Monday, February 26, 2024


 by Rob DiCristino

Long live the fighters!

In the most basic terms, Frank Herbert’s Dune is a triumphant epic of humanity, a menagerie of myths, politics, and religious philosophies rivaled only by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in its sociological complexity and metaphysical nuance. It imagines a vision of the distant future in which technology has given way to spiritualism and feudal houses battle for supremacy on a galactic stage. The key to that supremacy is the spice Melange, a psychoactive crop native to the deserts of the war-torn planet Arrakis. In adapting the first half of Herbert’s novel for 2021’s Dune: Part One, Denis Villeneuve introduces the principle factions in the battle for Arrakis — Duke Leto’s (Oscar Isaac) noble Atreides and Baron Vladimir’s (Stellen Skarsgård) wretched Harkonnen — and the tragedy that was to befall young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet): Bound by honor to take stewardship of Arrakis, he and his family become pawns in a plot to destroy House Atreides, whose influence was growing too strong for the Emperor (played in Part Two by Christopher Walken) to contain.
And so Part Two begins with House Atreides in ruins. Paul and his mother, the Bene Gesserit priestess Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), have fled to the desert and formed an uneasy alliance with Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and his native Fremen. Guided by Bene Gesserit influence for generations, the most devout Fremen believe in the prophecy of the “Lisan al Galib,” a messiah who will restore Arrakis to a lush paradise. Is Paul that messiah? Stilgar believes so, and Jessica will stoke that belief to ensure her family’s — including her unborn daughter’s — survival. Though tortured by visions of his future glory, Paul rejects the prophecy, as does Chani (Zendaya), the fierce Fremen woman with whom he soon falls in love. But when the Baron enlists his ruthless nephew Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler) to exterminate the Fremen and take control of the spice once and for all, Paul faces a choice: Refuse his people’s call for a savior or manipulate their devotion into a rallying cry that will inspire a brutal holy war guaranteed to rain death and destruction on the entire galaxy.

Meeting and exceeding the promise of its predecessor by nearly every measure, Dune: Part Two pairs stunning visuals with a generation-defining tale of good, evil, and the ocean of gray that lives — and thrives — in between. Villenueve was built to make exactly this sort of heroic poetry; his grand, muscular action is filtered through lenses of human frailty, sharpening the fury of each blow and begetting an inner chaos in each combatant. Again pairing Patrice Vermette’s elegant production design with Hans Zimmer’s ferocious score, Villenueve envelops us in a world that feels somehow ancient and futuristic, primal and avant-garde. As in Part One, Villenueve and co-writer Joe Spaihts have mined the essential spirit of Herbert’s source material to present a story that — while undoubtedly more complex than its predecessor — streamlines a thick tangle of palace intrigue into a single, compelling drama that dissects the intoxications of power, the perils of belief, and the unwavering strength of love. Taken as a single film, Villenueve’s Dune is nothing less than a sight to behold.
And while Timothée Chalamet embodies Paul’s evolution from sheepish Atreides princeling to fearless Fremen warrior with all the verve, warmth, and dignity we’ve come to expect from an actor who may soon be counted among the best of his generation, Dune: Part Two is in many ways Chani’s story, giving Zendaya a chance to build on what amounted to a glorified cameo in Part One. Watching Paul’s fearless acclimation to Fremen culture quickly grow into an unprecedented power over her people only confirms the ire and skepticism she holds for blind, fanatical zeal. It’s an infection, she argues, just another way for powers-that-be — including her would-be mother-in-law’s Bene Gesserit — to control them. Zendaya’s inherent naturalism is a brilliant counterpoint to Chalamet’s more regal and practiced affectations; she’s an infectious screen presence instilling Chani with both a guarded calm and a gigantic beating heart she cannot help but wear on her still-suited sleeve. Her final, conflicted moments are among the best Part Two has to offer.

However, aside from Rebecca Ferguson and Javier Bardem — both of whom dive headfirst into their characters’ religious radicalism, with Stilgar becoming Paul’s enthusiastic John the Baptist and Jessica rising to prominence as a Reverend Mother — the rest of Part Two’s star-studded cast exists largely in the periphery. Florence Pugh’s Princess Irulan, author of the novel’s various epigraphs, chronicles Paul’s evolution from afar, while Feyd’s sociopathic fury is mostly reserved for a pair of bloody knife fights. Walken and Léa Seydoux lend their gravitas in scenes of hushed conspiracy, and Josh Brolin’s Gurney Halleck returns to give Paul a strong right hand in his intergalactic diplomacy. This isn’t a strike against Part Two as much as it is evidence of its deft concision, as even some non-essential members of the novel’s supporting cast have been omitted entirely. This keeps the film’s already-hefty narrative gears from sticking and allows Villenueve the space to focus on the message of his story rather than the mechanics of his plot.

And although the film’s trailers may not be enough to draw back audiences who found themselves bored by Part One’s more contemplative pace, those on the fence should know that Part Two is considerably more action-packed: Highlights include Chani’s fedaykin squads staging daring attacks on Harkonnen machinery, Feyd’s gladiatorial deathmatch on his sun-bleached home planet of Giedi Prime, and Paul’s jubilant ride on the back of the largest sandworm heretofore seen by Fremenkind. Most exciting of all is Villenueve’s opportunity to inject his Dune with the crucial ambiguity so sorely lacking from David Lynch’s 1984 attempt, a rejection of bombastic cinematic glory that will absolutely sour many critics and audiences on its complicated final movements. Herbert’s novel is not a celebration of saviors; it is a warning against dogma, against our tendency to become mindlessly enraptured by the very spectacle in which Dune seems to relish. Those spectacles can overwhelm us. Enslave us. Turn us into something we no longer recognize.
Therein lies the irony of Villenueve’s entire endeavor: Dune is a blockbuster that argues against blockbusters, a hero’s journey that plagues its hero with questions about the very nature of his heroism. Its scale is as mind-boggling — almost oppressive — as the psycho-spiritual questions it poses about fate, prophecy, destiny, and control. Characters typically presented as archetypal allies will be shrouded in a pervading sense of menace, and our would-be messiah will often employ the very same wickedness we expect him to be a stalwart against. Dune is meant to confound us, to challenge our notions about the stories we tell and the lessons they teach us. As Part Two’s open-ended conclusion leaves plenty of room to continue the journey — In fact, Part Two’s abbreviation of the novel’s chronology raises interesting questions about where a Dune: Messiah adaptation might go — we may find ourselves wondering whether or not we even want Paul to fulfill his destiny. That may not sound like a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, but that does sound like Dune.

Dune: Part Two hits US theaters on March 1st.


  1. Fantastic, Rob. You capture the complexity of the film and its themes so well. I loved both Dune and Dune 2 -- I prefer Dune 1 a bit as a movie-going experience because I love watching the characters assuming their "roles" in this narrative. Yet Dune 2 adds so many layers to these characters, their situation, and (as you note) our expectations of a "messiah" story and the uncomfortable realities of hero-worship. Thank you for such a compelling write-up!