Dune: Part Two (PG-13) ★★★½

Review Date: February 26th, 2024

Dune: Part One, the first chapter of Denis Villeneuve's ambitious attempt to re-create Frank Herbert's seminal 1965 novel for a generation not scarred by David Lynch's misfire, became the reason for many shuttered individuals to venture back to movie theaters as the pandemic waned in October 2021. Although the film's box office receipts were tepid for a would-be blockbuster, its through-the-roof performance on Warner Brothers' streaming app, HBO Max (it became available for streaming simultaneously with its theatrical release), convinced the studio to greenlight Dune: Part Two. Now, nearly 2 1/2 years later, after a delay necessitated by Hollywood's dual strike (which made the cast unavailable to do publicity), Dune: Part Two has finally reached theaters. Worth the wait? Unquestionably.

When the ink has dried on analyses of the year 2024 at the movies, Dune: Part Two will stand not only near the top when it comes to big screen spectacle but will be regarded as one of the best films to be released during the twelve-month period. And, although director Denis Villeneuve is already writing the screenplay for the third part of a projected Dune trilogy (this one based on Herbert's 1969 book, Dune Messiah), box office performance will dictate whether that gets made. The wide-open ending of Dune: Part Two argues in favor of additional motion picture installments but, if none are made, at least Part Two completes the definitive adaptation.

There hasn't been anything like this since Peter Jackson tackled The Lord of the Rings some 25 years ago. At the time, many fans feared the New Zealander had bitten off more than he could chew but his three-film, eight-hour version turned out to be one of the most amazing success stories in novel-to-movie transformations. Villeneuve's Dune deserves similar consideration. Unwilling to condense Dune into a single movie, the director spread out the story over more than five hours, allowing him to retain many complexities, side plots, and characters that might otherwise have been eliminated or marginalized. Even considering the amount of breathing room accorded the story by the manner of its adaptation, changes were still necessary to create a better cinematic experience. And the uninitiated may be baffled by a few things here and there.

Dune: Part Two, like its predecessor, does an excellent job of taking some of the most fantastical aspects of the novel and translating them to the screen in a way that seems organic to the story. When dealing with elements like prophesy, mysticism, and hallucinogenic visions, this is no small achievement. The great sandworms churning the desert seas of Arrakis, superbly realized by cutting-edge computer generated special effects, are far more readily accepted than some of these things, but Villaneuve makes them work.

The movie picks up where Part One left off with Duke Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) and his pregnant Bene Gesserit mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), seeking refuge with the Fremen following the massacre of House Atreides by House Harkonnen. Accepted by one of the Fremen leaders, Stilgar (Javier Bardem), Paul seeks to learn the ways of the desert people. In the process, he begins an affair with Chani (Zendaya), while seeking to distance himself from the growing sentiment that he is the Fremen's prophesied messiah. A war develops between the Fremen and the invading Harkonnens, led by the Baron (Stellan Skargard) and his nephews, Glossu Rababan (Dave Bautista) and Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler). At stake is control of the planet and its most valuable resource, called "spice." When Harkonnen victory is in question, the Emperor (Christopher Walken) decides to become directly involved, traveling to Arrakis with his daughter, the Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), and the leader of the Bene Gesserit, Reverend Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling).

In keeping with Herbert's intentions regarding Paul's character arc, Villaneuve doesn't shrink from allowing his protagonist to travel a darkly seductive road. In Part One, Paul was unquestionably the hero. Here, he begins a journey that will take him in a different direction. A battle for his heart is waged by Jessica, who seeks him to achieve the fulness of his powers, and Chani, who fears for his soul. It's not hard to believe that Paul became at least in part an inspiration for Anakin Skywalker - similarities are hard to miss. Indeed, it's apparent how many elements of Dune and Dune Messiah (which were published at the time when George Lucas was becoming interested in filmmaking) made their way into the first Star Wars trilogy and its mythology (eventually fleshed out in the prequels).

Three major new characters enter the fray during the course of Part Two and Villaneuve gives them sufficient backstory and screen time that they don't feel like they have been awkwardly dropped into an already-developed narrative. They are Feyd-Rautha, the psychopath nephew of Baron Harkonnen (and his would-be heir), who gets an entire 20-minute segment of introduction (mostly shot in black-and-white). The Emperor, name-checked in Part One, appears in the flesh in Part Two alongside his daughter, Irulan. Additionally, Anya Taylor-Joy has a small role as Paul's sister, Alia, whom he briefly meets in a dream sequence.

The returning stable of actors - Timothee Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Dave Bautista, Stellan Skarsgard, and Charlotte Rampling - reprise their roles with conviction. The most impressive turn belongs to Chalamet, whose character faces numerous life-altering and personality-shifting changes. In a film where many of the important men and women represent archetypes, Paul is unique. Chalamet's performance emphasizes not only Paul's impetuousness and charisma but the growing tragedy that underlies the embrace of his destiny.

As a big-screen spectacle, Part Two exceeds Part One. The cinematography is grand and at times hauntingly beautiful. The battles are bigger, more raw, and more intense. The desert is a character in its own right. Hans Zimmer's percussive score thrums and thrills. Villaneuve makes a persuasive case for why movie theaters still exist post-pandemic. Although the storyline is strong enough to preserve Part Two as a viable streaming option, much of the experience will be lost outside of a venue with a giant screen and sound-system to match. The film was made for IMAX and, although it will play effectively in generic multiplex auditoriums, this is one instance when the adage of "bigger means better" is applicable. Dune: Part Two is a spectacle to behold with an underlying arc that makes it more satisfying than a 2 1/2-hour bite of eye candy.

© 2024 James Berardinelli