FILM REVIEW: Denis Villeneuve’s DUNE PART TWO is a feast for the senses.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s conclusion to his Dune saga is a provocative meditation on the fall of a corrupt feudal system turned totalitarian and the rise of a radicalized fundamentalist fascist regime.

When one thinks of Frank Herbert’s Dune, a book many either read in college or high school, you tend to think of it as an example of the hero’s journey with the reluctant boy turned freedom fighter Paul Atreides thrust to overthrow the evil forces of the Space Emperor Shaddam Corino IV who have backed his uncle Vladimir Harkonnen into slaughtering his family over the price of the planet Arrakis. Arrakis’ main resource is Spice, a hallucinogenic element that enables spacefaring trade throughout the universe. Whoever controls this element largely controls the universe. The planet itself is a barren desert world inhabited by desert nomadic tribes of Fremen and giant sandworms that produce Spice. In this world, the Fremen believe in an eventual messianic figure from beyond, the Lisan Al-Ghaib, who will free them from this feudal system and lead them to Paradise; an idea planted by the Bene-Gesserit religious order. This order is highly analogous to the modus operandi of Catholicism during its expansion into the New World, equating local religious ideas and figures to Catholic saints and playing ideas to make their missionaries work easier. One of the strengths of Herbert’s work was using science fiction as an allegory to Tge Crusades, Spice to the political importance of the spice trade among the political kingdoms in Europe and colonization of the new world.

Villeneuve’s sequel to his 2022 film Dune follows this idea of science fiction as political allegory much more closely than his first film did. While Dune Part One heavily focused on the mysticism of the Fremen culture and the importance of the Bene-Gesserit plans for creating lineages they could control and keeping Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) from siring a son with Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), it largely hued closely to the book and previous adaptations of the novel. Paul (Timothee Chalamet), Leto and Jessica’s son, was seen as a threat by the Reverend another (Charlotte Gainsborough) and they manipulate events to have the Atreides leave their home Caladan to govern Arrakis. From there they conspire to have the Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skaarsgard) invade Arrakis to wipe out their lineage, though unbeknownst to them, Paul and Jessica survive and are taken in by a Fremen tribe led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem) who sees Paul as the possible Messiah prophesied to lead the Fremen. Paul also meets Chani (Zendaya) a brave Fremen warrior who he has seen in his Spice visions and begins to fall for her.

It is here that we pick up in Dune Part Two. While Villeneuve seemed to strive for a close adaptation in Part One, Part Two is a much more esoteric film; one that follows a sketch of the outline of the rest of the novel while exploring themes that interest Villeneuve that he has explored in his other films. Dune Part Two explores the failure of institutions that you can see in Polytechnique as well as the depths that religious fervor will drive individuals seen in his films Prisoners and Incendies. Here Villeneuve explores the conflict between the Emperor (Christopher Walken) and the Harkonnen forces against Paul and the Fremen in terms of literal black and white fascism against a theocratic sort of fascism; one where to question Paul’s role as desert messiah is akin to questioning the will of God.

This rising cult of personality colors the relationship between Chani and Paul. At first,
Paul is reluctant to take on the role of God Emperor, seeing himself as a simple Fremen. This is the Paul that Chani loves and the film soars during the love story of Paul and Chani. It many ways it colors the ending of the film with the Kwisatz Haderach coming into power. As Paul becomes the voice from the outer world, he leaves Chani to do so; giving the film an ominous air and ambivalent ending that results in a moreintriguing conclusion; albeit a conclusionthat deviates heavily from the tone of the novel. In this case, Villaneuve’s changes makes for a more interesting piece overall, albeit one that fans of the book or prior films may take issue with.

One thing fans of film won’t fault dune for is the film’s excellent performances overall. Ferguson’s Jessica channels a dark religious figure here fully, coming off a similar atmosphere of repressed knowledge and an insular society in Apple’s excellent sci-fi drama Silo. Anna Taylor-Joy has a small but pivotal role in the film that has also been reimagined from the source material but it’s fascinating and beautiful how it is portrayed. Josh Brolin’s Gunney commands his scenes much the way Jason Momoa’s Duncan did in the first film, but it is Javier Bardem’s Stilgar that is the beating heart of the film. This film doesn’t work without Bardem’s fervor in his character’s undying belief in Paul. He is the Morpheus to Chalamet’s Neo and every minute of screen time he has is earned. Austin Butler’s Feyd Rautha is lost in prosthetic makeup and nine inch nails iconography, basically a retread of Batista’s Rabban with some kink hang-ups. Florence Pugh’s Irulan is there to give us something of a broader storyline, though her Irulan is just as much a plot driver instead of a character as Virginia Madsen’s was in the 1984 adaptation. More could’ve been done to build up the broader threat from the houses and Emperor here, but that’s not what Villeneuve is interested in exploring versus the rise of a cult of personality.

Dune Part two is an amazing film, one with amazing visuals and sound and great performances exploring issues in the modern world through allegory in a way that makes it more compelling than its source material. But it is also a film that isn’t very interested in following the very letter of its source material in this adaptation and that causes certain performances to salvage thinly sketched characters that aren’t really there in terms of dialogue or plot. But as far as the spectacle of what Villeneuve’s film was trying to capture, it does so in ways no adaptation has ever dreamed to imagine in scope and execution. Definitely worthy of a watch.