DUNE: PART TWO Review: A Triumph of Spectacle, Character, and Theme

Denis Villeneuve’s (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival, Prisoners) masterful adaptation of the second part of Frank Herbert’s seminal, genre-redefining 1965 science-fiction novel, Dune, opens with a searing image of charred, burning bodies, simultaneously soldiers and victims of an endless war conducted over resources, wealth, and power, treated like so much disposable detritus. Later, Villeneuve repeats the scene, down to the lighting, camera placement, and angle, but by inverting the identities of the victors and the losers, he underlines its universality. The cold, discomfiting conclusion remains both inescapable and inevitable: War, regardless of its causes, intentions, or period (past, present, or future), leaves deprivation, destruction, and devastation in its wake.

The events in Dune: Part One inevitably, inexorably pointed to an intergalactic war. On one side, Herbert pitted Paul (Timothée Chalamet), the once and future heir of the all-but-erased House Atreides, Paul’s singular allies, the Fremen, the indigenous inhabitants of Arrakis, the only source of melange (spice), and the forces of House Harkonnen, led by the grotesque, rapacious Baron (Stellan Skarsgård), his murderous, psychopathic nephews, Rabban (Dave Bautista) and Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), on the other.

In addition to the Harkonnens, the Bene Gesserit, a millennia-old, women-only religious order, the sitting emperor, Padishah IV (Christopher Walken), and his daughter, Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), oppose the re-emergence of House Atreides (Paul, his mother, Lady Jessica [Rebecca Ferguson], a handful of survivors) and the Fremen’s desire to free their homeworld from colonial rule. The Bene Gesserit and the emperor set plots and counter-plots into motion to retain power over a sprawling, galaxy-wide empire and the space-and-time-bending spice (melange) essential for interstellar travel. As spice is only found on Arrakis, that makes the desert planet the most important, vital planet in the empire.

Herbert’s syncretic novel functioned as an anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist deconstruction of Western history and politics. In Paul Atreides, he created a surface-deep, heroic figure driven almost entirely by revenge. It’s as classic a motive as any in Western literature, Herbert remixed unequal parts T.E. Lawrence’s (aka “Lawrence of Arabia”) fictionalized autobiography (The Seven Pillars of Wisdom), the Prophet Mohammed, not just the founder of Islam, but also a religious leader who, rare among the founders of world religions, wielded political and military power, leading newly unified 7th-century Arabic tribes to spread Islam through conquest, invasion, and occupation of the Arabian peninsula and far behind.

Herbert’s Paul Atreides, of course, originated from his imagination, created as the protagonist for the first and second novels set in the Dune universe, but also thematically as a deliberate, self-conscious inversion of the hero’s journey. Born and raised into a future aristocracy, the home-schooled, self-absorbed, entitled Paul doesn’t begin as a classic hero, but the loss of both his father and his birthright, his narrow escape into the desert with his mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), his integration into the Fremen, first as a fighter and later, despite his initial resistance, their messiah figure, and eventually the righteous rampage of revenge against the Harkonnens make him an easily sympathetic figure.

It’s there that Herbert located — and fixated — his timeless critique of the hero myth, messiah complexes, cults of personality, and religious extremism (ideological fanaticism by any other name). Fully in sync with Herbert’s ideas and themes, Villeneuve also takes a critical stance toward Paul’s rise as Fremen leader and prophesized messiah, unchecked by laws, institutions, and or ethics, ending Dune: Part Two not with a blockbuster-friendly, applause-worthy moment of triumph over Paul’s assembled enemies, but with the explicit promise of a galactic holy war (“jihad” in Herbert’s novel, consciously excised here to minimize controversy and/or accusations of cultural insensitivity).

Villeneuve repeatedly underlines that irony through the depiction of the black-clad, smooth-skinned, hairless Harkonnens to signify evil, cruel, callous, and arbitrary. There’s little, if any, doubt they’re Paul’s enemies — and by extension via identification, the audience’s — and while they present a clear-and-present existential danger, it’s both Paul, driven and blinded by a desire for revenge and recovery of his birthright and the Fremen, indoctrinated over centuries by one of Dune’s other, key power players, the Bene Gesserit, to believe in the coming of a messianic figure to save them from the empire and its colonizing allies, that ultimately prove themselves the more consequential, existential danger.

Co-written with Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange, Prometheus, The Darkest Hour), Villeneuve’s reverential adaptation creates narrative parallels and thematic contrasts. Paul’s Fremen lover, Chani (Zendaya), doubts Paul as the fulfillment of a prophecy she instinctively doubts while Stilgar (Javier Bardem), the Fremen leader and a devout believer, leans toward embracing Paul as the savior who will lead the Fremen toward freedom from colonial rule. Where Chani sees incident and coincidence, luck, or simply an exercise of will, Stilgar sees something else altogether: Signs, portents, and signifiers pointing to Paul as the prophesied messiah. (He’s a walking, talking example of confirmation bias and thus, a cautionary tale of the limits of religious faith.)

For all its intriguing ideas about colonialism, power, and messiah complexes, Dune: Part Two rarely gets bogged down in philosophical conversations or unnecessary exposition, instead balancing story, character, and dialogue to deliver narratively propulsive spectacle on an eye-massaging scale that far outstrips its 2021 predecessor. To the script’s considerable credit, the periodic, metronymic bursts of action-oriented imagery always feel organic, not obligatory as they might otherwise under less sure, less assured direction.

Villeneuve’s keen eye for visual composition, aided at every juncture by Patrice Vermette’s impressively detailed, varied production design, Greg Fraser’s multi-textured cinematography, and Jacqueline West’s awards-worthy costuming, remains unmatched by all but a handful of contemporary filmmakers. Every shot, scene, or sequence can be extruded from the film and studied as examples of cinema at its most inventive, most expansive, and most artistic. Expanding narratively, thematically, and visually on its predecessor, Dune: Part Two caps a remarkable decade-long run by Villeneuve, a run that will be long remembered as among the best of any English-language filmmaker.

Dune: Part Two opens theatrically on Friday, March 1st, via Warner Bros.

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