‘Dune: Part Two’ Review: Part Stunning Epic, Part Pulpy Space Opera

Though visually a knock-out, Denis Villeneuve's second installment repeatedly sheds momentum, something no 166-minute epic can afford to lose.

Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya in Dune: Part Two. Niko Tavernise

In 2021, director Denis Villeneuve brought us the first must-see big screen experience of the COVID-era (2020-??) in Dune, or more accurately, Dune: Part One. An ambitious adaptation of the first volume of Frank Herbert’s acclaimed sci-fi epic—which ranged across six novels from 1965 to 1985—Dune racked up eight Academy Awards in technical categories plus a Best Picture nod, all but guaranteeing that the Canadian auteur would get to complete his duology. Somewhere along the line, however, Villeneuve decided that he also wanted to adapt the second Dune novel, Dune: Messiah, and in so doing has effectively turned Dune: Part Two into the second chapter in a trilogy. As a result, despite reaching the conclusion of the first novel’s plot, Dune: Part Two deliberately leaves an assortment of dangling threads that will leave you either tantalized or frustrated.

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DUNE: PART TWO ★★1/2 (2.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Denis Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Austin Butler, Florence Pugh, Dave Bautista, Christopher Walken, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Léa Seydoux, Souheila Yacoub, Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, Javier Bardem
Running time: 166 mins.


Dune: Part Two picks up almost immediately where Part One left off, with the young Duke Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother, the mystic Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), hiding from their political rivals on the arid planet Arrakis. Though their noble house has been exterminated by order of the jealous Padishah Emperor (Christopher Walken), Paul and Jessica now have an even more powerful force on their side — the religious fervor of Arrakis’ downtrodden desert dwellers, the Fremen. All signs point to Paul being the Fremen’s long-awaited messiah, but that’s only because his mother’s ancient religious order has been weaving and selectively fulfilling prophecies across the galaxy as a means of control. Paul is plagued by visions of a galactic holy war in his name, but can he avenge his old family and liberate his new one without fulfilling his terrible destiny?

Despite beginning halfway through Frank Herbert’s novel, the first third of Dune: Part Two genuinely works as an opening act, establishing a new sense of home and family amongst the Fremen. The kooky but honorable Fremen leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) becomes Paul’s mentor and most ardent apostle, a very different father figure from Oscar Isaac’s statuesque Duke Leto from Part One. Romance blooms between Paul and the pragmatic warrior Chani (Zendaya), who sees the prophecy for the political tool that it is. We see Paul and the Fremen wage a bold guerilla war against the ruthless Harkonnen regime, training and bonding between battles, while the Harkonnen overseer Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista) curses their names with a wild but impotent fury. This classic Hollywood adventure movie simplicity doesn’t stick around long (nor should it), but it’s fun while it lasts, and it provides a bedrock for the rest of the film’s weirdness and intrigue.

Timothée Chalamet and Austin Butler in Dune: Part Two. Niko Tavernise

The trouble comes any time the narrative escapes the confines of the planet Arrakis to take a broader view of galactic politics. The film opens with the introduction of Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), whose writings are scattered throughout the original novel to provide exposition and a historical perspective on Paul’s campaign. That’s essentially the same role Irulan plays here. She pops her head up occasionally, but she has little impact on the story and seems to exist in this movie primarily to set up a larger role in the next film, which would adapt Herbert’s Dune: Messiah. The same could be said for Lady Margot Fenring (Léa Seydoux), who fulfills the role prescribed for her by the novel but serves almost no purpose in the film. Anyone rushing out to see Dune: Part Two out of love for either of these acclaimed actresses will be as disappointed as Zendaya fans were by Part One. Even the continuing story of Lady Jessica—one of the highlights of the first film—feels like a drag on the narrative here, as the payoff to her bizarre pregnancy is kicked down the road for a potential sequel. Dune: Part Two repeatedly sheds momentum, something that no 166-minute epic can afford to lose.

Though its plot may be tangled and winding, Villeneuve and his award-winning production team have outdone themselves with Dune: Part Two’s visuals. Building on their work in the first film, each of the film’s alien worlds has a distinct and lived-in aesthetic, particularly the Harkonnen homeworld of Geidi Prime, which is painted in a stark monochrome by its strange black sun. The battle scenes are much more legible here than in the previous installment, where the Atreides and Sardaukar forces were sometimes impossible to tell apart. (Shout out to fight coordinator Roger Yuan, who also plays a featured role as one of Feyd-Rautha’s victims.) The deserts of Arrakis are as stunning as ever through the lens of cinematographer Greig Fraser, and the visual effects team once again demonstrates that CGI doesn’t need to be gaudy or intrusive.

Nevertheless, despite its naturalistic “space opera for grown-ups” visual aesthetic, Dune: Part Two’s emotional intensity is cranked up to melodramatic levels, especially when compared to its predecessor. Part One focused on quiet palace intrigue, and no performance in Part Two is as layered or interesting as Oscar Isaac’s or Rebecca Ferguson’s were in the previous chapter. This is to be expected, as the palace intrigue has now exploded into open war, but it also has something to do with the percentage of characters in this volume who are either in the process of losing their minds or have already done so. Both Paul and Lady Jessica are less steady on their feet thanks to their respective psychic ailments, while the villains — particularly Austin Butler’s Fayd-Routha — are psychotic monsters with goofy voices. While there’s nothing wrong with a sci-fi blockbuster being silly or pulpy, it’s at odds with the tone established in Part One, which is theoretically the first half of this same movie.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the conclusion to Dune would feel strangely paced or incomplete, and these criticisms aren’t entirely fair. After all, the novel’s ending isn’t exactly “happily ever after,” and this adaptation takes pains to clarify that we are not supposed to applaud when the credits start rolling. Still, it’s disappointing that Dune: Part Two should, like its predecessor, not so much end as simply stop.


Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

 

‘Dune: Part Two’ Review: Part Stunning Epic, Part Pulpy Space Opera