Film

Dune: Part Two review – deluxe space opera with a discreet safety net

Denis Villeneuve returns to Frank Herbert’s space opera novels and delivers a seamless sequel... now, with added Florence Pugh

TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides and ZENDAYA as Chani in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE: PART TWO,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Zendaya as Chani in Dune: Part Two. Photo: Niko Tavernise / Warner Bros. Entertainment

This may not come as a complete surprise, but as a kid I was a glasses-wearing sci-fi nerd who could not kick a ball to save my life.

That means I did my Dune diligence a long time ago, reading Frank Herbert’s increasingly batty cycle of space opera novels as a young teen and then taking in the screen adaptations in probably the wrong order (first the spirited but shonky 2000 TV mini-series for the Sci-Fi Channel, then David Lynch’s ambitious but condensed 1984 film when it was a DVD giveaway with the Observer).

While it would never be my specialist subject on Mastermind, the sandy contours of the story are familiar to me: in other words, I know my Arrakis from my Duncan Idaho. So I was impressed by Canadian writer-director Denis Villeneuve’s stately, sweeping Dune in 2021, which combined a terrific ensemble cast with awe-inspiring widescreen heft and appealingly tactile close-up detail. (Plus: bagpipes!)

Never mind the fact that it was only half the first book and ended on a gloomy cliffhanger (any “Part One” branding was conspicuously absent from the Dune marketing campaign, although in interviews Villeneuve was candid about his multi-part intentions). This was a serious-minded, gorgeously rendered and utterly respectful take on a foundational genre classic. It was nominated for Best Picture and picked up six Oscars in various technical categories, including Best Score.

TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE: PART TWO,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides. Photo: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Dune: Part Two has taken a little longer to arrive than planned. Originally scheduled for release last November, the release date was kicked into early 2024 because of Hollywood strikes. Due to financial wariness, it was also not shot back-to-back with its predecessor like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings project, but it faithfully completes the adaptation of Herbert’s novel.

The result? This is a seamless sequel that demonstrates Villeneuve’s confident command of the source material. If there is a trade-off, it’s that Dune: Part Two feels like deluxe space opera with a discreet safety net. There is nothing here as outré or memorable as Lynch’s vision of Sting as an evil galactic posho peacocking around in just his pants.

When we last saw ousted heir Paul (Timothée Chalamet), he and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) were the last remnants of House Atriedes, having been dumped in the lethal desert of Arrakis after a sneak attack on their fiefdom by the vile House Harkonnen (led by Stellan Skarsgård’s bulky, malignant Duke). Falling in with the indigenous Fremen – experts in personal water recycling and tamers of the terrifying giant sandworms lurking under the sand – Paul and Jessica are now adjusting to their new circumstances in different ways.

Paul wants to impress no-nonsense freedom fighter Chani (Zendaya) by becoming an effective guerrilla soldier, while Jessica – in the early stages of pregnancy – is keen to ingratiate herself with the Fremen’s religious wing so she can bolster her son’s reputation as a prophesied messiah. She is assisted in this legend-building by Fremen true believer Stilgar (Javier Bardem, who injects some bluff humour into his essentially devout character).

House Harkonnen wants to get back to pillaging the planet’s reserves of valuable spice; Paul commits himself to scuttling their industrial mining operations via daring ambushes. With half of Part One’s impressive cast wiped out, there are some attractive additions, notably Florence Pugh as an astute royal princess, Austin Butler as a bald and bloodthirsty Harkonnen heir apparent, and Christopher Walken as the rather wobbly galactic emperor looking to prop up his regime.

FLORENCE PUGH as Princess Irulan in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE: PART TWO,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Astute royal princess: Florence Pugh. Photo: Niko Tavernise / Warner Bros. Entertainment

But their stories mostly play out far from Arrakis, where Paul is left to wrestle with his destiny alone. He knows the myth of an outsider leading the Fremen to Arrakis independence is just a legend nurtured over centuries by his mother’s shadowy political sect. Should he take advantage of it and spark a jihad just to get his revenge against House Harkonnen? The wispy but determined Chalamet makes Paul’s inner turmoil seem plausible.

For the most part, Dune: Part Two is magnificent, a breathtaking synthesis of shimmering visuals and throbbing soundtrack. But it always feels more like a continuation rather than escalation, robbed of some of its novelty by the high standard set by its predecessor. Echoing its increasingly military-minded main character, it is an operation executed with precision rather than panache. A towering achievement, then, but a tightly controlled one. Maybe Villeneuve will indulge his inner Lynch if he gets to make a Part Three.

Dune: Part Two is in cinemas from 1 March.

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