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‘Dune: Part Two’ Sustains the Dystopian Dream of ‘Part One’

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A mysterious white man peers out from under a dark hood. There is a small mechanism placed under his nose.
Timothee Chalamet in ‘Dune: Part Two.’ (Niko Tavernise/ Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Three firm thumps into the Arrakis sand is all you need to summon a sandworm in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two. It’s almost as easy as hailing a cab or calling for the check.

The big buggers can’t resist the sound, which is a little like how I feel taking in all the vibrations of Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science-fiction novel. Whispers, incantations and guttural sounds buzz throughout Part Two, a hissing hulk of a sequel that fluctuates between ominous silences and thunderous booms.

The first Dune, released in 2021 when movie theaters were still humbled by the pandemic, tackled just the first half of Herbert’s opus, saving the second half for the sequel. That split can be owed in part to the enormous amount of plot contained in the novel, but it can also be attributed to the operatic rhythms of Villeneuve’s solemn spectacle. Sober as they are, Dune parts one and two are almost drunk on their own sense of atmosphere.

And with good reason. Like its predecessor, Dune: Part Two thrums with an intoxicating big-screen expressionism of monoliths and mosquitos, fevered visions and messianic fervor — more dystopian dream, or nightmare, than a straightforward narrative.

That filmmaking prowess sometimes comes at the expense of other things. Humor, for one, is in shorter supply on Arrakis than water. Javier Bardem, returning as the Fremen leader Stilgar, alone seems to want to breathe a little laughter into all the fiery red sands and mammoth machinery of Dune.

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Part Two primarily follows the rise of Paul Atreides ( Timothée Chalamet ), who, after seeing his father killed and House Atreides routed from the Arrakis capital by House Harkonnen and Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (a monstrously good Stellan Skarsgård), is now living among the Fremen, the desert-dwelling peoples of Arrakis, with his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson).

The myth of Paul is already growing among the Fremen, who call him Muad’Dib. (A great feature of these movies, like Hebert’s books, is the exquisite names.) Is he the chosen one or a false prophet? Doubts are gradually erased by his accomplishments (leading strikes against Harkonnen spice harvesters; quickly learning the ways of the Fremen); the cunning maneuvering of Lady Jessica; and the worshipful zeal of Stilgar.

The Fremen warrior Chani ( Zendaya ), though skeptical of the hype, believes, with some reluctance, in Paul. Part Two is significantly propped up by their dynamic and budding romance, a relationship that gives a deserving wide-screen canvas to two of the most exciting young movie stars of their generation.

For a while it’s fun and games in the desert, blowing up stuff and learning how to ride sand worms. Oh, there’s the matter of the “holy poison” forced on Lady Jessica, a neon-blue liquid extracted from sand worms that looks like it would produce a fine Slush Puppie, but, if it doesn’t kill you, confers a frightful clairvoyance of the universe.

A woman glares into the distance with thinly veiled anger. She is wearing dirty utilitarian clothes and is surrounded by men dressed similarly.
Zendaya in ‘Dune: Part Two.’ (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Blue is an important color in the otherwise darker shaded Dune. It lights up in Lady Jessica’s eyes and, later, Paul’s too. If you thought Peter O’Toole’s eyes blazed in Lawrence of Arabia, Paul’s look like they’ve been pumped through with windshield-wiper fluid. As his following swells, Paul grows increasingly aware, and fearful, of his god-like power.

Dune: Part Two spends much of its energy with Paul wrestling with this supposed messianic destiny. Like Lawrence of Arabia, he’s a white protagonist from the West (or, here, the “Outer World”) on a Middle Eastern-like desert, leading the revolution of a dark-skinned population against oppressors whom he, himself, has deep ties to.

Herbert’s metaphor-rife book has sometimes been interpreted — or misinterpreted, scholars would say — by the alt-right for its racial politics. Villeneuve’s film, scripted by the director and Jon Spaihts, appears highly conscious of this legacy as well as that of the white-savior trope. And often — as in so much of these two films — the movie expresses itself most through imagery and movement.

The Harkonnens, universally white, bald and violent, are served up as the symbol of colonist rule. In the middle of Part Two, the film introduces the Harkonnen prince Feyd-Rautha (a hairless Austin Butler, looking a bit too much like the albino protagonist of 1995’s Powder) who is a kind of opposite to Paul. He, too, could take command of Arrakis.

A pale young white man with a bald head and no eyebrows gazes at an attractive blonde woman wearing a blue hooded velvet dress. Their faces are close together.
Austin Butler and Lea Seydoux in ‘Dune: Part Two.’ (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

When Villeneuve temporarily switches to Feyd-Rautha’s story and away from Paul and Chani, the film’s richly orchestrated sense of momentum falters. But the comparison is illuminating. In a massive colosseum, Feyd-Rautha ruthlessly battles a trio of Atreides survivors in a scene, bleached in monochrome, that looks like Triumph of the Will, supersized.

There’s an earnest reckoning here in the power dynamics of the source material and previous Hollywood tales of first-and-third world confrontations. There’s plenty of doubt to go around for all involved, too. The movie’s perspective ultimately resides in the drained, shrouded face of Charlotte Rampling, who plays the matriarch of the Bene Gesserit (again, the names!), a mystic order that pulls the strings behind the galactic politics of Dune. For her, it’s a game of raw calculation and “no sides.”

As Part Two brings all parties together for the final act, it begins to lose steam. The Emperor (Christopher Walken) and his daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), seen sporadically from afar debating the events on Arrakis, turn up. But while Walken’s company is always welcome, he might be too warm a presence for Dune — too much of the Earth despite so often seeming on a planet of his own.

Yet the limpness of the finale, despite all of the expert build-up of Hans Zimmer’s score and Mark Mangini and Theo Green’s sound design, goes to something deeper. Villeneuve’s great talent lies, I think, in invocation. He may be less perfect when it comes to conclusions but he’s brilliant at summoning — a sense of doom, a suddenly appeared spacecraft, a sandworm. Even better than those serpentine sand creatures (the runaway stars of Part Two) is that thump, thump, thump that precedes them.

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‘Dune: Part Two’ is released nationwide on March 1, but will play in Bay Area IMAX theaters from Feb. 25, 2024.

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