously “sandwalking” in the dunes to avoid alerting sandworms to attack came from Herbert’s Northwest youth, when he trod carefully while hunting and fishing, so as not to scare off the wildlife.

The last scene of Star Wars is a visual quote from Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. Dune: Part Two tops that with a dark, Nazi-like gladiatorial scene in a colosseum that dwarfs the one in Rome.

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spinner image Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica in a scene from "Dune: Part Two."
Rebecca Ferguson stars as Lady Jessica.
Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The Force is child’s play compared with the religious ideas of Dune.

Herbert’s supernatural themes are far more complex. He nicked ideas from the Middle East’s dueling Jewish, Christian and Muslim people; the second-century gnostic gospels discovered in Egyptian desert caves in 1945; and his pal Alan Watts, who popularized Buddhism in America. Some of Herbert’s mystics are “Zensunni,” a combination of Zen and Islam’s Sunni sect. Charlotte Rampling, 78, plays a scary, veiled psychic who tests and tries to manipulate Paul. She’s one of the Bene Gesserit — powerful female seers and sorceresses based on the Irish maternal aunts who tried to convert young Herbert to Catholicism. Their name is a play on Jesuits.

spinner image Javier Bardem as Stilgar in a scene from "Dune: Part Two."
Javier Bardem stars as Stilgar.
Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Herbert identified less with Paul Atreides than with Paul’s grownup mentor.

The character the author most identified with was Stilgar, an outdoorsman steeped in Native American-like folkways and ecology consciousness (Herbert was influenced by Rachel Carson’s 1962 environmental book Silent Spring). Stilgar’s revolutionary fervor reflects Herbert’s activism — he joined a huge Vietnam War protest crowd that marched down I-5 to attack Seattle’s courthouse. Stilgar’s sorrow over the Harkonnens’ oppression of his people is rooted in Herbert’s despair when he invented Stilgar, and his literary career was at its penniless nadir. But Stilgar helped make Herbert rich for the last decade of his life.

spinner image Kyle MacLachlan standing in a desert with people behind him in the horizon in the 1984 film "Dune."
Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides in "Dune" (1984).
Alamy Stock Photo

Part Two is the best Dune film yet, after multiple failed attempts

In 1973, a Dune movie to be helmed by Lawrence of Arabia director David Lean was scuttled when its producer died. A 1974 Dune film would have starred Orson Welles as rotund Baron Harkonnen, Salvador Dali as Emperor Shaddam IV, Charlotte Rampling as Paul’s mom, Mick Jagger as Feyd-Rautha, and Gloria Swanson in Rampling’s 2024 role, but it fell apart when right-wing Dali clashed with the film’s left-wing director, Alejandro Jodorowsky, who went way over budget.

A Dune movie finally did get made in 1984 by David Lynch. It starred Sting as Feyd-Rautha and Kyle MacLachlan — who thought the phone message offering him the job was a friend’s prank and almost didn’t reply — as Paul. But the studio slashed the film’s running time from over four hours to an incomprehensible two, and it flopped, crushing Lynch, who’d turned down directing the Star Wars sequel Return of the Jedi to do it.

spinner image People running away as an aircraft crashes into the desert in "Dune: Part Two."
Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

There will be more Dune.

Virginia Madsen, 62 (Sideways), a star of the 1984 Dune, thought “they were going to make Star Wars for grownups,” with lots of potential spin-offs. It took a while to get the epic right, but there are more adventures in the Dune universe in the works. The prequel series Dune: Prophecy, set 10,000 years before Paul Atreides’ birth, will premiere on Max, possibly in late 2024. Dune: Part Two uses the first Dune book’s story, and there are 22 more Dune books begging to be movies. Clearly, you haven’t seen your last ride on a giant sandworm.

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