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Dune: Part Two

The word that will likely be used most often to describe Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part Two” is “massive.” Expect a whole lot of variations on the words “epic” and “spectacle” too. Whatever big words you apply to the result, Villeneuve undeniably did not approach Frank Herbert’s beloved sci-fi novel with modest aspirations, and it’s his ambition, along with the top tier of behind-the-scenes craftspeople with whom he collaborated, that have paid off in this superior follow-up to the Oscar-winning 2021 film. While that beloved blockbuster often felt like half a film, “Dune: Part Two” locates significantly higher stakes on Arrakis, while injecting just enough humor and nuanced themes about power and fanaticism to flavor the old-fashioned storytelling. More than a simple savior or chosen one story, “Dune: Part Two” is a robust piece of filmmaking, a reminder that this kind of broad-scale blockbuster can be done with artistry and flair.

“Dune: Part Two” picks up so closely on the heels of the first film that the Fremen are still transporting the body of Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun) home again after he was bested in the fight with Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet). After the massacre of House Atreides, Paul chose to go with the Fremen, much to the consternation of his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Thinking both Paul and Jessica were taken by the desert and all hopped up on violence after destroying the Atreides interlopers, House Harkonnen amplifies its attack on the Fremen, leading to a few remarkably staged battles between the warriors and soldiers. Villeneuve and his team deftly fill the first hour with battle sequences that counter the firepower of the Harkonnen military and the Fremen tribal combatants, who often literally emerge from the earth to destroy them. Bodies fall from the sky as enormous ships burst into flames in a way that feels nearly operatic. Amidst the chaos, Dave Bautista cannily sketches Rabban Harkonnen as a wartime leader who is in way over his bald head while Stellan Skargard leans even harder into a sort of blend between Nosferatu and Jabba the Hutt.

As the battle between the Fremen and the Harkonnens for control of Arrakis serves as the backdrop for “Dune: Part Two,” Paul’s arc from nervous young man at the beginning of the first film to potential leader plays out in the foreground. A Fremen tribal leader named Stilgar (Javier Bardem) is convinced that Paul Atreides is the chosen one that has been foretold among his people for generations. Even as so much of the mythology points to Paul’s savior role, the Emo King tries to blend into the Fremen, forming a relationship with a young warrior named Chani (Zendaya). Paul passes the tests put in front of him by the Fremen, takes on the tribal name of Muad’Dib, and vows vengeance against the Harkonnens who were behind his father’s death.

On another planet, an Emperor named Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken) counsels with his daughter Irulan (Florence Pugh) and a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling) on the state of Arrakis. It’s revealed early on that Shaddam basically sent House Atreides to its destruction, meaning he’s on that vengeance list that Paul’s been keeping, while Irulan serves as a sort-of narrator for “Dune: Part Two,” dictating some of the political developments into a device that’s really designed to keep audiences with the plot.

If the interstellar politics aren’t enough, writers Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts inject a nice dose of religious fanaticism for the inevitable think pieces too. Lady Jessica becomes a powerful religious figure of her own among the Fremen, guiding her son’s ascendance in a manner that feels nefarious and unsettling. “Dune: Part Two” is not a traditional hero’s journey in that it’s constantly questioning if being led by an outsider from another culture is the right move—Chani sure doesn’t think so, and Zendaya subtly finds notes to make viewers wonder what a happy ending would be for these characters. As Jessica and Paul learn more about Fremen history and culture, they threaten not to lead it as much as dismantle and own it. There’s a big difference.

While the plotting in “Part Two” is undeniably richer than the first film, its greatest assets are once again on a craft level. Greig Fraser, who won the Oscar for cinematography the first time, tops his work there with stunning use of color and light. It’s in the manner the sun hits Chalamet’s face at a certain angle or the wildly different palettes that differentiate the Harkonnens and the Fremen. The browns and blues of the desert culture don’t feel arid as much as grounded and tactile, while the Harkonnen world is so devoid of color that it’s often literally black and white—even what look like fireworks pop like someone throwing colorless paint at a wall. Hans Zimmer’s Oscar-winning score felt a bit overdone to me in the first film, but he smartly differentiates the cultures here, finding more metallic sounds for the cold Harkonnens to balance against the heated score for the Fremen. Finally, the effects and sound design feel denser this time, and the fight choreography reminds one how poorly this has been done in other blockbuster films.

As for performers, Chalamet is likely to be the most divisive element, often feeling a bit flat for someone believed to be the Neo of this world. However, those choices add up in a way that makes thematic sense, enhancing the uncertainty of Paul’s rise. Zendaya is solid—although she lacks chemistry with Chalamet that would have helped—but it’s Ferguson’s slippery performance and Bardem’s playful one that really add flavors here that weren’t in the first outing. Finally, Austin Butler leans hard into the exaggerated role of Feyd-Rautha, playing the sociopathic nephew of the Baron with all the scenery-chewing intensity that a character like this needs to work, finding the emotional void to balance out against Chalamet’s tempestuous inner monologue.

“Dune: Part Two” has been compared to “The Empire Strikes Back” in the run-up to its release, and that’s not quite right. The better comparison is “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” another film that built on what we knew about the characters from the first film, added a few new ones, and really amplified a sense of continuous battle and danger. Like both films, a third chapter feels inevitable. Critics will have to come up with a new synonym for massive.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

Dune: Part Two movie poster

Dune: Part Two (2024)

Rated PG-13

166 minutes

Cast

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides

Zendaya as Chani

Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides

Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck

Austin Butler as Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen

Florence Pugh as Princess Irulan Corrino

Dave Bautista as Beast Rabban Harkonnen

Christopher Walken as Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV

Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir Hawat

Léa Seydoux as Lady Margot Fenring

Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen

Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam

Javier Bardem as Stilgar

Tim Blake Nelson as Count Hasimir Fenring

Anya Taylor-Joy as Alia Atreides

Director

Screenplay

Novel

Original Music Composer

Director of Photography

Editor

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