The trials and triumphs of Dune: Part Two

5 Mins read

Having taken on the first half of Frank Herbert’s famously unadaptable novel in Dune: Part One (2021), Denis Villeneuve’s sequel is a booming, visual triumph that is littered with narrative flaws.

RATING: ★★★★1⁄2

Having taken on the first half of Frank Herbert’s famously unadaptable novel Dune (1965) in Dune: Part One (2021), a film that was a rousing success considering its limited theatre release in the midst of Covid, Dune: Part Two arrives with all the best bits of its predecessor on an even bigger scale.

The feats achieved by director Denis Villeneuve’s first Dune instalment are big; we’re introduced to a meticulously crafted universe, its politics, people, and the stakes at play.

But what Villeneuve has managed to achieve with Part Two is nothing short of colossal. Like most things, this film isn’t perfect, but with more sand, spice, and giant sandworms than anyone could ask for, Dune: Part Two is undoubtedly an epic sci-fi masterpiece of sight and sound.

We are ushered into Part Two by a shuddering and distorted reminder of what’s at stake: “Power over Spice is power overall.”

Spice, native only to the desert planet Arrakis, is the lifeblood of this story. Used to facilitate interstellar travel, induce prophetic visions, and prolong life, spice keeps Dune’s many threads of political conflict, religious fanaticism, and Messianic hope winding.

The bald-headed Harkonnens sit at the helm of spice production once again, after carrying out a brutal extermination of House Atreides at the bequest of Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken).

We find Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his pregnant mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), hidden away in the desert of Arrakis, seeking refuge amongst the blue-eyed, desert-dwelling Fremen.

Besieged by the need to avenge his slain father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and their house, Paul settles into desert life with determination.

With dry-humoured Fremen leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and the beautiful, fearsome warrior of Paul’s dreams, Chani (Zendaya) by his side, what could go wrong?

Well, quite a lot actually.

In the eyes of Stilgar’s fundamentalist faction of Fremen, Paul’s cerebral awareness and acute fighting skills shape him up to be a Messiah of many epithets; whether referred to as the Mahdi, Muad’dib, Lisan al-Gaib or the Kwisatz Haderach, Paul is believed to be the one who will lead the Fremen to a glorious reclaim of Arrakis.

Although plagued by visions of endless bloodshed that befalls the universe if he ascends to his Messianic destiny, Paul falls in love with Chani, but she is no fool.

Chani sees the prophecy for what it is, a meticulously crafted lie that has been spun across generations by a powerful, all-seeing matriarchal group, the Bene Gesserit, of which Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, is a part.

Evidently, there is a lot going on here, and for the most part, despite opting for a few narrative changes here and there, Villeneuve handles each winding thread of Herbert’s universe with care.

A group of people run across a desert as three massive sand worms emerge from the sand, creating large clouds of dust.
The sandworms attack [Warner Bros.]

Like Part One, Dune: Part Two is a visual triumph, carried throughout by epic, sprawling sequences and cinematography that make this strange universe feel both tangible and otherworldly.

From its opening, orange-hazed sequence of Harkonnen soldiers floating up a rock edge with chilling ease to Paul and Chani’s triumphant sprint across the flames of a downed Ornithopter, it is a feast for the eyes from beginning to end.

Director of Photography Greig Fraser’s treatment of black-sunned Harkonnen homeworld Giedi Prime is a personal favourite. Its black and white colour palette a welcome contrast to the warm hues of Arrakis.

Compared to other sci-fi epics of this scale (think franchises like Marvel and Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon (2023)), Part Two has an impressive immersive quality, with Villeneuve employing exceptional spatial awareness to create sweeping, high-populated shots that emphasise the scale of Dune’s universe.

Paul’s first time atop a sandworm feels historic to watch, and amidst the scene’s chaos and thundering score, I felt a certain joy in seeing one of Villeneuve’s childhood dreams come to life with such perfection.

The film falters, however, when it comes to the construction of Part Two’s biggest plot point. The depiction of Paul’s transition from reluctant Messiah to defiant, blood-thirsty Lisan al-Gaib, which is spurred on in part by his downing of questionable blue liquid procured from a baby sand worm, is all too sudden and sharp.

Although there is a teary scene in which Paul accepts that he must ‘do what must be done’, his descent lacks the emotional depth required to make it feel convincing.

By the time the finale arrives, and Paul is calling for a Holy War, I was left wondering how we got here so fast. Does Paul believe that the prophecy is true? Or does he see this as the only means to an end?

Those familiar with Herbert’s source material will know the answer, but I can’t help but feel that this stems from a lack of dialogue, which, given Villeneuve’s assertions that words belong on TV or in the theatre instead of the big screen, is no surprise.

Timothee Chalamet's character, Paul Atreides, stares straight ahead. He has blue eyes, curly dark hair and is wearing a nasal cannula in front of a desert backdrop.
Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) [Warner Bros.]

This is no fault of Chalamet’s. He portrays Paul with an unforgettable, electric sincerity from start to end. This quality is carried by the rest of Part Two’s juggernaut of a cast so that in moments when the dialogue occasionally errs on the side of lacklustre and forgettable, it’s hardly an issue.

Newcomer Austin Butler is a standout, bringing the nephew of Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), black-toothed, psychopathic Feyd-Rautha to life in a performance that is formidable and unforgettable, a far-cry from his blue-sueded-shoed Elvis.

Returning favourites, Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and Stilgar bring moments of charming comedic relief, with Rebecca Ferguson bringing Lady Jessica to terrifying, conniving heights as a newly adorned Reverend Mother.

So much of the narrative is successfully carried through the characters’ expressions, from close-ups of Princess Irulan’s (Florence Pugh) subtly down-turned mouth to Rabban’s (Dave Bautista) frenzied eyes.

No-one does this better than the incredible Zendaya, whose rendition of Chani is fierce, powerful, and heartbreakingly brilliant.

She shines in the final moments, capturing the depth of Paul’s betrayal (he promises himself to the emperor’s daughter Princess Irulan, becomes the new Emperor, and, oh yeah, starts a galactic Jihad) in shining, yet utterly defiant eyes.

The romance between Paul and Chani is arguably the most surprising yet welcome storyline at play, the chemistry between Chalamet and Zendaya ushering in an intimate and devastating reminder that behind Dune‘s sprawling battles, conspiracies and political takedowns, there is a real human cost.

Timothee Chalamet's character, Paul Atreides, faces Zendaya's character, Chani, with her hand on his face. Both are wearing dark coloured Fremen 'still suits' against a desert backdrop.
Chani (Zendaya) is fierce, powerful, and heartbreakingly brilliant [Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.]

With one of the best love themes since John Williams’ Across the Stars, Hans Zimmer’s trio of A Time of Quiet Between the Storms, Kiss the Ring and Beginnings Are Such Delicate Times breathes an extra layer of yearning into Paul and Chani’s tragic love story.

Continuing his tenure from Part One, Zimmer provides an explosive score of tension and triumph throughout, which, in conjunction with Villeneuve’s handiwork, demands that Part Two be seen on the biggest, loudest screen possible.

Although we can’t see the future like Paul (or manipulate it like the Bene Gesserit), Zimmer’s commitment to producing more Dune music coupled with rumours that a third and final script is already in development seem to point the way towards an eventual adaptation of Dune: Messiah. 

If it ever materialises, it will be Villeneuve’s final jaunt on Arrakis, and even if it doesn’t, Dune: Part Two will be remembered as a science fiction masterpiece of sandworms and visual delight.

Featured image courtesy of Warner Bros.

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