Dune 2: What Paul Atreides Taming the Sandworm Teaches us About Facing Obstacles in Life

Dune 2 is coming to theatres today in pre-premiere before the official launch on March 1st. As if the sequel to Denis Villeneuve’s first installment of the franchise wasn’t already hyped enough, the Canadian star-director had decided to release a 7-minute sneak preview 2 weeks prior to the official release of the movie. To savour a little taste of Dune 2 in its anticipation, this mini-essay will provide a quick dive into what is obviously one of the key scenes of this cinematic masterpiece.

Although the sneak preview is less than 7 minutes long, the density of Frank Herbert’s original writing as well as of Villeneuve’s cinematic translation deliver enough detail to convey a symbolic narrative that fills the scene with deeper meaning.

The sneak preview shows Paul Atreides’ (Timothée Chalamet) final initiation rite to become a Fremen. He has been living some time with them, whilst which the tribe’s elder, Stilgar (Javier Bardem), has taught him the Fremen’s ways. The trial Paul has to face consists in attracting, riding and controlling a Shai-Hulud, the giant sandworms that populate the planet of Arrakis, also known as Dune.

While Paul prepares his thumper (an artifact emitting rhythmic thumps in order to attract the sandworms), Stilgar gives him some last advice on how to survive this crucial examination that could be lethal if he failed. “Don’t try to impress anyone. You are brave, we all know that. Be simple, be direct. Nothing fancy.”

Stilgar directs his admonition to the young man’s vanity in Paul. Young people want to impress – even more so when there is a love interest involved. Although the relationship between Paul and Chani (Zendaya) might not yet be consummated at the moment of this scene, the bond between the two is already tangible in her reactions (and in the reaction of the Fremen woman reassuring her, who appears to be Shishakli, played by Souheila Yacoub). In fact, the connection between Chani and Paul becomes evident when Paul starts punching a hole in the sand up on the ridge. The very moment Chani, who is too far away from him to hear, says to herself “Lower,” Paul recognizes that the ridge is not the ideal position and walks down the dune to find a more suitable spot to deploy the thumper. This circumstance is not a big deal, but a nice little detail that shows the connection in spiritu between the two rather than a form of telepathy.

Why does Stilgar emphasize simplicity and directness? We’ve hinted at vanity. What is vanity? It is that which urges us to make an impression. Why make an impression? Because we are insecure about our true selves. Because we think what we are is not enough, so we have to add something – artificially. That’s why Stilgar adds “You are brave, we all know that,” to reassure Paul of himself. There is no need to fake anything. Quite the opposite: Faking a capability we do not possess puts us in danger, and for two reasons: Firstly, because we are focused on the impression we want to make instead of being focused on the task at hand. Secondly, because affecting to be more than we really are puts us in a position of inauthenticity and overestimating ourselves. The only way to really overcome an obstacle is to accept oneself, to accept our true qualities and inadequacies. A correct and adequate self-perception enables us to judiciously exercise our true power, without under- nor overestimating our abilities. True self-confidence gives us calmness and poise to fully focus on the task at hand, without needing to care about what others think about us.

The scene offers very little dialogue, which takes place mostly in the first minute. We hear the Fremen joke about Paul finding a large enough sandworm, for taming a small one would not be considered as much of an achievement. But the humour switches into serious concern on Chani’s face as the sandworm announces its arrival in the distance, and all Fremen stand up in alertness. Even the wise and experienced Stilgar expresses his serious preoccupation: “Woah! Not that big.”

Paul doesn’t concern himself with any of that. He’s focused on the sandworm, be it as big as it may. He steps sideways to determine the right angle from which to approach the Shai-Hulud, but it suddenly disappears. After a couple of tense senconds it reappears again, now almost in immediate vicinity. We see Paul’s eyes fixating the sandworm, as he adjusts his position to regain the right angle on the beast.

The sandworm does not pass underneath him, but a couple of yards laterally. Paul needs to run to be able intercept its pathway. But where the sandworm went through, the dune is lowered and unstable. Paul jumps into the gorge created by the passing sandworm and plunges into the abyss.

Whenever we are faced with an obstacle, our approach to it is crucial for the outcome. Instead of getting flustered, we stay focused on the object, we observe how it moves. We pay attention to what happens around us. Eventually a dent will appear, a weakness that provides us with a point of entry. Like Paul, that’s where we enter the chaos of the conflict.

This scene is the third initiation rite Paul Atreides goes through in Dune. The first initiation rite was the Gom Jabbar scene, where the Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling) tested his strength of will and his ability to make the right decisions while in pain. We have elaborated on this scene extensively in a former essay. Paul’s second initiation rite was when he learned the ways of the desert as he killed the Fremen Jamis. In both scenes we hear the same music as in the Shai-Hulud-scene. Here, the tension starts to rise when we hear the deep, ominous vibrating sound as Paul digs his hooks into the sandworm. That’s when he takes a grasp on the object of his adversity (a quick reminder that the word “object” derives from Latin ob-iectus, which means “that which is thrown before or against us”).

What then? Paul holds his grip firm. He tries to stabilize himself and get better hooks in, until he can stand up. That’s when the ominous sound is heard for the second time. Now he has almost succeded. As the chaos and the sand keep blowing into his face, he manages to stabilize himself and stand on one knee. Withstanding the pressure, he can now expand his grip. He launches his hooks further away, as to expand his control over the monster, first with one hook, then with the other. As the second hook is in and he starts to rise on his feet, we hear the powerful voice we’ve heard both in the Gom-Jabbar-scene as well as in the Jamis-scene when the respective initiations were fulfilled.

Just like in the Gom-Jabbar-scene the key was to feel the pain and endure it, so the Shai-Hulud-scene focuses on enduring after having found the appropriate approach. The success of a test is achieved not by spectacular or extravagant ideas, but through precise observation of the object. The creativity of the moment springs from an accurate observation: It is a decisive approach at the object’s its weakness. And then it’s about having the bravery to endure and stay stable. Bravery is not the same as courage. While courage is more related to boldness and the decisiveness to do dangerous things (which Paul also possesses, otherwise he wouldn’t have jumped on the sandworm), bravery is about the strength to keep inner stability in order to endure adversity and overcome obstacles.

As we can see, this short clip contains a small lesson in Stoicism, which is the philosophy of overcoming adversity. The stoic lesson in this scene is not verbal or explicit, but highly symbolic and beautifully conveyed through dramatic action.

As Dune 2 launches today, I cannot wait to see the whole movie. As a matter of fact, I am just leaving to watch it in a theater – and I hope you are too.

What do you think about this scene? Have you already watched the movie? What was your experience watching it? I’ll be happy to hear your thoughts and experiences, so let me Iinvite you to share them with us in the comment section.

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