Review: ‘Dune: Part Two’

Fate, Love, And Vengeance Collide In Denis Villeneuve's Staggering Sci-Fi Spectacle

The easy shorthand for Denis Villeneue’s Dune: Part Two will be a comparison to The Empire Strikes Back. That’s both fair and staggeringly incorrect. George Lucas wishes his space opera was as complex as this, with its dark warnings about false prophets, imperialism, and the familiar danger of fascism. But this is undoubtedly a grim, bleak chapter full of rebel alliances, guerrilla tactics, heroes, and romance in the time of war. I’ve said it before that Frank Herbert’s Dune has never meant anything to me. I found his writing trite and the predictable result of an adaptation the comical 1980s movie we still ridicule. What Villeneuve, working with screenwriter Jon Spaihts, has done is lend gravitas and spectacle to the universe that Herbert created. Whether you love sci-fi or not, Dune: Part Two is simply a movie that cannot be missed.

Picking up after the events of 2021’s Dune: Part One, we’re thrust into another jaw-dropping desert battle. Timothee Chalamet returns as Paul Atreides, the apparent sole-surviving member of House Atreides, the noble house who saw their commitment to duty on the spice planet Arrakis be their downfall. The first movie, which equates to the first half of Herbert’s novel, introduced us to the conflict between Atreides and House Harkonnen. But the central struggle is taking place within Paul, who grapples with a duty he didn’t ask for and a prophecy thrust upon him. He never saw himself as a messiah figure, even as the Fremen, led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem) saw it within him.

That struggle takes a different shape in Part Two, as Paul becomes exposed to the mystical spice that saturates the planet. The schemes of his pregnant mother Bene Gesserit Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) are steering Paul closer to acceptance of this fate, as the religious fervor of the Fremen grows with his every miraculous deed on the battlefield. And miraculous they are indeed, as Paul learns their ways and battlefield strategies like he was born to them. But as he grows more comfortable and arrogant with his position of power, it begins to push away Chani (Zendaya), the Fremen warrior who has grown to love the outsider despite herself. Paul is no Luke Skywalker. He’s a more complex figure than that, grappling as well with a desire for vengeance that could consume him.

Dune: Part Two is a massive expansion of the first movie, with more characters, more storylines, and a vast increase in conflicting agendas. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) moves the chess pieces around from the shadows to ensure the Bene Gesserit’s power, even if it means conspiring with the emperor (Christopher Walken) to wipe out House Atreides.  Meanwhile, his daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), also a member of the Bene Gesserit because all women are apparently, is stuck in the middle. There’s also a small role for Léa Seydoux as a member of that secretive group, but it’s one of many that feels like a glorified cameo. The Harkonnens are in some ways crueler than ever, with the Baron’s (Stellan Skarsgard) lust for power pushing him to more destructive assaults on Arrakis. As legend grows surrounding Paul and his incredible feats, we see the power of such myth-making on the Baron’s nephew Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista), whose spine has grown weak compared to his monstrous nature in the first movie. That leaves an opening for the psychotic Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler) to prove himself in gladiatorial combat and ultimately in vicious attacks against the Fremen.

For a film that largely takes place over a barren desert and vast seas of nothingness, Dune Part Two is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The sound booms in your ears as the thumper pounds sand to call the deadly sandworms. They are more crucial in this story than before, and feature in two of the most exhilarating moments that had me wanting to leap out of my seat like the Millennium Falcon’s heroic save in Return of the Jedi. Once again filmed by cinematographer Greg Fraser, the heavy use of shadow and light perfectly complements Hans Zimmer’s deafening, ominous tones.

If anything, Dune: Part Two takes on too much and grows a bit unwieldy in the final act. The film grapples with so many big concepts in subplots that brutally collide that it’s easy to lose track of where the story is headed. There are teases of future Dune stories, which may or may not happen depending on how successful this film is, and at least one will mean absolutely nothing to casual moviegoers…despite the cameo appearance of an A-list actor in a key role. So much is happening that the love story between Paul and Chani feels cheated like there’s another cut where they get more focused attention. And while the eventual war on Arrakis is stunning for the level of technical detail and war choreography, it ends in rushed fashion with an anticipated showdown falling just short of expectations. At nearly 3-hours in length, you don’t feel any drag but you do leave feeling that Villeneuve has more that he wants to do.

Did any of these small issues affect my enjoyment of Dune: Part Two? Not at all! I remain shocked by how awesome Villeneuve has made Dune, and how much he has made me care for the characters and this conflict. I mean, Timothee Chalamet believable as a fearsome warrior, lover, and savior? I believed all of it and am willing to accept anything and everything as long as Villeneuve presents it with the seriousness and deft command that he has presented all of Dune! He has created an exceptional film and a franchise that has set a new standard for sci-fi, one that will surely be copied in the way Star Wars was aped for decades after. If Villeneuve doesn’t want to return to make Dune: Messiah, Warner Bros. should do whatever it takes to make sure that he does.

Dune: Part Two opens in theaters on March 1st.