Giant worms, dour nuns, and Timothée Chalamet: The world of Dune, briefly explained

People run from massive sandworms in a still from Dune.
Warner Bros. Pictures

A superfan explains Dune: Part 2 for newbies in less than 1,000 words.

The biggest movie released so far this year is admittedly a little confusing. Or maybe not confusing, but it sure has a lot of lore.

I’m talking, of course, about Dune: Part Two.

Denis Villeneuve’s second installment adapting Frank Herbert’s 1960s sci-fi series of books enters theaters this week. Given it’s been over two years since the first film, and given the complexity of what’s happening in the Dune universe, I figured some of you might have a few questions.

Like, what’s up with Timothée Chalamet’s psychic boy king? Who are those dour-looking nuns? And what the hell is going on with the giant worms everywhere?

I love sci-fi — catch me any day with a copy of Gideon the Ninth or The Dispossessed — but I’ve never read Dune, so I can’t help you.

Patrick Reis, Vox’s senior politics editor and longtime Dune fan, can. Patrick and Alex Abad-Santos, a Vox senior correspondent and self-described Dune newbie, went deep on the new movie here. Below is a slice of their conversation, with additional questions from me, for today’s edition of the newsletter. — Caroline Houck, senior news editor

Light spoilers ahead about the series’ overall narrative arc.

So who’s this Paul Atreides guy that Timothée Chalamet is playing? I’m supposed to like him, right?

At the start of Villeneuve’s previous movie, Paul is the only child of House Atreides, son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a Bene Gesserit (more on them soon).

Paul’s family has been coerced into leaving their home planet to move to Arrakis (also known as Dune), where they’re charged with overseeing the production of spice, the universe’s most precious resource.

At the end of the first film, Paul has hidden away with the Arrakis-native Fremen and allied with them against House Harkonnen — the despots who once again rule Arrakis after murdering Paul’s father and almost everyone he loved. (He also meets Chani (Zendaya), a Fremen who becomes his lover.) Over the course of Dune: Part Two, he makes his way up the Fremen ranks to become a messianic figure.

This leads to a fairly complicated moral arc over the rest of the series.

Right, see, here’s my question: Is he a good messianic figure … or actually evil? I’m suspicious of this hero worship. And there’s also some weird white savior vibes here, right?

Is he “evil”? No in the short term; sort of yes in the medium term; and then mostly no in the extremely, extremely long term — events occurring decades, centuries, and even millennia later with the help of Paul’s descendants.

Dune Two is set in that short-term “no” part of the saga, where he’s helping the Fremen free themselves from the cruelty of House Harkonnen.

But to the other part of your question — yeah. Dune is fundamentally a white savior story in which the bulk of the agency is exercised by outsiders coming to a nomadic culture.

It’s also a pretty clear allegory to the Middle East: Spice is a rare substance that sustains modern life and facilitates empire-wide commerce and travel, so that’s pretty clearly oil. And so much about the Fremen seems to be designed to evoke desert nomads — and some of the most simplistic stereotypes about Arabs. At its worst, it’s Dances With Worms. All of this should, and in many cases does, make fans uncomfortable.

I think the movie makes some steps in the right direction. Zendaya’s Chani has much more agency in the movie than the book’s Chani does, which puts some of the power back in the hands of the Fremen.

But without basically setting aside a huge chunk of the book’s plot, I’m not sure there’s a way around the white savior trope. Someone tried making a Dune movie without sticking closely to the book, and it’s a hilarious mess.

Who are the Bene Gesserit, and more importantly, why aren’t they in charge?

To the naked eye, the Bene Gesserit look like a bunch of superpowered nuns — although they’re not exactly nuns — as Paul’s mother Lady Jessica is part of the sisterhood.

But let’s back up a bit to understand why they’re so important and what exactly they’re trying to do.

Long before the events of the films, humanity had a purge of all “thinking machines.” And so for centuries (and maybe longer), the main advances in technology have not been better machines, but re-engineering humans themselves.

That’s the big project the Bene Gesserit are working on: breeding the superbeing.

Paul was supposed to be the second-to-last step before that superbeing. Lady Jessica was to have a female — Bene Gesserit can determine their offspring’s gender because of course they can — to mate with the heir to House Harkonnen. But out of love for Oscar Isaac’s Duke Leto (RIP), she granted his wish for a male heir. That brought the superbeing into the universe a generation early, upending the Bene Gesserit plan.

So to get back to your question: The Bene Gesserit seem content to let the men fight the relatively small-stakes conflicts over the imperial throne and control of the spice. But behind the scenes, they are fighting a bigger fight: to produce a superbeing whom they can control.

Unfortunately for them, they only get halfway there — as Paul is certainly not interested in being under anyone’s control.

Okay, but most importantly, talk to me about these giant worms. They’re pretty important to the plot — and super cool to look at — but they don’t seem to make sense.

We learned in the first film that the Fremen and desert dwellers seem to know how to avoid getting eaten by the worms, so ... just what are the worms feeding on to get so big? And, more importantly, what do they have to do with this all-powerful and precious spice?

Reading between the lines, I think they actually feed on something in the desert sand, rather than on the creatures of it. Rather than the apex predator of the ecosystem, they’re better likened to, you know, our regular old earthworms here on Earth. They tunnel through the desert and enrich it — possibly even by aiding in the production of spice.

So I think they’re being territorial, rather than predatory, when they swallow spice harvesting machines or Harkonnen corpses or anything else that doesn’t adequately disguise its movements when walking across the sands. I would be happy to discuss sandworm ecology with you for approximately 10 more hours, but I’ve probably said enough here. Enjoy the film!

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