Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Movie Review: Dune: Part Two

Click here for my review of Dune: Part One.

After nearly two and a half years it's finally here - the long-awaited conclusion (or is it?) to Denis Villeneuve's Dune saga.  Dune: Part Two is an even more masterful and satisfying effort than its predecessor; Part One set up the pieces on the chess board, this one not only shows us the riveting endgame but raises further questions and leaves a few threads open for an (hopefully) inevitable third film.

The story picks up more or less where it left off in Part One; the Harkonnens, on orders from Emperor Shaddam IV (a frail, melancholy Christopher Walken) have carried out their sneak attack to forcibly retake control of Arrakis, killing everyone in House Atreides, or so they think.  Paul and his mother Jessica have escaped into the desert and forged an uneasy alliance with the Fremen (Paul was forced to prove himself by dueling one of their warriors to the death).  Baron Harkonnen's older nephew Rabban has been placed in charge of spice production but Paul and the Fremen begin sabotaging their equipment through targeted raids, thus embarrassing the oafish Rabban.  Meanwhile the Fremen are divided about whether the sudden appearance of Paul and his mother are a sign that the messiah they've awaited for centuries is finally here.  Fremen leader Stilgar (a surprisingly amusing Javier Bardem) believes, and Jessica makes a choice to convert the skeptics (mostly so Paul, Jessica and her unborn daughter will forever be protected), but some of the younger Fremen like Chani (a splendid Zendaya) think the prophecy was invented so the Bene Gesserit sisterhood could control them.
The exploration of Paul's uncertainty as a would-be Fremen leader is perhaps the most fascinating part of the film.  In the David Lynch version there was no question by the end that Paul was in fact the Kwisatz Haderach (the messiah), but in both the novel and this adaptation, Paul himself isn't even sure he believes it.  He makes a choice to play the role the Fremen need him to play in order to unite the tribes and take control of their planet and beyond.  Paul's relationship with Chani is also made that much more complex and engrossing thanks to this ambiguity; Paul initially assures Chani he has no interest in being a leader, rather he just wants to help the Fremen achieve freedom and domain over Arrakis.  But a shift in Harkonnen leadership from the inept Rabban to his psychotic, bloodthirsty younger brother Feyd-Rautha (a fearsome, scenery-chewing Austin Butler) changes things, as Feyd begins destroying the Fremen's underground sietches and driving them to Arrakis's nigh-uninhabitable southern hemisphere (occupied by ultra-religious Fremen fundamentalists).

Once again Timothee Chalamet very capably embodies the unsure young leader as he matures into a reluctant demagogue, fully awakened to the extent of his power after enduring an often-deadly Bene Gesserit ritual.  Chani ultimately becomes the most relatable character in a way, as she grapples with Paul's changing goals and becomes disillusioned with Stilgar's faith-driven leadership.  Zendaya gives a near show-stealing internalized performance, conveying so much with subtle facial expressions and body language. Rebecca Ferguson is excellent as well, shedding Jessica's previous anxieties and growing into a powerful, sometimes unscrupulous, religious figure for the Fremen.

We get to see much more of the Harkonnens and their near-colorless industrial world this time around, in particular Feyd's coming-of-age birthday ceremony, where he gets to practice knife-dueling on captured Atreides prisoners and we experience the full extent of his sadism.  Where Sting's incarnation of the character was cocky and playful, Feyd is a truly fearsome villain in this version, even subjugating his much larger older brother.  

The absolutely triumphant cinematography, music and sound design from the first film are just as effective here.  Grieg Fraser once again provides dazzling, picturesque visuals, Hans Zimmer conveys the film's colossal scope with his bombastic musical soundscapes, and the Oscar-winning sound team expertly immerses us in these alien worlds with unique, uncanny audio design.

Dune: Part Two is everything the first film promised and more.  A epic war film with thrilling battle sequences, a hero's journey that doesn't necessarily play out the way we expect, and a rumination on the dangers of religious fanaticism.  It's the quickest 165-minute film I've maybe ever seen.  And best of all, from the looks of things, the story isn't over yet.  I can't wait to watch these two movies back-to-back.

I give Dune: Part Two **** out of ****.

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