Dune: Part 2 review

Now the sand has settled on Denis Villeneuve’s second instalment in the hallucinatory sci-fi saga, Jamie Carlstrand writes about why he thinks the film joins the leagues of masterful epics throughout film history.

The term “epic” gets bandied about a lot nowadays as it is increasingly used to laud the oftentimes excessive and self-indulgent works of auteur filmmakers. However, the word perfectly expresses Denis Villeneuve’s masterful Dune: Part Two a film which is so massive it could only be encapsulated by the word epic, but also so expertly executed as to deserve another often overused word “masterpiece”. Villeneuve has crafted his sequel with such care that he manages to extract the most from every frame and to construct a film which lingers but never lanugishes and proves sprawling but never overwhelming. It is utterly brilliant. 

The film directly follows on from the fall of House Atreides as Paul (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) are forced to live amongst Arrakis’ Freeman people. We follow as Jessica and an unwilling Paul take advantage of ancient superstitions embedded by Jessica’s Bene Gesserit order to convince the Freeman that Paul is their messiah the Lisan-Al-Gaib so that he may lead them against those who betrayed his family.

The original novel’s tale of distant imperial forces battling over a vital resource in a desert region resulting in a rise in radical religious fundamentalism was always a sharper and more prescient story than many realise. In this film version Villeneuve along with co-writer Jon Spaiths does a better job articulating and foregrounding such themes than author Frank Herbert did himself. This is best shown through Chani (Zendaya) who is updated from Paul’s suppliant lover in the book to a forthright thinker in her own right who provides a crucial critique of Paul and his mother’s proselytising. Villeneuve has accomplished wonders integrating such dense theological and political matter into a blockbuster film allowing it to equally incite audiences’ intellectual and primordial thought. 

Yet it is the appeals to the primordial which produce Dune: Part Two’s most thrilling moments through its barrage of sound, spectacle, and of course sand. Its bountiful set pieces and fight sequences are grand and bombastic, but more importantly also methodically structured. The attention paid by director along with cast and crew is evident and it produces some of the most palpable cinema I’ve seen in years. This is witnessed nowhere better than when Paul first rides a sandworm which is filmed amidst the whirlwind and cacophony of a collapsing sand dune. The sequence felt so experiential I was practically wiping sand out my eyes and it just goes to show for all the talk of Avatar and immersive 3D nothing can outshine a true IMAX extravaganza.  

However, Dune only works because its visual splendour is grounded in the committed performances of its stellar supporting actors. The cast, starrier than an Arraken night sky, is too numerous to mention everyone but returning standouts remain Zendaya and Rebecca Ferguson. The latter continues her excellent work from the first film even as her character becomes increasingly alienating.

Newcomer Austin Butler, who regains my affection after an unfortunate stint of smouldering on Masters of the Air, offers a perfect depiction of the villainous Harkonnen Feyd-Rautha managing to be equal parts frightening and grotesque while also alluring and charismatic. His introduction during a gladiatorial battle on the Harkonnen homeworld of Geidi Prime is breath-taking. Villeneuve saturates the scene in the monochromatic glow of a black-sun and punctuates it with the remarkable sight of inkblot fireworks. This sequence above all else shows what an utterly visionary and audacious filmmaker he is. I still have reservations about Chalamet who is largely fine in the lead role but still feels too sleight and foppish a performer to become the authoritative Lisan-Al-Gaib. His scenes commanding the Freeman in particular felt more like a yammering teenager than they did an imposing prophet.

My issues with Chalamet put aside Dune: Part Two is one of the most remarkable films of recent years, perhaps since Dune: Part One. Villeneuve has taken an esoteric, hallucinatory, and at times frankly weird sci-fi novel and converted it to a big-screen blockbuster without sacrificing any of its essential parts. It is an absolute cinematic triumph and without doubt an epic masterpiece. 

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