REVIEW – ‘Dune: Part Two’ is one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made

Adapting Frank Herbert’s seminal classic sci-fi novel Dune into a feature film was a lifelong dream of director Denis Villeneuve. After years in development hell and pesky pandemic delays, the filmmaker finally received his wish in 2021. The result was a film that broke the covid box office curse and netted $450 million worldwide and Oscars for pretty much every technical artisan involved in the film bar Villeneuve, who staggeringly wasn’t even nominated. Regardless, a sequel was all but assured and Villeneueve was the man to make it happen.

As someone who found the first instalment technically brilliant and exhilarating but narratively somewhat cold and stilted, my anticipation was high for a sequel that could hit the ground running after the hefty framework established in the original. That’s precisely what you’ll find with Dune: Part Two; a grand cinematic spectacle that takes its place as one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made. An almost overwhelming visceral experience meticulously crafted by a man whose love for the source material drips from every frame, it’s both an epic blockbuster and a shrewd character study that stands as the first great film of 2024.

A word to the wise – if you haven’t returned to Dune since 2021, it might be sensible to rewatch the film or one of those YouTube recap videos. Villeneuve expects his audience to be well-versed in the first film’s lore, negating the need for summaries or re-introductions. The follow-up picks up shortly after the events of part one with Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) relatively accepted as one of the Fremen, aka the natives of desert-covered Arrakis. After escaping the massacre of his House by the brutal Harkonnens, Paul seeks vengeance despite the protestations of his pregnant mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who cautions her son that revenge was something his late father never believed in.

While Fremen warrior Chani (Zendaya) and some of her cohorts have their doubts, many among the Fremen believe Paul to be a prophetic messiah figure known as the Lisan al-Gaib, particularly their leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem), who has unwavering faith Paul is the one destined to bring prosperity back to Arrakis. Despite his mother’s insistence that Stilgar is correct, Paul refuses to accept the title, particularly given he’s plagued by spice-induced visions that show a potential future where his messianic destiny leads to unspeakable death and destruction.

Meanwhile, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) is growing frustrated with the failed attempts of his nephew Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista) to exterminate the Fremen and installs his younger sociopathic nephew Feyd-Rautha (a sublime Austin Butler) as the new man in charge. As Paul fights against his fate and Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken) and his niece Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh) nefariously pull the strings from the background, a war between the Harkonnen army and the Fremen beckons and the very fate of Arrakis itself.

With the benefit of a 2.5-hour preceding chapter in the rearview mirror, Dune: Part Two moves at a cracking pace not seen in its predecessor. From the opening scene, we’re taken back onto Arrakis and thrust straight back into Hebert’s expansive world where Villeneuve barely stops to take a breath over another running time that stretches beyond 160 minutes. As the above plot summary suggests, there are a lot of moving parts here (I didn’t even delve into the separate narrative strands of Lady Jessica, Chani, Irulan, and the Bene Gesserits), but Villeneuve is a master of control who keeps everything humming rather perfectly.

Co-written with Jon Spaihts, Villeneueve’s screenplay successfully taps into the intergenerational feud and political machinations at the very core of this saga. As writers, they both understand an epic sci-fi or fantasy blockbuster is nothing without a gripping narrative bubbling beneath the surface. Think of franchises like Star WarsThe Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. They were more than just the sum of the parts of their bombastic action set pieces. They were all still intimately concerned with the characters at the centre of the chaos around them. For all its visual splendours (we’ll get there), Dune: Part Two succeeds because, at its heart, it’s a gripping political, social, and familial thriller.

It’s now obvious that’s why Villeneuve spent so much time on character development and building narrative foundations in the first film. It truly makes everything much richer in a sequel. He’s just as invested in digging deeper into his characters in this sequel, particularly how Paul’s lust for vengeance and the morality battle between his head and his heart make his judgements unpredictable and even unsettling at times. With both Stilgar and Lady Jessica influencing his mind with messianic prophesies, it’s a fairly biting meditation on the intoxicating power of religious influence and the dangers such dogma can bring.

Villeneuve is tackling some pretty heady themes here, but he has the confidence and intelligence to make it work. He’s not the first filmmaker to focus a film on a reluctant leader barrelling towards the precipice of either grand greatness or disastrous failure. But Paul feels like something completely new due to his genuine turmoil from the weight of making important decisions and accepting a fate that visions tell him is destined for failure. Villeneuve has long rejected the idea Dune is an example of the tired “white saviour” trope. And, without venturing into spoiler territory, he’s certainly proved that here. This is as close to a damning criticism of the very idea of a saviour you’ll ever see.

At the centre of everything is Chalamet with yet another performance that proves why he might just be the next genuine bona fide movie star. Chalamet deftly crafts Paul as such a contradiction in terms. He’s both strong and vulnerable, intelligent and ignorant, inspiring and frustrating. In other words, he’s an imperfect hero and someone whose narrative arc is genuinely fascinating to watch. There’s a darkness to Chalamet’s performance that wasn’t present in the first film, offering the talented young actor the chance to dance with light and shade to create something so wildly different to his work in part one. He carries this film on his shoulders and never once falters. That’s a true star, folks.

After a relatively brief appearance in the predecessor, Zendaya is undoubtedly Chalamet’s co-lead here and she runs with the chance to present Chani as one of the few voices of reason in this narrative. Chani desperately wants to believe in the good she sees in Paul but is fearful of what a messiah means for her people and how her burgeoning romance with their supposed saviour is clouding her judgement. In Zendaya’s capable hands, Chani is no doe-eyed damsel in distress. She’s the true heart of this film and her arc is every bit as captivating as Paul’s.

While newcomer-to-the-series Pugh is rather underused (her time to shine will clearly come in the third chapter), Butler all but steals this film with one of the most menacing, intimidating, and vicious villains we’ve seen on screen for some time. Sure, he’s physically imposing with muscles galore and unsettlingly designed with a bald head, no eyebrows, and jet-black teeth. But it’s the dark soul and total lack of humanity at the core of Butler’s performance that makes Feyd-Rautha so powerfully terrifying in literally every scene he’s a part of. Butler understands the assignment and eats this film alive.

Alright, and now to the technical aspects of this absolute colossus of a production. This is as grandiose and ambitious as blockbuster filmmaking gets. The scale is unimaginable. If you thought the first film was big, everything is bigger here. It’s a visual masterclass and one of the most technically impressive films you will ever see. It’s a dreadful cliche but it has to be said; this film was designed to be seen on the largest screen you can find. From the intense battle sequences to the anxiety-inducing “worm-riding” scenes and one absolutely stunning monochromatic segment (with Rorschach ink-esque fireworks, no less) on the Harkonnen’s home planet of Giedi Prime, every moment bursts from the screen to assault your eyes and ears in the greatest way possible.

Amidst some of the best CGI wizardry ever created, you get typically impeccable sweeping cinematography from Greig Fraseranother booming score from Hans Zimmer that stands on its own two feet and doesn’t just lazily rehash the original film’s iconic soundtrack, sharp editing from Joe Walker, bone-rattling sound design, and stunning costume and set creations from Jacqueline West and Patrice Vermette, respectively. Calling this film a feast is an understatement. It’s staggeringly crafted and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if it runs away with the same six (or more) Oscars it took home in 2021.

Villeneuve has delivered a cinematic achievement that’s unlikely to be rivalled in 2024. His ambition was mighty, but, dammit, he’s pulled it off. Dune: Part Two is a spectacular blockbuster but it’s just as impressive in its introspection of fate, religion, and politics. It completely turns the atypical hero’s journey on its head and subverts expectations in ways you will not see coming. With a third chapter a total certainty, this feels like the 21st-century equivalent of The Empire Strikes Back. Yes, it’s that good. Thrilling, emotional, impressive, and undeniably entertaining, it’s everything we go to the cinema for and then some.

Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Austin Butler, Florence Pugh
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Producers: Mary Parent, Cale Boyter, Patrick McCormick, Tanya Lapointe, Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Denis Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts
Cinematography: Greig Fraser
Production Design: Patrice Vermette
Costume Designer: Jacqueline West
Music: Hans Zimmer
Editor: Joe Walker
Running Time: 167 minutes
Release Date: 29 February 2024 (Australia), 1st March 2024 (U.S.)

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