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March 10, 2024
I was a skeptic of the first movie. The new one is sensational.
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I was a skeptic of the first movie. The new one is sensational.

Mar 10, 2024

Theocratic authoritarianism, colonial violence, the pitiless economics of resource extraction: These subjects are present in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune movies, not as vague allegories gestured at between action sequences to add some thematic heft, but as the very substance of the story. With the release of Dune: Part Two, all the meticulous (some might say exhausting) attention Villeneuve paid to building out the first movie’s vast and complex world—an interplanetary empire governed by multiple competing families, each with centurieslong dynastic histories—pays off. More than any science-fiction epic I can think of in recent years, the Dune movies, each really constituting one-half of a full story arc, belong to the tradition of speculative science fiction that Frank Herbert’s original 1965 novel partook of and helped to establish: They are movies as much about mass belief systems and political power struggles as they are about characters and relationships, without sacrificing the specificity of the human stories at their center. I was not even a huge fan of Dune: Part One, which struck me as more visually and sonically hypnotic than it was narratively coherent. I was also among the critics who found its truncated ending almost comically abrupt. But to his great credit, Villeneuve has followed through on the task he set for himself in Dune’s moody, enigmatic, and expansive first chapter: He now returns to the world he so painstakingly established, ready to orchestrate the grand-scale conflicts that are about to tear it apart.

Part Two dispenses with expository supplements like the scenes in Part One in which our young sort-of-hero Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) watches what are essentially 3D documentaries about the geography and culture of Arrakis, the planet where his family is about to be sent to command an occupying army. Instead of reviewing that material, Villeneuve dumps us directly onto Arrakis, the occupied desert planet where, at the end of the last film, Paul and his mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), found themselves newcomers among the planet’s native inhabitants, the underground-dwelling Fremen. Now that Paul’s father and most of his home planet’s inhabitants have been massacred by the Harkonnens, denizens of a fascistically organized planet ruled by the repellent Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), it falls to the still-inexperienced Paul to help lead the Fremen’s uprising against their colonizers. The substance over which all of these forces are fighting is the coveted mineral resource known as “spice,” a substance found only on Arrakis that has the capacity both to enable interstellar travel and to confer exceptional psychic powers to those exposed to it.

Dune’s plot has no shortage of moving parts, making for plenty of scenes set elsewhere than the parched landscapes of Arrakis. An interplanetary sisterhood of soothsayers called the Bene Gesserit, in which Jessica is a powerful priestess, hovers behind the scenes, influencing the decisions of various characters through advanced practices of mind control, as well as other, more subtle methods of persuasion. The emperor himself (Christopher Walken), an elderly leader who keeps himself removed from the clashes between worlds he rules over, depends on the political savvy of his daughter, the Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), herself a Bene Gesserit acolyte. And on the eerie planet of Giedi Prime, homeworld of the Harkonnens, gladiatorial games unfold as fascistic mass spectacles that recall Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films, with battles to the death fought out in impossibly vast geometric arenas while all-black firework displays explode like inkblots against a chalk-white sky.

Villeneuve and co-writer Jon Spaihts do a good job of balancing the pacing among these competing story strands, but the heart of the movie’s action takes place in the sands of Arrakis, where Paul and the young Fremen rebel Chani (Zendaya), who appeared in the first film mainly as a fragmentary part of Paul’s prescient dreams, become first side-by-side fighters against the invading Harkonnens, then lovers. Part of what binds these two together is their shared resistance to the prophecy, encouraged and manipulated by the Bene Gesserit, that a messiah—in the eyes of the believers, Paul himself—would liberate the Fremen from generations of oppression by their various occupiers.

Like Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars saga, then, Paul Atreides is a callow youth summoned by ancient augury to play a key role in a vast interplanetary struggle. But unlike Luke, an orphaned outsider from a remote moisture farm, Paul is a coddled son of the aristocracy, born into unimaginable privilege and educated since early childhood to assume the reins of power. Similarly, Timothée Chalamet, at 28 still convincing as a juvenile, seems to have been born to play this ambivalent prince. Chalamet’s detractors have been known to point out, sometimes accurately, that he can be unpersuasive in roles that require him to tap into a character’s darker depths, as with the wide-eyed younger version of future misanthrope Willy Wonka in the recent Wonka. But when Chalamet is well cast—as the lovestruck queer teen in Call Me by Your Name, the playful next-door neighbor in Little Women, or the reluctant prince of the house of Atreides in the Dune moviesit’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. And as Paul, the actor hardly shies away from confronting his own inner darkness; his recurring visions of himself as the leader of a crusade that will result in the agonizing death of millions are as terrifying as his slow but steady assumption of the mantle of power. There is something Shakespearean in the late scenes where Paul turns away from once-close relationships in the name of consolidating and augmenting his own political and personal power. His final duel with the notoriously ruthless Harkonnen Feyd-Rautha (a bone-chilling Austin Butler) is both thrillingly staged and persuasively high-stakes: In a culture as honor-based and violence-driven as the one we’ve been introduced to, it’s perfectly plausible that the fate of an interplanetary alliance might hang upon which civilization’s symmetrical-featured scion is handiest with a knife.

Anyone who has seen the first Dune movie will come into the second with at least one of the same burning questions I did: When are we going to get some sandworm action? These giant invertebrates native to the planet Arrakis—I’m talking the length of at least a few city blocks—were the subject of much directorial teasing in Dune Part One but were rarely glimpsed for more than a few seconds at a time. In Part Two we are finally treated to several full-on worm-centric set pieces, including an absurd yet exalting moment when Paul gets the chance to ride one of the colossal burrowing beasts across the desert with a technique picked up from the Fremen leader Stilgar (an excellent Javier Bardem). In these and other scenes requiring computer-generated imagery—for example, in the rendering of this world’s organic-looking spaceships or the dragonfly-like “ornithopters,” which transport characters on Arrakis from place to place—the images have a solidity and texture that’s unusual in the context of the outer-space blockbuster genre. Combined with Hans Zimmer’s literally unearthly score—its booming, jagged chords seem to emerge from the same barren vistas as the dunes, the rock cliffs, and the building-sized worms—the geography and technology of this fictional world strike the viewer as genuinely new and strange, no easy task in an era when fictional space exploration is so common the outermost reaches of the galaxy can sometimes feel routine.

The original Dune books have long been considered unadaptable, despite how many versions of the story have been told in the past five decades across many mediums. I haven’t read the books, only watched all extant movie adaptations (as well as the delirious 2014 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, about the visionary director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unsuccessful yearslong quest to film the novel), but I think I understand the consensus among their fandom that what’s unique about them translates imperfectly from page to screen; the same could be said of most truly great novels. Still, Villeneuve’s films, taken together as two halves of a single story, do effectively convey several key elements of the Duniverse: the books’ vast scale, the seriousness of their thinking about authoritarian politics and the danger inherent in religious mass movements, and their author’s rejection of the familiar trope of “the One,” a solitary (nearly always white and male) hero destined by fate to act as the savior for an (often nonwhite) oppressed population.

Dune: Part Two deepens the first movie’s ambivalence toward messianic legend by embedding that ambivalence not only in Paul Atreides’ struggle to reconcile himself with his fate but in the audience’s struggle to know what outcome to root for. As the movie ends, the tone is not triumphant but ominous: After the long-desired prophecy is finally fulfilled, what rough beast slouches toward Arrakis to be born? Even those who, like me, came into the theater more or less Dune-indifferent may find themselves wanting another chapter to find out.

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