Denis Villeneuve breaks down the evolution of sandworms in ‘Dune: Part Two’
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Denis Villeneuve breaks down the evolution of sandworms in ‘Dune: Part Two’


The sandworms we see in Dune: Part Two couldn’t be farther from those we see in the first Dune. Yes, they share the same physical characteristics: a circular mouth, crystalline teeth, thick hide perfect for weathering Arrakis’ brutal desert conditions. But on a narrative level, they serve a different function, shifting from mysterious entities to well-known allies.

“In part one, [the sandworms] are a threat, an invisible threat,” director Denis Villeneuve told Mashable in a video interview. “You hear about them, but you barely see them.”

For outsiders to Arrakis, sandworms are a hidden threat.

Paul Atreides in a Fremen stillsuit.

Timothée Chalamet in “Dune: Part Two.”
Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Indeed, our sandworm interactions in 2021’s Dune are mostly limited to flashes of their mouths sucking down spice harvesters, or hints of their bodies surging beneath the sand. Part of this is due to the sandworm behavior Villeneuve worked to bring to the screen. “A sandworm will always try to protect itself from the surface,” he said. “It’s a very shy creature. I love the idea that it’s trying to be as invisible as possible, even if it’s a huge being.”

The limited glimpses of sandworms in Dune are also a matter of perspective. As seen through the eyes of characters who aren’t native to Arrakis, like Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) or Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), the sandworms are alien unknowns to be feared. Dune‘s careful withholding of sandworm imagery adheres accordingly to these characters’ points of view and to their unfamiliarity with the desert.

It isn’t until Paul and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) find themselves in the deep desert of Arrakis that we see a sandworm in full for the first time, looming above the pair as they take shelter on a rocky outcropping. The scene marks a major shift in how Dune treats the legendary sci-fi beast. There’s no more hiding of the sandworm. We linger on this creature for several beats, the film accustoming us to the sight. The message is clear: Paul, Jessica, and the audience aren’t in Arrakeen anymore. They’re in Fremen territory now, and that means worms.

Dune: Part Two builds further on that pivotal sandworm scene. There’s no more obfuscation or mystery surrounding them. Here, we get up close and personal with their scaly, ridged surfaces. Characters ride them through the desert or into battle. At one point, we even meet a baby sandworm kept in a Fremen sietch in order to make the substance known as the Water of Life.

Sandworm familiarity becomes a form of cultural osmosis.

Stilgar in a Fremen stillsuit.

Javier Bardem in “Dune: Part Two.”
Credit: Niko Tavernise

The new side of sandworms on display in Dune: Part Two is a direct result of Paul’s alliance with the Fremen. As we get to better know the indigenous people of Arrakis, we also understand their perspective on aspects of desert living, such as the sandworms. They view the sandworms — whom they call Shai-Hulud — as a physical manifestation of their god, so they treat them with faithful reverence. Yet they’ve also been able to control sandworms and use them for their own needs, such as transportation. A sandworm can even be a form of garbage disposal: In one darkly funny scene early in Dune: Part Two, the Fremen call a worm to devour the bodies of slaughtered Harkonnen soldiers, leaving no trace of their prior battle.

The evolution of the sandworm from frightening beast to a familiar part of everyday life is also present in Frank Herbert’s novel. Upon re-encountering Paul after two years apart, Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) is astonished by the Fremen’s ease around the sandworms. “The creature all men on Arrakis fear, you treat it like a riding animal,” he tells Paul. The idea of “all men” really only applies to offworlders who view the sandworms as obstacles for spice production. While colonizing forces like the Harkonnens and Atreides run from worms, the Fremen embrace them.

For Villeneuve, Paul’s proximity to the Fremen and love of their culture gave him a greater opportunity to explore how the Fremen interact with worms. “The more Paul learns about the Fremen culture, the more he wants to be a part of it,” Villeneuve explained. “That really touched me, how Paul wants to immerse himself in a culture and not impose his way, but more become one of them. And one of the aspects of [being a Fremen] is to be able to master a sandworm.”

In Dune: Part Two, Paul finally masters a sandworm.

Paul Atreides walks through the desert with the sun at his back, wearing a Fremen stillsuit and cloak.

Timothée Chalamet in “Dune: Part Two.”
Credit: Niko Tavernise

That brings us to the sandworm centerpiece of Dune: Part Two: the first time Paul rides a sandworm. Not only is this one of the most memorable scenes from Frank Herbert’s original novel, it’s also the closest we’ve gotten physically to a sandworm in this franchise so far. To pull the set piece off, Villeneuve tried to ground it in reality as much as he could.

“All of this was based on my own interpretation of the book, how a Fremen will be able to jump on and harness a worm, and how this could be physically possible,” Villeneuve said. “I wanted the sandworm riding sequence to look as real as possible, as edgy as possible. I wanted it to feel like a motorbike race.” The result is a tense avalanche of sand and spice, where Villeneuve invites audiences to feel every bump and drop in Paul’s ride. We also get to see new details of the worms’ physical forms, like bristles and the sensitive inner sections of their segmented rings.

The scene took months to plan, with the creation of a specialized “worm unit” working to perfect the interactions between humans and sandworms. “[They were] like Navy SEALs dedicated to the exploration of the technique that I wanted to develop,” Villeneuve said. He played coy about the actual technology developed for the scene, though, saying: “I’m always shy to talk about how we shot things, because it breaks the magic in a way. I love people to believe what we’ve done.”

Still, even after perfecting the art of sandworm riding and giving us a deeper look into how sandworms are integrated into Fremen life, Villeneuve revealed there’s more to explore with these iconic inhabitants of Arrakis. After all, we’ve only seen the outside of a worm — what’s going on past those teeth? If Villeneuve gets his way, we’ll find out.

“If there’s ever a Dune Messiah adaptation, I have a great idea,” he said, his face lighting up. “About how you get out of a sandworm.”

Dune: Part Two is now in theaters.





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