Dune: Part Two review | Bleak, beautiful blockbuster filmmaking

Dune: Part Two
Share this Article:

Superbly acted and beautiful to look at, Dune: Part Two is 2024’s first truly great multiplex film from director Denis Villeneuve. Here’s our review:

There’s the old saying that by trying to please everybody, you end up pleasing no one. To his credit, director Denis Villeneuve has somehow managed to forge a path through mainstream filmmaking without sacrificing the understated, arthouse sensibility that has marked out his work since the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Dune: Part Two, like its 2021 opening chapter, may be a space fantasy shot on an IMAX scale, but it’s also every bit as personal, human and intimate as Villeneuve’s earlier, more raw films like Polytechnique (2009) or Incendies (2010). It also might be the most darkly enthralling $190m-plus sci-fi film ever made.

Ahead of Dune: Part Two’s release, there have been some suggestions that it’s possible to watch this film without having seen the first. Don’t believe a word of it; anyone unfamiliar with the lore and inter-familial war set up in the first film will almost certainly be left utterly bewildered by this latest instalment. Villeneuve himself has said that Dune: Part Two is a direct continuation rather than a sequel, and it’s surely best enjoyed as such.

In fact, it’s hard to describe much of Dune: Part Two without spoiling the first. In the broadest possible strokes, it’s the continued saga about a war for resources – specifically, a substance called the Spice Melange which is only found on the desert planet Arrakis. Under the cold eye of a galactic Emperor (Christopher Walken), two rival houses – the Atreides and the Harkonnens – vie for control, with the young Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) eventually siding with planet’s indigenous population, the Fremen. Together, they fight to repel the evil Harkonnen, led by Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgard, once again hovering above his freestanding bath) and his psychotic nephew, Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler, in a role once occupied by Sting in David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation).

It’s quite an expanse of plot, even with author Frank Herbert’s source novel chopped in half, but Villeneuve – who co-writes with Jon Spaihts – somehow manages to balance a huge array of characters and plotlines. As he did in the first film, Villeneuve lightly sands down some of the more out-there elements from Herbert’s book – it’s never explained exactly how the Spice is used to facilitate interstellar travel, for example – instead focusing his attention on Paul’s romance with Fremen warrior Chani (Zendaya) and his mother’s continued efforts to cast Paul as the Muad’Dib – a Messiah who will one day save the Fremen and turn Arrakis into a leafy paradise.

Writers and filmmakers have long borrowed, shall we say, from Dune, published in 1965. It’s possible to see numerous elements of it in George Lucas’ Star Wars movies, James Cameron’s Avatar, and Zack Snyder’s bludgeoning Rebel Moon from late 2023. What makes Villeneuve’s take on Dune so fascinating is that, as familiar as things like wars on desert planets, telekinetic powers (here called The Voice), space fascists and ancient prophecies are, his film feels utterly different from the work of those other filmmakers.

Perhaps it’s because Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser don’t try to film Dune (in either of its parts) like a modern sci-fi film. Visually, Dune has more in common with David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia or Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus – there’s thankfully none of the flat, digital backlot filmmaking of the Star Wars prequels or Snyder’s stagey Rebel Moon. Together with production designer Patrice Vermette, the filmmakers have created a rugged, lived-in world where every ship, war machine and creature has weight and mass. It’s all so immersive that the seam between real-world footage and special effects is almost non-existent.

In one scene, Paul goes through a rite of passage that involves taming a fantastical beast – here, the godlike sandworms that tunnel beneath the desert sands. Villeneuve gives the moment an elemental sense of energy, bolstered considerably by Hans Zimmer’s unearthly score and some spectacularly bass-heavy sound design. Another battle scene – a moment of gladiatorial combat which introduces Butler’s hairless, dead-eyed villain – is seemingly shot in black and white on infrared film, giving it an unsettling, borderline surreal edge rarely seen in mainstream movies.

As his epic flows from widescreen set-piece to more intimate drama, Villeneuve manages to sustain a constant tension of one sort or another, whether it’s the intrigue of where exactly Paul’s fate will take him, or how accurate the hero’s visions of a nightmare future actually are. Is he the son of god or just a naughty boy?

Helping maintain that tension is a uniformly terrific cast, whether they inhabit small roles (such as Javier Bardem’s likeably puppyish Fremen acolyte, Stilgar), or more pivotal ones. This second chapter allows Chalamet to demonstrate the broader extremities of his acting range (not to mention his skill as an action hero), but for this writer, the film’s quietly dominated by the performances of its female actors. Rebecca Ferguson is again terrific as Lady Jessica, whose arc, following an unforgettably disturbing initiation scene, is one of the film’s most engrossing. Likewise Zendaya as Chani, who provides the plot’s human core as religious fervour gradually tips over into outright fanaticism.

It’s possible that some cinema-goers will be put off by the film’s solemn tone and the deliberate pace Villeneuve allows his story to unfold – as space operas go, this is about as far away from, say, Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon as you can get. But then again, it’s hard to imagine any other director who could pull off such a huge, complex saga – or convince normally risk-averse studio heads to spend Marvel superhero money on a twisted tale about the dehumanising impact of war and religious fundamentalism.

Visually, aurally, thematically, in terms of the strength of its acting and the sheer craft put into it, Dune: Part Two is a remarkable achievement.

Dune: Part Two is out in UK cinemas on 1st March.

Share this Article:

More like this