Dune: Part Two Review – Denis Rides Again

Adaptation of cult novel surpasses the epic original

They say that the spice of Arrakis is highly addictive. Prolonged exposure to the famed melange of planet Dune reportedly heightens the senses. One can therefore assume that after spending so much time swirling in the sands of Dune and basking in the essence of Frank Herbert’s popular sci-fi world, Denis Villeneuve and company are regular spice fiends. So too is anyone, really, who’s committed themselves to being immersed in this world. Dune is a drug, but it has never delivered a high quite like it does in Part Two. This epic follow-up to Villeneuve’s 2021 Dune adventure offers bigscreen blockbuster entertainment of the highest order.

Everything is bigger and better in this follow-up. Villeneuve and his team know that the stakes and expectations are high after the first Dune won six Oscars and raked in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. But Dune: Part Two offers a rare case in which a sequel does more than flex its muscles. Yes, the action scenes are bigger and the set pieces are bolder. But alongside the beefed-up entertainment value are some of the best characters and political subtext of recent genre films.

This exhilarating adventure probably benefits from the longer production that saw Villeneuve and company return to set on the heels of the first film’s success. Rather continue as films shot together economically, Dune: Part Two is richer for the time with which everyone has immersed themselves in the spice of life. If side effects of the spice include greater vitality and a longer lifespan, may it be a step towards another cinematic universe.

Expanding the Universe

Dune-heads will rejoice, but cinephiles looking for a gateway drug might best take another hit of the first Dune before visiting Part Two. The second instalment picks up immediately where the predecessor left off. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), have made safe passage with the Fremen, the people of the desert. Moreover, the Fremen, or most of them, believe Paul to be their saviour. After earning their respect in combat, they see Paul as their saviour. Fremen leader Stilgar (a fun Javier Bardem) especially interprets all of Paul’s actions through a prophetic lens. Yet the sandstorms continue to brew on Arrakis as the Fremen thwart the spice production. They seek to weaken the supply, the Harkonnen who guard it, and the Baron (Stellan Skarsgård) who derives power from the harvest.

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Dune: Part Two is just as dense the second time around, but there’s a cadence to all the newfangled lingo that seems less alien than it did the first time. The adaptation by Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts dispenses with any exposition, though, without missing a beat. Much of the clarity comes through the performances as they actors seem more comfortable in their characters’ skins.

From White Saviour to Dark Prince         

Despite the escalating war, the young Atreides resists playing the Messiah. He evades Stilgar’s premonitions. He sides with his Fremen ally, Chani (Zendaya), with whom he’s clearly falling in love. Neither Paul nor Chani think it’s best for one person to lead them all. Paul’s visions, moreover, foretell of a giant slaughter if he leads the Fremen into war.

The thrill of Dune frequently resides in the challenges that Paul endeavours to prove his worth, while resisting the temptations that leadership entails. If spice is a drug, then power is the most potent of narcotics as Paul, like his mother, grows darker as his comfort leading the crowds evolve.

As he adopts a new name, Maud’Dib, to denote his Fremen leadership, he learns more truths about his family and his father’s death that motivate him to fight.

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Chalamet gives his best performance yet as the weary reluctant hero. The white saviour cloak Paul wears in the first Dune has blown away in the wind. Chalamet creates Paul as strong, yet hardened by his exposure to the sand. The anti-hero befits the billowing sand dunes, too. Paul finds his strength by taming the giant worms that guard the spice (another prophecy that makes Stilgar wide-eyed). Yet he also harnesses their power for hiding, lurking, and attacking unexpectedly.

New Characters and Characters Anew

Ferguson, meanwhile, affords Dune an edge with this darker take on Jessica. Bewitched by powers of her own, and possessed by the Water of Life and the young child within her, she tests Paul’s fortitude and tempts his lust for power. Dune: Part Two gives Ferguson a robust character arc and she tackles the many shades that make Jessica a shape-shifting enigma that Paul must decode to understand his place among the warring houses.

The houses bring new characters to the fold, including some of Herbert’s most iconic figures. Among the few faces is a perfectly cast Christopher Walken as the Emperor behind the downfall of the House of Atreides. Why fewer sci-fi movies have made use of Walken’s deadpan weirdness remains a mystery, but he brings the right balance of authority and aloofness to complement the film’s consideration of power.

Stepping into the role of the Emperor’s daughter, Princess Irulan is Florence Pugh, who also embraces the many dimensions that the adaptation affords a character whose voice is so essential to the Dune universe.

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Part Two also brings a worthy baddie in the Baron’s kin, Feyd-Rautha, an unnerving sociopathic killer. Elviss Austin Butler steps into the role—but, unfortunately, not the futuristic loin cloth that Sting rocked in the David Lynch Dune—and amplifies the Harkonnen’s psycho-sexual bloodlust.

Like Chalamet, Butler straddles the duality of star and character actor extremely well. His presence leaves a strong impression, even making Dave Bautista’s beefy killer Beast seem cowardly by comparison. And while Zendaya appears briefly at the ending of the first installment, she proves herself a worthy co-star to Chalamet here. Her performance demands subtlety alongside showier work. The balanced ensemble affords more dimensions to the world-building that Dune: Part Two realizes so masterfully.

Defying the Unfilmable

The strength of the cast and the substance of the storytelling shows that Villeneuve hasn’t forgotten his roots while going bigger. Instead, he leans into what makes movies like Incendies, Polytechnique, and Arrival so intensely compelling. He understands that audiences need to be invested in the characters to go along for the ride.

And what a ride it is. Grand set pieces are thrillingly and breathtakingly realized. The sheer scale of filmmaking here is extraordinary. Villeneuve and his team build a world from scratch and take audiences on a literal roller coaster ride through the sand dunes as Paul et al latch onto the worms and careen into battle. Every aspect of the impeccable standards set by the previous production—costumes, production design, sound, and score—all up their game here. Greig Fraser’s cinematography surpasses its Oscar-winning work of the original film and beautifully captures the eerie warmth generated by an eclipse to suggest a planet in limbo.

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So too does Dune simply exceed its standard as an adaptation. Often cited among the “unfilmable” novels, Dune the movie achieves a rare feat. It creates on screen images that Herbert can only describe in words and a world that readers can only loosely visualize. It’s an astonishingly complex world faultlessly realized in vivid detail. On the grand IMAX canvas, Villeneuve’s Dune remains faithful to Herbert’s vision, but it also makes the world wholly its own. What began with an unfilmable novel is now one of the best double bills ever made.

Dune: Part Two opens in theatres on March 1.



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