Review: DUNE PART TWO Continues Denis Villeneuve’s Run of Sci-fi Masterworks (Plus a Quick Recap of PART ONE)

Everything we know about Dune: Part 2 | Space

Known for his heady themes and stunning visuals, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has been a proven talent at crafting films that are both visually and mentally stimulating, as thoughtful as they are artful.

Dune: Part Two continues the story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), a young prince with powers of premonition, based on the classic science fiction novel by Frank Herbert. Paul’s aristocratic family is tasked by their intergalactic emperor to take control of the most lucrative mining operation in the empire: a substance known commonly as “spice”. Its manifold applications include pharmaceutical use and fuel for space travel, making it the most valuable commodity in the universe and it’s found in only one place: the harsh desert planet Arrakis – aka Dune.

While Dune: Part One was a fascinating film – and a hit for Warner Brothers in the difficult pandemic era – it was mostly world-building and setup. The Atreides clan arrives on Arrakis to perform their new duty as bidden, but it’s not long before their enemies the Harkonnens (led with slimy nastiness by Stallan Skarsgård as the Baron Harkonnen and David Bautista as his top enforcer) launch a surprise attack, slaughtering most of the family and their household including patriarch Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and weapons master Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) – a betrayal by the Empire. Paul and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) narrowly escape the massacre, and are rescued by a sympathetic band of the local population, known as the Fremen. A lone dissenter challenges Paul to a duel, and the outsider’s unexpected victory in fair combat earns him a place in the tribe – “a life for a life”, according to their custom.

Part Two picks up right where its predecessor leaves off, with Paul and Jessica in the company of the band of Fremen which include leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and the alluring Chani (Zendaya), the latter of whom Paul recognizes from his visions and dreams.

But whereas Part One was largely setup, Part Two is a payoff worth the wait. While initially rebuffed by the Fremen, Paul quickly proves his mettle in natural leadership, combat, strategy, and adapting to the harsh desert. His meteoric rise lends credence to a prophecy of a messianic outsider – and is fun to watch. (Incidentally I remember the omission of this as the greatest flaw in the David Lynch film, which weirdly glosses over this necessary development in trying to compact its overstuffed runtime).

The film touches on – but doesn’t quite directly address – questions of religious faith, superstition, and cult fanaticism. For Paul, who has premonitions of the future, there’s an internal struggle to both grasp and reject the opportunity afforded him, and at times he both eschews and encourages the prophecy. He knows that he can help his adopted people, but his visions warn him of the great risk that doing so can invoke more bloodshed in his name.

As grand spectacle, Part Two handily outdoes its predecessor and delivers grand-scale storytelling: it’s action-packed and tremendously rewarding, as Paul and the Fremen fight back guerrilla-style against the Harkonnen, and in turn the Empire. The behemoth sandworms which we saw a bit of in Part One play a much more prominent role this time, and they’re a marvel to gaze at, with a sense of physical scale that’s rarely matched with such power. Sound design is something I rarely take much notice of, but I was frequently stunned by it here as the voluminous bellowing of worms, crashing of immense machinery, and clashes of battle are a buffet for the ears that really help to sell the film’s grand scope. It’s this scope which marks this as a film that demands to be seen in a theater.

The expanding tale also introduces us to additional characters new or only mentioned before – the wily Emperor (Christopher Walken), his daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), and a new major Harkonnen antagonist, Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), a rival to Dave Bautista’s Beast Rabban who proves to be equally sadistic and cruel, if not more so.

There’s plenty of setup and some unresolved conflicts and romantic tension which suggest that a Part Three is likely on the way, perhaps following the darker realization of Paul’s premonitions coming to fruition. While I can’t imagine that the story will stop here, even so it’s cool that the film tells a pretty complete story with a definite conclusion thanks to a massive battle and aftermath that serves as the film’s rousing climax.

Gorgeous, epic, and hugely entertaining, Dune: Part Two is a monumental leap forward from the already quite great first film. Highly recommended.

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