Dune: Part Two review – audacious, intimate, and menacing like no other blockbuster in existence

Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya and a snarling Austin Butler add star power to a work of total sensory and imaginative immersion in the second part of Denis Villeneuve’s epic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic

Clarisse Loughrey
Monday 26 February 2024 06:44 GMT
Dune: Part Two trailer

There are moments in Dune: Part Two that feel so audacious, they play out as if they were already etched onto the cinematic canon. A lone figure stands astride a mountainous worm as it pummels through the sand like Moses parting the Red Sea. A man is trapped by a psychic seduction, its effects splintering across the screen in what could only be described as an indoor thunderstorm. Gladiatorial combat takes place on a planet with an environment so inhospitable, its colours so drained, that it looks almost like a photographic negative.

Dune: Part Two, like its predecessor, is a work of total sensory and imaginative immersion. As precious as the spice of Arrakis itself, it’s the ultimate payoff to 2021’s great gamble, when filmmaker Denis Villeneuve chose to adapt half of Frank Herbert’s foundational sci-fi novel, with no guarantee a sequel would ever be made. Despite its release at the height of the pandemic, with a same-day launch on streaming services, Part One earned a hefty $400m (£317m) at the box office and 10 Oscar nominations.

If that film seeded foreboding into each frame, then Part Two is entirely consumed by it. Herbert’s work eviscerates the idea of heroic destiny by exposing it as a lie built by others for the purposes of colonisation and control. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) arrives on the desert planet of Arrakis on his father’s orders – only to discover that he’s the product of generations of genetic manipulation by his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and her Bene Gesserit clan of space-witches. Their work has spread whispers of a prophet, the Lisan al-Gaib, who will lead the indigenous Fremen people towards freedom from their oppressors.

By Part Two, the House of Atreides has fallen, as Paul and Lady Jessica seek sanctuary and, eventually, acceptance with a Fremen tribe and their leader, Stilgar (Javier Bardem). Paul yearns for Chani (Zendaya), the Fremen warrior who’s walked right out of his dreams but has grown suspicious of claims that he is the tribe’s long-awaited saviour. Elsewhere, Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), daughter of the Padishah Emperor (Christopher Walken), worries about her father’s inaction.

Herbert wrote the sequel, Dune Messiah, partly in response to those he believed had failed to grasp the complicated, sinister implications of Paul’s ascendancy. Villeneuve, in interviews, has already expressed his ambition to turn Messiah into a third film. But it, too, is no guarantee – and so he and co-writer Jon Spaihts have altered Herbert’s text in key places to make the second book’s thematic points here. And, my God, does the final third of Part Two emanate pure menace. It’s unlike any other blockbuster in existence.

Chalamet and Ferguson take all that was regal and dignified about their performances, and apply to them a poisoned tip. Chani is critical here, too, with a significantly expanded role as the film’s moral centre – Zendaya holds the film in her palm, with resolution and clarity. Granted, the traditional baddies are still here: Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Harkonnen returns, still floating around in his evil little nightgown, and we’re finally introduced to his nephew and heir, Feyd-Rautha.

He’s played by Austin Butler without a trace of the Elvis drawl, but with such an uncanny Skarsgård impersonation that sons Alexander, Gustaf, Bill and Valter should be concerned they’re about to be replaced. Butler not only cleanses the mind of any memory of Sting in metal underpants (from David Lynch’s notorious 1984 take) but commits every cell of his body, from his bald head to ink-stained teeth, to snarling and slaying his way across the universe.

Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya in ‘Dune: Part Two’
Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya in ‘Dune: Part Two’ (AP)

Anyone turned off by Dune: Part One’s portentousness won’t be converted here. But unlike, say, The Lord of the Rings, Herbert’s vision was always a funny, slightly disorienting clash of impenetrable lore and informal language (he named one of his characters “Duncan Idaho”, after all).

Villeneuve has honoured that tone, in his own way. Josh Brolin, as Paul’s mentor Gurney Halleck, performs a brief ditty about how his “stillsuit is full of piss”. And the film’s stacked with fiddly, HR Giger-inspired machines, like the desiccation pump that sucks vital water out of the Fremen dead. Part Two is as grand as it is intimate, and while Hans Zimmer’s score once again blasts your eardrums into submission, and the theatre seats rumble with every cresting sand worm, it’s the choice moments of silence that really leave their mark.

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But, just as Herbert warned of hero worship, it’s critical not to treat Dune’s creative triumphs as a kind of blanket absolution. Part One was rightly criticised for its erasure of the book’s Middle Eastern and north African influences. Here, it appears someone may have listened. The Fremen’s Arabic-inspired language is now foregrounded, and onscreen representation is mildly improved – Souheila Yacoub, for example, an actor of Tunisian descent, plays Shishakli, Chani’s closest ally. On the other hand, it’s even harder now to watch Bardem pronounce Paul the prophesied Lisan al-Gaib, or use something not entirely unlike a prayer mat, and not interpret it as a form of whitewashing.

Yet, as Part Two makes clear, Villeneuve isn’t done with Dune, even if he’s already made his mark on sci-fi history. Now, the most compelling question is – what comes next?

Dir: Denis Villeneuve. Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Austin Butler, Florence Pugh. 12A, 165 minutes.

‘Dune: Part Two’ is in cinemas from 1 March

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