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The art of cinematic spectacle is alive and rocking in Dune: Part Two

Set in the aftermath of the first movie, the sequel resumes the story boldly, delivering visions both phantasmagoric and familiar

Manohla Dargis Published 02.03.24, 06:48 AM
Timothee Chalamet in Dune: Part Two that released in theatres on March 1

Timothee Chalamet in Dune: Part Two that released in theatres on March 1

Having gone big in Dune, his 2021 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s futuristic opus, Denis Villeneuve has gone bigger and more far out in the follow-up. Set in the aftermath of the first movie, the sequel resumes the story boldly, delivering visions both phantasmagoric and familiar. Like Timothee Chalamet’s dashingly coifed hero — who steers monstrous sandworms over the desert like a charioteer — Villeneuve puts on a great show. The art of cinematic spectacle is alive and rocking in Dune: Part Two, and it’s a blast.

It’s a surprisingly nimble moonshot, even with all its gloom and doom and brutality. Big-screen enterprises, particularly those adapted from books with a huge, fiercely loyal readership, often have a ponderousness built into every image. In some, you can feel the enormous effort it takes as filmmakers try to turn reams of pages into moving images that have commensurate life, artistry and pop on the screen. Adaptations can be especially deadly when moviemakers are too precious with the source material: they’re torpedoed by fealty.

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Dune made it clear that Villeneuve isn’t that kind of textualist. As he did in the original, he has again taken plentiful liberties with Herbert’s behemoth to make Part Two, which he wrote with the returning Jon Spaihts. Characters, subplots and volumes of dialogue (interior and otherwise) have again been reduced or excised altogether. (I was sorry that the great character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, who played an eerie adviser in the first movie, didn’t make the cut here.) The story — its trajectory, protagonist and concerns — remains recognisable yet also different.

Dune turns on Paul Atreides (Chalamet), an aristocrat who becomes a guerrilla and crusader and whose destiny weighs as heavily on him as any crown. In adapting Dune, Villeneuve effectively cleaved Herbert’s novel in half. (Herbert wrote six Dune books, a series that has morphed into a multimedia franchise) The first part makes introductions and sketches of Paul’s back story as the beloved only son of a duke, Leto (Oscar Isaac), and his concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). When it opens, the royals, on orders from the universe’s emperor, are preparing to vacate their home planet, a watery world called Caladan, to the parched planet of Arrakis, aka Dune.

The move to Arrakis goes catastrophically wrong; many members of House Atreides are murdered by their enemies, most notably the pallid, villainous House Harkonnen and Paul’s father dies. Paul and Lady Jessica escape into the desert where — after much side-eyeing and muttering along with one of those climactic mano-a-mano duels that turn fictional boys into men — they find uneasy allies in a group of Fremen, the planet’s indigenous population. A tribal people who have adapted to Dune’s harsh conditions with clever survival tactics, like form-fitting suits that conserve bodily moisture, the Fremen are scattered across the planet under the emperor’s rule. Some fight to be free; many pray for a messiah.

Part Two opens with Paul and his mother hunkered down in the desert, hiding behind a sandy crest amid a company of Fremen warriors. Among these are Chani (Zendaya) and Stilgar (Javier Bardem), who personify the Fremen’s divergent ideas about liberation. Stilgar is a man of faith who, not long into the sequel, starts to believe that Paul is the Fremen messiah. This requires Bardem to keep repeating variations of the same true-believer line (basically, Paul is the one!), which he does with expressive, at times humorous, animation. Chani, who in turn believes that a Fremen must lead them to freedom, initially views Paul with enough knitted-brow scepticism to give their inevitable romance a little frisson.

Chalamet and Zendaya make an appealing duo, and the two performers fit together with tangible ease as their characters grow close. Both actors are fun to look at and every bit as watchable and glamorous as old-fashioned Hollywood stars (I kept wondering what product he uses to tame his curls), which is amusing but makes sense for their outsize roles. Chalamet and Zendaya tend to overwork their glowers and puppy eyes in their less chatty scenes (the desert quiet can make loose talk deadly), but together they humanise the story, giving it the necessary personal stakes and a warmth that helps balance the chilling violence.

Herbert was a worldbuilder par excellence and he drew from an astonishment of references to create a fantastical realm. The results are unusual enough to inspire curiosity and, at times, a sense of wonder, even as the story retains a connection to the reality outside its pages. It’s a dense palimpsest, with influences ranging from Greek mythology to Shakespearean tragedy and Jungian psychology. Time and again, especially in its representations of a hostile environment and religious fanaticism, it can also seem like a warning to the present day.

Villeneuve’s approach in adapting the novel is, effectively, one of judicious distillation. Like the first movie, Part Two advances the plot fluently (it’s easy to follow), through both dialogue and action sequences that are true to the spirit of the book, its overarching narrative arc, vibe and weirdness. The dialogue sounds natural, even when characters are throwing around names like the Bene Gesserit, the misterioso religious sorority that assumes greater prominence in Part Two. Crucially, the action sequences don’t stop the movie dead or make the rest of it seem irrelevant. Mainstream adventure films often toggle between expository and action sequences with wearyingly predictability... here, everything flows.

Dune is finally a war story, like many contemporary screen spectacles, and it isn’t long into Part Two before bodies begin to fall. In the swiftly paced opener, Harkonnen soldiers, led by a bald shouter called the Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista), descend to the desert floor from their flying machines. Wearing bulky uniforms that make them seem as lumbering as old-school deep-sea divers, the soldiers seem too ungainly to take on the Fremen, agile fighters with parkour moves and billy goat balance. Villeneuve is good at surprises, though, and he knows how to marshal contrasts — light and dark, immensity and puniness — to create interest and tension. Soon enough the Harkonnen are rapidly jetpacking through the air, and it’s on.

Part Two moves with comparable dexterity despite all the weightiness, the byzantine complexities and knotty conspiracies shared among different factions. The sequel brings back many familiar faces, including Josh Brolin as the Atreides loyalist Gurney Halleck and Stellan Skarsgard as the monstrous Baron. The leader of House Harkonnen, the Baron spends much of his time killing his minions or marinating his often-bared, massively spherical body in a tub of what looks like crude oil. Rabban, his inept nephew, is soon overshadowed by the most striking addition to the Dune detachment, another nephew, Feyd-Rautha, a malignancy played by an unrecognisable, utterly creepy Austin Butler.

As spectrally white and seemingly hairless as his uncle, Feyd-Rautha looks like a bulked-up worm. He’s a warrior and every bit as wicked as his uncle. Yet he isn’t the usual sexed-up antihero despite the curves of Butler’s muscles and his sensual pout, and the character remains a disturbing narrative question mark. Feyd-Rautha becomes Paul’s challenger, but he also serves as a counterpart to the huge sandworms that travel beneath Arrakis’s surface and produce the planet’s invaluable natural resource, known as melange or spice. As crucial as petroleum, as addictive as smack, spice sparkles like pixie dust, alters minds, and turns eyes vivid blue but mostly it keeps this universe running — and violently churning.

Our world is never far from that of Dune, with its cruelty, greed, fearmongering, sectarian divisions, battle cries and power plays. (The sandworms by contrast are wonderfully otherworldly; they’re fantastic creatures with long meaty bodies and bristly, baleenlike maws, which make for a fearsome if playful confusion of mammalian, slightly gendered images.) Part of the story’s potency is its familiarity. Like Herbert, Villeneuve has tapped assorted influences to create the world of Dune, drawing from myths, westerns, war films and so on. There’s even a nod to David Lynch, who directed the 1984 Dune,” though the obvious touchstone is David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia, with its own blue-eyed hero.

Lean’s movie is based on the life of T.E. Lawrence, who played a role in the Arab Revolt of 1916, in which British-backed Arab forces expelled the Ottomans from parts of the Middle East. That film, with its white saviour and the anguished colonialist history it evokes, hangs over Dune provocatively. For all the challenges that Villeneuve has faced in adapting the novel to the screen, none have seemed more insurmountable than remaining faithful to the complexity of Herbert’s Paul Atreides, whose power is less than triumphant. Disturbed by his mother’s ambitions and haunted by apocalyptic visions, Paul remains as unsure of his destiny as you are. Don’t expect many answers by the end of Part Two — as I said, Herbert wrote five additional books — though, like me, you may want to put your money on Zendaya.

Manohla Dargis
(The New York Times News Service)

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