Denis Villeneuve’s Dune — Part One, for retroactive clarity — was originally due to come out November of 2020 but got pushed out almost a year, debuting October 2021 in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. Now premiering exclusively in theaters, Part Two was originally slated to come out last October but was delayed several months due to the Hollywood labor disputes of 2023. Pandemics and picket lines may have affected the release schedules for these two sci-fi epics but fortunately, they certainly haven’t affected their quality one bit. If Part One was Villeneuve’s way to introduce us to the world of Dune and its densely layered mythology, then Part Two gives us a chance to luxuriate in its singular splendor and sophisticated storytelling.
Picking up where Dune left off, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) continue to live among and learn from the desert-dwelling Fremen tribes. The evil Harkonnens, led by the corpulent Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård), attempt to capitalize on their coup of the House Atreides but their campaign to extract spice from the sands of Arrakis is thwarted by Fremen attacks. Desperate to regain control on the planet, the Baron recruits his bloodthirsty nephew Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler) to clamp down on the frequent ambushes of their spice production equipment. Though Paul is initially treated as an outsider by the Fremen, their leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) begins to see signs of an ancient prophecy in Paul’s rapid assimilation to their ways.
We’ve seen the hero’s journey in other large-scale cinematic adventures like Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings but where Dune: Part Two deviates from the traditional narrative is in its moral complexity. Luke Skywalker and Frodo Baggins are humble exemplars who resist temptation from dark forces and remain good in their quest to achieve their respective goals. With respect to those trilogies and their protagonists, Paul Atreides goes through a much more complex character arc specifically in this section of the story that I found consistently fascinating. In the finest performance of his young career, Chalamet builds upon his work from the previous chapter and reveals the thornier sides of being a monomyth’s “chosen one”. With his character’s zealot-like devotion to Paul’s ascent, Bardem scores some unexpected laughs with how effusive he becomes in his convictions.
About as tactfully as any blockbuster I’ve ever seen, Dune: Part Two taps into how fear and faith are tools that are used to maintain control of the masses by ruling parties. Through gladiatorial combat shot in stupefying infrared cinematography by Greig Fraser, Baron Harkonnen asserts psychological dominance over his House with a display of brutality by his heir apparent. But through fundamentalist teachings carried out by Stilgar and his followers, we also see how the Fremen’s actions are restricted by the dogma of divinations that may or may not be true. The film doesn’t necessarily ask us to decide which of these is the “better” or morally upstanding method but rather to consider how the two may not differ as much as it would seem on the surface. Zendaya plays Paul’s Fremen love interest who grows more wary of his deification and finally declares “this prophecy is how they enslave us!” at a pseudo-religious gathering.
Chalamet and Zendaya are excellent in their central roles but like Part One, this chapter sports uniformly terrific performances from a deep roster of some of the most talented performers out there. Florence Pugh lends an ominous aristocracy to her Princess Irulan and Léa Seydoux is seductive perfection as one of the Bene Gesserit sent to proposition Feyd-Rautha. Austin Butler is another new face here and despite his much-discussed work in Elvis, he sheds the rock star affectation and hip-swinging in a performance that’s perfectly-measured menace. If there’s a weak link, Christopher Walken doesn’t register much in the important role of Emperor Shaddam. I think there were a number of actors who could’ve brought more to the character and sadly, I kept thinking how great the late Tom Wilkinson would’ve been for it. Small quibbles aside, Dune: Part Two is another home run from the strongest voice working in cinematic science fiction today.
Score – 4.5/5
New movies coming this week:
Coming to theaters is Kung Fu Panda 4, an animated comedy starring Jack Black and Awkwafina continuing the adventures of the titular martial arts master as he searches for his successor as the new Dragon Warrior while fighting a new foe.
Also playing only in theaters is Imaginary, a supernatural horror movie starring DeWanda Wise and Tom Payne about a woman who returns to her childhood home to discover that the imaginary friend she left behind is very real and unhappy that she abandoned him.
Streaming on Netflix is Damsel, a fantasy film starring Millie Bobby Brown and Ray Winstone involving a sheltered young noblewoman who agrees to marry a handsome prince, only to discover that his family intends to sacrifice her to repay an ancient debt.