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Dune: Part Two

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Produced by Mary Parent, Denis Villeneuve, Patrick McCormick, Cale Boyter, and Tanya Lapointe
Screenplay by Denis Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts Based on the novel by Frank Herbert
With: Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Austin Butler, Florence Pugh, Dave Bautista, Christopher Walken, Léa Seydoux, Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, and Anya Taylor-Joy
Cinematography: Greig Fraser
Editing: Joe Walker
Music: Hans Zimmer
Runtime: 166 min
Release Date: 01 March 2024
Aspect Ratio: 2.20 : 1
Color: Color

Now, that's a little more like it. After the bland bombast of Denis Villeneuve's Dune Part One—an epic of stillbirth cinema—the director's follow-up proves that Frank Herbert's 1965 novel is not an "unfilmable book," as its devotees always used to say. In truth, nearly all books are "unfilmable," but most are certainly "adaptable." Only the inane desire to make movies based on iconic novels conform exactly to beloved source material makes a weighty tome like Dune seem impossible to convert to the visual narrative medium of film. Dune Part One is a prime example. Almost nothing in that film feels the least bit cinematic. There are a lot of cool-looking visuals and an epic sound design, but in terms of narrative, Dune Part One is little more than endless, meaningless world-building. For any Dune adaptation to devote most of its running time to creating a world that readers of the book already know and non-readers of the book will never fully understand or care about, no matter how much awkward expository dialogue is shoehorned into the mouths of its cast, is ridiculous. The second half of Herbert's novel, ironically the half that was truncated in the 1984 David Lynch/Dino De Laurentis film, lends itself far more readily to visual storytelling.

This movie picks up with young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), former heir of the now-destroyed House Atreides, and his sexy-witch-priestess mom (Rebecca Ferguson), stranded on the spice world of Arrakis and taken in by the indigenous folks of that desert planet, the Fremen. These tribal warriors believe an off-world messiah will one day liberate them from the intergalactic forces that oppress them and rape their planet of the only valuable material left in the universe—the psychedelic spice melange that enables space travel. Younger Fremen like Chani (Zendaya) are skeptical of this prophecy, but the tribal elders, like Stilgar (Javier Bardem), are pretty sure Paul is their messiah. Paul is a reluctant savior—so noble!—but he needs to defeat the evil Harkonnen, who killed his father, destroyed his kingdom, and are out to wipe out his newly adopted people. Since the Harkonnen spice mining seems pretty easy for the Frmen to disrupt, the Harkonnen leader, Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), replaces his incompetent nephew Rabban (Dave Bautista), with his psychotic nephew, Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler) to head up operations on Arrakis.

That description either makes sense and sounds interesting, or it doesn't. Regardless, it's all one needs to know at the start of this movie. If the entire 156-minute running time of the first film could have been reduced to the first act in a slightly longer version of this movie, this new Dune might have really been something—an old-school roadshow event with an intermission, overture and entr'acte. Imagine a sci-fi Lawrence of Arabia that, like that masterpiece, is less concerned with the intricacies of its weighty source material and more focused on what its themes might mean to contemporary viewers. In the case of Dune, the themes of colonialism, religious fundamentalism, environmental plunder, and the reluctant "white savior" should and do play differently today than they did in the mid-'60s.

But instead of a truly epic film, we get more of the same big-screen-episodic-television that blockbuster cinema has become, at least in terms of how this Dune approaches its narrative. In terms of spectacle, this movie is far more technically powerful and deserving of seeing (and hearing!) on the biggest screen possible than typical contemporary CGI action pictures. Villeneuve, cinematographer Greig Fraser, Editor Joe Walker, production designer Patrice Vermette, sound designer and supervising sound editor Richard King, and the many VFX teams have produced an extravaganza worthy of IMAX screens and 70mm presentation. The cast in Part Two is also far better utilized than in the first film. Chalamet and Ferguson were great casting from the get-go, as was Charlotte Rampling as the spooky Bene Gesserit mother superior, but some of the others in the ensemble—a banal Oscar Isaac, a graceless Josh Brolin, a distractingly goofy Jason Momoa, and an embarrassing Dave Bautista, acted like anchors on an already slow and ponderous film. Skarsgård's Barron and Zendaya's Chani had little more than cameo appearances, and Javier Bardem seemed like he hadn’t figured out his approach to his character by the time the cameras rolled.

What a difference between the two films. Zendaya's Chani comes into her own as Paul's love interest. Too much of her part is reduced to emotive reaction shots as she watches little Timmy do stuff and say things, but their scenes together have both a sweetness and a credible edge. Florence Pugh is effective as Princess Irulan, taking on the role of quasi-narrator and becoming a reluctant rival for Zendaya. Léa Seydoux provides a terrific "meanwhile in another part of the galaxy" interlude. While Bardem practically steals Dune 2 with his comical interpretation of Stilgar—hey, remember when big-budget movies had a sense of humor that wasn't just snarky fan service or improv-style audience winking? Bardem is able to bring levity to the proceedings without acting like he's above the movie he's in. He's fully committed, but unlike Bautista, he's not overcommitted. Bautista seems so set on demonstrating how incompetent and in-over-his-head Glossu Rabban is that he renders the character a toothless villain; the absence of meaningful antagonists was a huge part of why the first Dune lacked real stakes. Skarsgård's Barron gets a little more to do in this film, though he still can't hold a candle to Kenneth McMillan's interpretation of this role in the Lynch film.

When Austin Butler shows up as Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, this "sleepy Star Wars" is finally injected with what it has so desperately needed for its first three hours: an exciting villain with teeth! Butler's look, speech, and fighting style remind us (and I guess we need reminding) that adapting a complex work of science fiction requires more than dressing actors up in weird costumes and having them stare at each other while reciting exposition. If this had been a single three-and-a-half to four-hour picture, the filmmakers would have certainly realized they needed to introduce this character earlier on and done so. 

Even with so many of the flaws of the first movie baked into the second, Dune Part Two is active and alive. It's full of thrills, chills, and laughs. Chalamet's big set piece, Paul's first experience riding a sandworm, is rousingly staged. And whaddayaknow, we understand the stakes of this event without any scenes explaining the history and traditions of sandworm riding, or training sequences for Paul, or flashbacks to the first Fremen who ever attempted it; we intrinsically understand what it means for Paul to take this ride because, like most everything in Dune, this is not a complicated or unfamiliar narrative trope.

It's not difficult for Dune Part Two to build to a more satisfying conclusion than Dune Part One, which fails to tell a complete story. Though Dune Part Two essentially picks up where the first film left off and ends on a cliffhanger, it does a far better job of telling a full story. You don't really need to see the first film to follow the events of the second. It's unfortunate that Denis Villeneuve, co-screenwriter Jon Spaihts, and Warner Brothers choose to end this film in a way that feels open-ended, like a teaser for an inevitable next chapter. I guess the hope is to send the audience out excited to wait another two to three years for Dune Part Three, but it instilled the opposite reaction in me. It's frustrating that the filmmakers chose not to complete the circle of Paul's transformation in a more satisfying way that could have properly underscored the dark and compelling idea that all this has been an origin story for a character who just might be far more credibly evil than any of the grotesque villains we've seen up to this point.

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This vastly superior second installment of Denis Villeneuve's blockbuster adaptation of the beloved 1965 sci-fi novel proves what a waste of time Part One was. Watching this, one can imagine what an epic roadshow single film this could have been.