Warner Bros

‘Dune: Part Two’ is a groundbreaking tragedy of fanaticism

The reason we often wish we could watch something ‘for the first time again’ is because we feel as if we’ve just watched a piece of film history. That is exactly what the grand spectacle of Dune: Part Two feels like. After seeing the first part in October 2021, I, like many, was forced to endure an agonising wait for Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction sequel from then on. Since then, I have revisited the first part a few more times on home video in addition to reading Frank Herbert’s original 1965 novel last summer, an incredibly rewarding read that consumed me for a few wondrous weeks.

Adapting the second half of Herbert’s genre-defining book, this film picks up immediately where the first film ended, as Paul begins to follow his road that ‘leads into the desert’ by joining with the Fremen of Arrakis in their guerilla war against their oppressors: the brutal and cruel House Harkonnen. As Paul’s relationship with Zendaya’s Chani blossoms, the fervent belief that he is the ‘Lisan al Gaib’, the prophetic ‘voice from the outer world’ who will liberate Arrakis and transform it into a paradise, is spreading like wildfire. This problematic and exploitative religious scheme may well lead to a disastrous ‘holy war’, that which Paul foresaw with horror earlier on in Villeneuve’s adaptation. Such are the stakes of Paul Atreides’ tragic ascendancy, the axis around which the film’s epic action revolves.

Paul’s premonitions of what the book terms his ‘terrible purpose’ are realised to a greater and more frightening degree in Dune: Part Two. There is one sequence which positively blew me away; the full extent of Timothée Chalamet’s talent becomes apparent when he leaves behind his boyish and restrained whispering (a usually permanent fixture in his roles) and reaches a level of furious manipulation and delusion, a haunting messiah-complex akin to Anakin Skywalker’s arc. We see his simultaneous ascent and descent through Chani’s pained eyes. At times, he is framed like a dictator, with hordes of zealous Fremen like ants scurrying beneath him.

Rebecca Ferguson continues her complex portrayal of Lady Jessica from the first film, only here she is much more vicious in her cunning designs, donning her opulent Reverend Mother garb as her uncomfortable religious influence begins to take hold over the Fremen. Every performance from the Dune ensemble is immaculate, so I’ll just highlight Austin Butler, whose Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen is the perfect psychotic foil for Paul. His chilling embodiment of evil, complete with predatory black teeth and an inhumane detachment, crystallises him among the pantheon of film villains (although if he had more screentime he would surely sit in the company of Heath Ledger’s Joker). The sheer scale of his Giedi Prime arena introduction is breathtaking and suffocating due to the infrared light spectrum employed by cinematographer Greig Fraser, one of many technical strokes of genius which electrify Frank Herbert’s complex world.

In other words, it’s Lawrence of Arabia in space, a seminal epic which has further similarities to Paul’s trajectory from outsider to hero-worshipped ‘messiah’

I’d probably go so far as to say that Dune: Part Two is the most visually stunning film I’ve watched in my life. The dusty desert hues, the cinematic framing, the dwarfing of characters by their environments – everything materialises on such an epic scale that the film utterly envelops you for its runtime. In other words, it’s Lawrence of Arabia in space, a seminal epic which has further similarities to Paul’s trajectory from outsider to hero-worshipped ‘messiah’. When Paul finally rides the sandworm, scaling the towering and breathtaking dunes before emphatically harnessing the ‘desert power’ of ‘Shai-Hulud’, I felt chills not only because it was a turning point in his journey but also because of the fanaticism it fermented amongst the onlooking Fremen.

Seemingly infinite desert vistas will leave your jaw in the sand

The sunrise in both films, illuminating a vast, arid landscape, itself becomes a ‘herald of the change’, of a new dawn on Arrakis surging from beneath the dunes, only with foreboding consequences that remain to be seen. Seemingly infinite desert vistas will leave your jaw in the sand, whilst Villeneuve’s adaptation of the secluded Fremen civilisation, with their sacred rites and immemorial history, is fantastical worldbuilding at its finest.

Hans Zimmer’s music fulfils a different ‘terrible purpose’ here, less to accompany us in a newly foreign world, nor to chart the mourning of an innocent and burdened youth, but rather to charge this film with hatred and dread, as Paul ascends, leaving nothing in his wake. Only he remains. The soon-to-be iconic sequence where he threads his way through legions of Fremen with frightening purpose continues to stick with me, courtesy of Zimmer’s rumbling and disturbing score whose unleashed terror becomes the harbinger of a messianic rise.

This film is a once-in-a-generation synthesis of action (expect brutal combat), war, religious epic and science-fiction cinema which distils Frank Herbert’s heavy world down to its core narrative ‘spice melange’; it’s no wonder Herbert’s son has praised Villeneuve’s impassioned adaptation. Although intriguing characters from his father’s book are often excised from the narrative, and plot directions altered significantly, Paul is the centrepiece of Villeneuve’s vision, so, whilst slightly disappointing, these alterations have likely streamlined the book’s more superfluous details.

Other small reservations about the film are limited to Christopher Walken’s Emperor, who unfortunately seems to be sidelined in the surrounding chaos, some slightly anticlimactic character fates, and Villeneuve’s cliffhanger ending, which doesn’t offer the same closure as the novel it adapts, as ‘epic’ as it is. Yet again, we must wait for a firm conclusion in a future Dune: Messiah adaptation, and I hope its twelve-year time-jump doesn’t compromise the intimidating build-up to a ‘holy war’ that we have been so lucky to witness until now. I’ll see what I make of the epilogue novel when I get around to it this summer, but it’s safe to say that I’m now in my first post-A Song of Ice and Fire literary-cinematic phase.

Needless to say, I adored this film. It’s irrefutably in a league of its own as the sci-fi Lord of the Rings, with morally complex characters taking the place of the latter’s ‘good versus evil’ binary. It hasn’t yet reached the emotional heights of Tolkien’s series, but this five-hour adaptation already feels like a definitive ground breaker of a film and should be canonised as such. It should be recognised as the new zenith of the science-fiction genre, with its epicentre of monstrous messianism and fanatic devotion making for a richly developed story. Director Denis Villeneuve himself is cinema’s deliverer, having somehow crafted a spice-fuelled and visionary odyssey that is both movie magic and movie history. ‘Bless the Maker and His water’, because Dune is here to stay.

Comments (1)

  • Very thorough review that is full of so much passion and a clear opinion on the film. With also some very fair limitations.

    A great review for a great movie.

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