Dune: Part Two (2024)

by - February 29th, 2024 - Movie Reviews


Ambitious Dune: Part Two Journeys Back to Arrakis with Mixed Results

Dune: Part Two hits the ground running. Well, make that walking. Paul Atredies (Timothée Chalamet) and his Bene Gesserit mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) are in the hands of Fremen leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) as he shepherds them to safety across the northern desert of Arrakis. There’s nothing in the way of a recap, but I’m not certain one is required. Paul and Jessica are on the run from the Harkonnen, and winning the trust of the Fremen is the key to their survival. That’s basically it.

Dune: Part Two (2024) | PHOTO: Warner Bros.

Of course, Frank Herbert’s sprawling source material is far more complex than that, and much like they did with 2021’s Academy Award–winning Dune, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve and co-writer Jon Spaihts have gone out of their way to transfer as many of the author’s themes and subplots to the screen as they can. This adaptation of the second half of the book is a sprawling, visually dynamic affair, and it overflows in outstanding moments and with sequences of auditory brilliance.

However, much like its predecessor, I found this sequel frequently cold and emotionally barren at the most inopportune times. The second half is particularly monotonous as Paul trudges toward a destiny he does not want and presciently believes will be his damnation — and by extension the universe’s. Villeneuve stages several eye-popping set pieces but then all too often resolves them with abrupt suddenness. The film is all exhilarating buildup leading to an unsatisfactory, and even somewhat perfunctory, payoff. While I was impressed with the director’s cinematic gusto, I was equally disappointed by how little I cared about the majority of the characters or their plights.

Not that I thought any of this during the picture’s opening half. It is during this section that Paul settles in with the Fremen and starts becoming a valuable asset in their fight against the Harkonnen. Chalamet is at his best here, and whether it’s bantering back and forth with a surprisingly relaxed (and often very, very funny) Bardem or working toward a thorny romantic entanglement with Zendaya (returning as the respected Fremen warrior Chani), the foundation he fabricates for Paul’s eventual transformation into the fabled Kwisatz Haderach is a solid one.

Everything builds to the moment when Paul — now known by the Fremen as “Muad’Dib” — must pass a final test of manhood and ride a sandworm. It’s also the most noticeable instance in which Villeneuve uncorks a sequence of jaw-dropping kinetic magnificence — only for things to conclude with an unfinished thud. Paul calls the worm, composer Hans Zimmer (The Creator) conducts his intensely confrontational score with vitriolic urgency, cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty) crafts one awe-inspiring image after another, and the line between practical and computer-generated visual effects vanishes entirely.

Dune: Part Two (2024) | PHOTO: Warner Bros.

But while all of this looks and sounds stunning, there is no emotional payoff. Villeneuve quickly moves events along to focus on other characters and additional subplots. Considering there’s so much story to be told, this isn’t shocking. In the same breath, keeping things in such an unfinished state robs Paul of the necessary interior nuances that make him such a troubled and fascinating protagonist. This is a man who wants no part of the prophecy he is at the center of, fearing that becoming a messianic leader will only lead to ruination for everyone he cares about. It drove me nuts to have so many bits where Paul fulfills an aspect of said prophecy for a momentary need, only for them to gloss over the long-term ramifications.

It’s not just Paul who falls victim to this form of narrative shorthand. With the Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista) failing miserably to control the Fremen on Arrakis, Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) turns to another nephew, the bloodthirsty Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), to turn the tide back into their favor. Butler is suitably psychotic in the role, and from the first second he monochromatically steps into the frame, I found it impossible to take my eyes off of him. But the gladiatorial combat he’s introduced in is a major letdown, while a later assault he leads on a Fremen stronghold happens because the story needs it to (it’s the catalyst to get Paul moving from north to south) and does nothing to develop the villain beyond the plainly obvious.

The same goes for Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (a game, if miscast, Christopher Walken) and his Bene Gesserit daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh). The sections involving them rely heavily on voiceovers from Pugh as she recaps events in her diary, and these scenes have about the same impact on the proceedings as Virginia Madsen (portraying the same narrator) did on David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation, i.e., practically none.

There are exceptions to all of this, and that is part of what makes Dune: Part Two so monumentally vexing. Irulan has a heated tête-à-tête with Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), and Pugh and Rampling bounce off one another with masterfully modulated subtlety. There’s another bit between Butler and Léa Seydoux that is dazzling, the latter’s seduction of the former having an arachnid virtuosity that’s unlike anything I’ve seen in ages. Finally, and maybe most important of all, the scene in which Paul finally takes charge of the Fremen during a giant meeting of the clans is well worth the wait, and the full magnitude of what he is doing is portrayed with a noticeable undercurrent of tragic inevitability that mirrors Herbert’s source material nicely.

Then there is Zendaya. She’s superb. Chani sees what is happening and knows she should not be falling in love with Paul, and yet no matter the danger, she cannot help but do so anyhow. The actor’s eyes are always probing, consistently questioning. Zendaya has an uncontrolled fire kindling within her lithe, athletic frame, and it’s a constant guessing game as to whether she’ll be able to keep it from exploding. This is the best performance of her young career so far.

Dune: Part Two (2024) | PHOTO: Warner Bros.

Villeneuve has guts. He does not shy away from the darker aspects of Herbert’s prose, and while I could have done without the blatant cliffhanger setting up the next chapter of this saga (which will undoubtedly be pulled from the author’s Dune Messiah), I respect that the director delivers a downer of a climax. If I felt more of an attachment to anyone other than Chani, I probably would have applauded this ending, as some in my small screening audience did.

But that wasn’t the case. While I’ll journey back to Arrakis with Villeneuve for a third time when the opportunity presents itself, I’m no longer nearly as excited about making the trek, and that’s too bad.

Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)

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