1 Mar 2024

Review: Dune Part Two

10:13 am on 1 March 2024
Timothée Chalamet in a scene from Dune Part Two

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

By Dan Slevin

In the first of Denis Villeneuve's Dune films, the various "houses" that make up the galactic governmental pecking order - Atreides, Harkonnen, and others we are yet to meet - despite operating on a grand scale, are like frustrated middle-managers being played off against each other by a distant emperor/CEO whose motives they can only guess at.

While that was one of the most relatable aspects of the first film, it did leave a bit of a hole; a hole that is filled very early on in Part Two as we are immediately introduced to the ageing emperor himself (Christopher Walken) and his daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh). Her diaries provide the voiceover that quickly gets audiences back up to speed with where we left things at the end of Part One.

House Atreides had been sent by the emperor to replace House Harkonnen as governors of the desert planet Arrakis where, despite barren appearances, the most valuable substance in the universe can be found. Spice is a mysterious psychoactive material found in the sand; it gives celestial navigators the power to visualise routes across space, therefore making galactic travel and trade possible.

Despite its abundance on Arrakis, Spice isn't easy to harvest. The planet is arid and too hot for normal human habitation. There is an unfriendly, colonised, indigenous population looking to disrupt operations. And, to top it all off there are giant sandworms that are attracted to the rhythmic sounds of machinery and who will arrive out of the blue - and out of the sand - and eat you.

A scene from Dune Part Two

The worms are restless in Dune Part Two. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

The Harkonnens are upset at the loss of this highly profitable enterprise and violently overthrow the Atreides to take it back. At the end of the first film, the only two survivors of the coup, sensitive young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). They have been taken in by the indigenous Fremen people and now must reckon not just with the atrocity that's just taken place, but also with the news that Paul appears to have special powers and may, in fact, be the Mahdi - the chosen one from local prophecy - destined to free the Fremen from oppression.

We learn early on in the new film that the emperor supported the Harkonnen coup in order to rid himself of a perceived threat, and that the Bene Gesserit (a mystical sisterhood with their own superhuman abilities) are a shadowy influence on all the parties for their own secret reasons.

The first third of the film is an uncomfortable watch, thanks to its confluence with current global events. Of course, the filmmakers weren't to know that the horrors of Gaza would be occurring simultaneously with its release, but the scenes of the Harkonnens calling the freedom-fighting Fremen "rats" and calling for their extermination has painful echoes to say the least.

The Harkonnens - led by the corpulent Baron (Stellan Skarsgård) and the always-game Dave Bautista as his nephew Glossu - are the kind of fascists who even cheat at their own gladiatorial combat. They're a perfect illustration of the dictum that if you find it easy to deny the humanity of another people, chances are you've happily already sacrificed your own.

Stellan Skarsgård in a scene from Dune Part Two

Stellan Skarsgård as the Baron in a scene from Dune Part Two. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Frank Herbert, the author of the original novel, freely and loosely borrowed from the Middle East and Islam to create the Fremen's culture. There was some pushback on the first film for that appropriation. In Part Two, we spend an extended period with the community as Villeneuve, co-author Jon Spaihts and their collaborators in craft, build out from those awkward borrowings. Even though it takes up a big chunk of the film, it's worth it to flesh out a culture and belief system that renders them more human.

Through the eyes of young Paul, as he is trained in their ways and falls for warrior Chani (Zendaya), we learn that Spice is the source of their mysticism and that the Fremen themselves are not united. Fremen from the north are more practical and those from the south are more fundamentalist. Lady Jessica takes advantage of this by encouraging their belief in Paul's powers, setting wheels in motion that will not easily be stopped.

There are quite a few pleasures in this period, not least watching the burgeoning relationship between Paul and Chani as she teaches him how to walk safely across the sand. Regular rhythmic footsteps attract the sandworms, so watching these two Fred Astaire their way across the dunes is quite amusing.

Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya in a scene from Dune Part Two

Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya in a scene from Dune Part Two. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

We can't stay in this little oasis forever though, because there's still an awful lot of plot to get through. The film loses interest in the Fremen in favour of Paul's revenge for the death of his father, the machinations between the emperor and the Harkonnens (a gleeful performance from Austin Butler as the Baron's other nephew, Feyd-Rautha), the sudden arrival of dozens of nuclear weapons and a Spice-infused potion that offers visions of the future.

By the end, the fresh-faced young Chalamet is looking more like Alice Cooper. By propelling everyone into an even deeper and nastier struggle courtesy of the worst aspects of his nature, you realise that the most common form of prophecy is the self-fulfilling one.

It's a heavy film and it has a lot on its mind, not least how easy it is for one's soul to be corrupted on the way to doing a good deed.

But it's also exciting. The action set-pieces arrive regularly and are exceedingly well done. They're motivated by a strong, dense, story and reasonably complex characters (at least for a space opera) and that's what I enjoyed the most this time around. Dune may have started out as a giant allegory, but it's not a clumsy one.

I confess that I lost track of time watching Dune: Part Two. For a film as long as this one, that might be the highest compliment I can pay it.

Dune: Part Two is rated M (Violence) and is in cinemas now.