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Original caricature by Jeff York of the main cast of DUNE: PART 2. (copyright 2024)

In many respects, DUNE: PART TWO is very much like the middle films of those other great film fantasy trilogies of the last forty years – STAR WARS and LORD OF THE RINGS. Similar to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and THE TWO TOWERS, respectively, the second DUNE film here is well-executed on every level, yet still feels a tad incomplete as it’s only Act II. Director Denis Villeneuve’s latest is breathless in scope, action, and artistry, but holding one’s breath another couple of years to see things wrapped up in the third movie breeds impatience. All the more so because the film is firing on all cylinders making for a truly epic cinematic experience.

DUNE: PART TWO pulls you immediately into its world, picking up right after the events of the first film. Once again, Paul Altreides (Timothée Chalamet) is at the center of things, flexing his new muscles as it has been foreseen that he will be the one to lead the indigenous Fremen out of bondage on their own planet of Arrakis. Their world is now being run by the nefarious overlord Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) and Paul despises him further for assassinating his father (Oscar Isaac) in the first part of the story. Director Denis Villeneuve continues to bring all of the same skill and devotion to author Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 science fiction novel that he did three years ago, though in part two, the story of Paul accelerates as he steps up to lead and grows into an often surly and self-interested adult. It’s a fascinating character arc, and there is a deepening of almost all the players this time out which makes for a more intimate story despite the epic surroundings of the desert planet rendered wholly real vis a vis truly jaw-dropping special effects.

While in that desert, Paul bonds with Stilgar (Javier Bardem), the leader of the indigenous people who is his greatest supporter. He believes that the young man truly is a Messianic figure who has what’s needed to challenge the brutal and greedy Harkonnen now harvesting their drug-like spice found within its sands. Additionally, rebel fighter Chani (Zendaya) is in Paul’s corner too as a fellow soldier, his teacher of the ways of the Fremen, and comely love interest. The scenes between Paul and Chani are charming if rather chaste, but it’s nice to see Zendaya stepping into the limelight here. (Her part in the first one was as slight as her lithe frame.) Still, writers Villeneuve and Jon Spaights imbue the scenes of the star-crossed lovers with heart and wit, especially when Chani teaches Paul how to navigate the sands on foot. Their in-tandem choreography, sashaying across the plains, plays like an arid Astaire and Rogers. Delightful.

Both Stilgar and Chani also help Paul learn to corral the ginormous sand worms to be utilized as transports for great distances. This could’ve looked utterly silly and did in David Lynch’s misbegotten attempt back in 1984 with its painfully crude green screen effects. But here, Villeneuve and his CGI wizards make such scenes not only believable but mesmerizing. Even scenes later, when a number of sand worms seem to be called upon as desert Ubers, the effects and scale still dazzle. In fact, the CGI looks so utterly believable, you’ll swear it was all shot in a real desert.

Paul has less success navigating the trust and alliance of his own mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). A prickly pear to begin with, the former royal only grows more mysterious and manipulative with each minute of her story. Ferguson is fantastic in the part, especially when she becomes empowered by taking over the role as Fremen high priestess. She’s even more formidable then, challenging Paul’s decisions and even trying to manipulate him via her newly discovered head games. The antagonism between these two protagonists make for the best character interactions in the film.

New characters are introduced and two of them manage to make a great impression. Austin Butler plays Feyd-Rautha, the Baron’s psychotic son, and he cuts a truly terrifying figure – lean and lethal. Florence Pugh makes the most out of her smallish part this go-round, though her Princess Irulan, daughter of the less-than-honorable Emperor (Christopher Walken), will figure more strongly in the rest of the story. Pugh makes every gesture, pause and glower into something special, and she’s one of the talents working today who makes thinking on camera as fascinating as when speaking. Walken is so-so in his part as he looks more lost than malevolent. He should’ve played up the royal arrogance the way  José Ferrer did in Lynch’s take, one of the few comparisons that benefits the 1984 take.  A few other characters get short-changed this go-round, like Josh Brolin’s brusque warrior Gurney Halleck, and most amazingly, Skarsgård in the role of the primary bad guy. He cut such a slothful and repulsive figure in the first film, but for a villain of such heft, his part is demonstrably thinner here.

As in DUNE: PART ONE, Villeneuve aces the action, enabling through-lines to come through clearly, and never using editing to mask short cuts in storyboarding or budgeting. Of particular note is the one-on-one combat scene late in the story between Chalamet and Butler. It wholly looks like the two stars are performing their own stunts, and the fight is shot like a dance number to show the full bodies engaging each other versus cutaways to hide the stunt people.

But even as good as that fight is, or as all of the brutal battle scenes are between the warring parties in this chapter, this second installment is notable for how it shifts the focus more and more towards the fallout of its skirmishes. What are the societal consequences of Lady Jessica and her clairvoyant but unborn baby barking orders at the citizenry and plotting military strategy? Will Paul need to sacrifice his own personal happiness, and a potential marriage to Chani to keep intergalactic peace after his battle wins? And what maneuvers must he and the Fremon put on the table to ensure the entirety of the other planets in the galaxy  go along with the new shifts in power? It’s a lot of political food for thought, such queries that could make the third film the most fascinating and complicated of all.

Villeneuve ensures that Herbert’s symbolism isn’t as heavy-handed as it often was in his prose. And he lets a lot of visuals speak louder than the dialogue, especially as echoes of character –  you’ll note how slyly Jessica’s transport carrier resembles a serpent’s head. The filmmaker doesn’t underline the Christian allegories too blatantly either. Still, the film is very sharp as it questions the role of a messiah in war and how power done in the name of righteousness can still be horrific and inhumane. DUNE: PART TWO is nothing if not quite pointed in echoing similar power struggles today, sharing characteristics of the fights going on in both the Ukraine and Gaza. Some may view this simply as epic filmmaking as good as it gets, or sci-fi that is both intellectual and invigorating. But look closer, and it plays as a shrewd dissertation on power and the sacrifices it takes to hold onto it. It’s not just eye-popping spectacle, it’s thought-provoking cinema. And both its look and scope are best observed on the big screen. DUNE: PART TWO truly deserves such a large canvas.

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