Dune: Part Two review – A reality you must experience

Cameron Frew
Austin Butler in Dune: Part Two

Dune: Part Two is a screen-quaking cinematic landmark that should hold the future of blockbuster filmmaking accountable; imperfect, cold, but mighty.

Denis Villeneuve is the Mahdi of modern sci-fi. He delivered an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s infamously unwieldy, seminal tome (lest we forget David Lynch’s disasterpiece or Alejandro Jodorowsky’s doomed Shai Hulud-scale recreation) that was one thing above all else: comprehensively watchable.

Yet, as much as the first film satiated the senses with immense sights, it wasn’t built for the heart (intergalactic bagpipes aside); its seamless world-building was hitherto undreamt of, but it rarely evoked a feeling beyond dumb-founded awe. It also suffered from Part One syndrome, with its events barely rippling the sand – and as Chani said, “it’s just the beginning.”

Part Two is a superior echo of its predecessor; issues remain (mainly an emotional dearth that threatens to hollow out its spectacle), but it’s still an overwhelmingly immersive, ginormous experience that cannot be missed.

Dune: Part Two explores the prophecy of power

“All died in the dark,” Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh) says, recounting the bloody extermination of House Atreides on Arrakis, a battle that “took everyone by surprise” – and, curiously, didn’t constitute a declaration of war. It was a cold-hearted move in aid of self-preservation from her father, the Emperor (Christopher Walken), a man who has always been “guided by the calculus of power.”

With Duke Leto dead and the planet’s fiefdom returned to the Harkonnens, Paul (Timothée Chalamet) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) reside in the deep desert, helping the Fremen to dispatch and ‘drain’ enemy troops who wander into their path. Paul is a divisive figure at first: Chani (Zendaya) hopes he’s a sincere outsider who wants to learn her people’s ways, others say he’s a waste of water, but many believe he could be the Lisan Al’Gaib, the chosen one who will not only liberate the Fremen from their oppressors, but lead them to “paradise.”

Meanwhile, Rabban’s (Dave Bautista) failure to manage Arrakis and sustain a steady spice supply attracts the ire of the Baron (Stellan Skarsgård), who enlists the brutal help of his younger “psychotic” nephew: Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), the potential heir to the Harkonnen throne and the Bene Gesserit’s new pet project.

Spice is all things: an essential component of interstellar travel, a hallucinogen, and a resource that can greatly extend one’s life. But in the world of Dune, it’s just a McGuffin; the sun around which a cycle of unquestionable violence and reclamation are fated to orbit. “Power over spice is power over all,” the throat-sung opening message reads, and that last part is key – the hunger for absolute dominion is the poison that infects the universe, not spice.

Dune is distracted by its own story

Zendaya and Timothee Chalamet in Dune Part Two

Part Two deals with some weighty stuff; notably, the weaponization of fear (once the mind-killer, now a tool to control) and the great and grave contradiction of religious fanaticism (faith so devotedly divine “is always a function of repressed doubt”). Paul and Chani’s love story is woven through those ideas, but it’s foregrounded when it’s the least compelling through-line of the two movies – and that’s symptomatic of their larger problem.

Villeneuve’s imagery communicates the narrative heft of Herbert’s story, and Hans Zimmer’s screen-rattling score does some heavy lifting (the omission of bagpipes this time around is unforgivable, but its Vangelis-inspired, goosebump-pulsing, romantic central melody is maybe some of his best work ever). But its characters are solely agents of plot rather than feeling; for love nor money, I’ve never found a soulful connection to any of them, beyond Duncan Idaho’s glorious “Ah, my boy!” in Part One.

This certainly isn’t a call for more levity (its ultimate bleakness is a huge merit), nor is it necessarily a criticism of the story (though its faux resolution is a bit frustrating): I just wish I cared about what happens. Similar to the first half, this plays out like the greatest concept art you’ve ever seen, but the reason the “Welcome to Jurassic Park” scene has remained a pop-cultural touchstone isn’t just because it’s wondrous – the movie was more than its spectacle.

Still, to call anyone in the cast a weak link would be a disservice. Chalamet puts in a more convincing performance as Paul, with believable (if never moving) chemistry with Zendaya; their arc becomes a bit tedious, but that’s a consequence of the material more than their work. Ferguson delivers another beguilingly sinister turn as Jessica, arguably the most fascinating character in the whole film, while Pugh, Skarsgård, a deliciously screamy Bautista, and a surprisingly funny Bardem are all worthy of praise.

Austin Butler steals the movie

Austin Butler in Dune Part Two

And then there’s Butler, somewhere between Prometheus’ milk-bottle humanoid and a cobra. He strips the pantomime from Feyd-Rautha without losing the showmanship, radiating pure menace; as unnerving as he looks (and sounds), he’s always a clear and present danger even off-screen, so much so that any moment without him feels lesser off. Between this, Elvis, and Masters of the Air, it’s clear he should be our next great movie star: an actor with matinee idol looks whose talent isn’t shallow nor fully explored.

He steals the film – aside from the breathtaking visuals, of course. Greig Fraser’s cinematography is in a league of its own, potentially taking Roger Deakins’ place as this generation’s great eye; it has to be a contender for one of the greatest-looking blockbusters of the 21st century, rivaled perhaps only by Villeneuve’s earlier Blade Runner 2049.

Lord of the Rings is a credible comparison (although nobody cares about Paul and Chani like Sam and Frodo), especially in the sequel’s jaw-dropping, epic action sequences. But the filmmaker’s influences are sprinkled everywhere: silhouettes of ornithopters are a squadron shy of Richard Wagner, one shot of a sandstorm is a clear nod to Fury Road, and the use of Paul’s breath as he anxiously waits in the desert is reminiscent of 2001’s otherwise silent, in-helmet sound.

This is the closest we’ve come to experiencing the sights Roy Batty vowed we wouldn’t believe; clews of gigantic sandworms tearing through vast deserts, colossal spacecraft that feel tiny because the vistas are so enormous. Villeneuve completely blurs the line between CGI and practical effects, and with its trademark brutalist style, he establishes a tangible, textural reality; Dune should be in the same conversation as Avatar in that regard (though I doubt anyone has post-Arrakis blues).

Dune: Part Two review score: 4/5

Is Dune: Part Two truly great? The sands of time will decide, but one thing is clear: movies of this scale and caliber come around seldom to never. Don’t miss it.

Dune: Part Two arrives in cinemas on February 29.

Related Topics

About The Author

Cameron is Deputy TV and Movies Editor at Dexerto. He's an action movie aficionado, '80s obsessive, and Oscars enthusiast. He loves Invincible, but he's also a fan of The Boys, the MCU, The Chosen, and much more. You can contact him at cameron.frew@dexerto.com.