Dune: Part Two – Review

It has not been an easy road to the big screen for Dune.  The beloved sci-fi epic novel from author Frank Herbert was once thought to be un-filmable.  Within it’s nearly 700 pages of text is a densely plotted narrative filled with political intrigue and deep philosophical questions.  Oh, and there’s giant sand worms too.  Many filmmakers flirted with adapting the text for the big screen.  Avant Garde Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky famously made a valiant attempt in the 1970’s to get Frank Herbert’s vision to become a reality, but sadly it never got past the development stage.  It’s considered by many to be one of the greatest films that never got made, and the details of it are spotlighted in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013).  In 1984, the task would be given to rising star filmmaker David Lynch, who brought his own bizarre directing style to the project.  While he was able to complete the film, it would end up being a compromised project, condensing the vast expanse of Herbert’s novel into a compact 2 hour and 17 minute run time, making it a somewhat messy adaptation.  Audiences were generally unimpressed and the film performed poorly at the box office, though over time it would gain a cult following.  David Lynch himself swore off ever attempting another big budget project like Dune ever again, instead focusing his energy on smaller, more auteur driven projects in the decades after, and he has largely disowned the movie as well, even taking his name off of extended cuts.  It would take another four decades for Hollywood to seriously take another shot at adapting Herbert’s monumental epic, with many more filmmakers flirting with the prospect before ultimately passing it by.

Enter Denis Villeneuve, a French Canadian filmmaker that had put together an impressive resume in the 2010’s.  After a string of critically acclaimed thrillers such as Enemy (2013), Prisoners (2014), and Sicario (2015), Denis made an even bigger impression moving into science fiction.  His film Arrival (2016) earned him his first recognition from the Academy Awards with nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, and that in turn led to a high profile gig of creating the long awaited sequel Blade Runner 2049 (2017), his highest budgeted film to date.  While Blade Runner 2049 was not a box office success, it still won a lot of acclaim for Denis for his remarkable handling of the film’s epic scale.  But all of these films seemed like warm-ups for what had always been Denis’ dream project; Dune.  With his proposal winning over the rights holders at Legendary Pictures, Denis was set to get his wish granted with a grand scale adaptation of this iconic novel for the big screen.  To do justice to Herbert’s narrative, Denis Villeneuve determined that the story would need to be split into two films.  However, to convince the financers of the project, Warner Brothers, that this was the right course of action, he would have to make Parts One and Two separately, with approval for the latter contingent on the success of the former.  It was a gamble, but it guaranteed at least one film for Villeneuve.  Unfortunately, the ability to turn Part One into a success hit a major roadblock with the Covid-19 pandemic.  Originally slated for an October 2020 premiere, the film ended up being delayed a full year.  And then, when it did finally make it to theaters, the effects of the pandemic were still in play with audiences not fully back.  Plus, Warner Brothers foolishly decided to release their entire 2021 slate day and date on streaming in addition to theaters, cutting back any potential box office profits.  This boded poorly for Dune: Part One, and yet, the film managed to find it’s audience, managing to be one of the few WB projects that year to cross the $100 million mark and it picked up a total of 6 Oscars for it’s technical achievements, and even earned a Best Picture nom.  Needless to say, despite the odds, Warner Brothers was convinced to fulfill their promise and allowed Denis Villeneuve to complete his epic adaptation.  The question is, though, did Denis Villeneuve stick the landing with Dune: Part Two.

The movie picks up right where the previous film ended.   In the distant future year of 10191, on the desert planet Arrakis, the high House of Atreides has been destroyed after a bloody coup perpetrated by the rival House Harkonnen, with the knowing consent of the Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken).  Although the Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) and his brutal nephew Rabban (Dave Bautista) believe that they have wiped out the entire Atreides household, far out in the desert plains of Arrakis, two survivors remain.  The son of slain Duke Leto, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) both survived their assassination attempts and are exiled far from home.  To survive in the harsh, worm infested desert, Paul and Jessica have formed an alliance with the native Fremen people who seek refuge in underground settlements.   Their leader, Stilgar (Javier Bardem) believes that Paul is a prophesized spiritual savior that could unite the Fremen people and help them reclaim their home world from the Imperium once and for all.  Stilagar’s daughter Chani (Zendaya) is far more skeptical of the prophesy, but over time she warms up to Paul’s presence within their tribe and over time, a budding romance emerges.  Paul and the Fremen engage in guerilla warfare against the spice trade that the Harkonnens run on Arrakis, weakening the Baron’s status amongst the high households.  The Baron seeks help from the Emperor and his daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), both of whom suggest that the Baron elevates his youngest nephew to commander of the Harkonnen forces.  That nephew is the psychotic warrior Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), who has no qualms about achieving success by any means necessary; even in harming the most innocent.  With a new threat coming to Arrakis, Paul Atreides must decide if he should embrace his position as the prophesized savior, the Kwisatz Haderach, in order to unite all the Fremen tribes, or abandon it and disappear out of fear of the thing that he may turn into if he fully accepts his destiny, igniting a much bloodier holy war across the known universe.

When Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One (2021) first premiered, it was heralded by long time fans of the books and causal viewers alike.  Dune has often been described as the Lord of the Rings or science fiction, and that distinction carries over with it’s cinematic adaptation as well.  Just as with Peter Jackson’s beloved adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic fantasy trilogy, many believe Villeneuve’s Dune to be the definitive adaptation of the novel for the big screen.  But getting to this point almost didn’t happen because of some short sighted moves on Warner Brothers part.  Unlike The Lord of the Rings which had the luxury of filming all the films in one single multi-year shoot, the completion of Dune was split up and could have ended abruptly had things not gone well.  The ill-fated “Project Popcorn” initiative of 2021 also gave ill tidings for the completion of Villenueve’s vision.  It could have been very possible that we would have only had the first half of the book on screen and nothing more; which would have been double insulting given that Dune: Part One ends so abruptly.  Thankfully, despite the hurdles, the movie was a success and Dune: Part Two is here, giving us the full breadth of Frank Herbert’s original novel.  And thankfully, despite all the drama and the long wait, Denis has managed to stick the landing.  There is no drop in quality at all between Parts One and Two, and it really does feel like the continuation of the first film.  Of course one big difference is that Warner Brothers feels less cautious this time around and has gone full force giving their full confidence to Denis.  Part One in many ways was Denis setting the pieces on the board, and Part Two is where the game really begins.  Everything is bigger, grander, and the stakes are even higher.  It definitely feels that this is the dream part of the project that Denis Villeneuve was always itching to get to, and thankfully the stars aligned to make it happen, even amidst the wort resistance.

There are a lot of things to be impressed with in Dune: Part Two and it does feel like the mightier film in the series.  But, I wouldn’t say that it does everything better than Part One.  The one thing that is a nitpick for me with the movie is that I think the pacing is not as strong, or should I say consistent as it was with Part OnePart One was a masterfully paced film that never let off the gas from beginning to end.  While the pacing is still overall good in Part Two, I do feel there are some hiccups along the way that stall an otherwise spectacular experience.  And it’s not just scenes that pad out the run time; there are moments as well that I feel don’t fully take advantage of some of the big moments in the movie.  The ending in particular seems a bit rushed, as big moments toward the finale don’t quite carry the weight they should.  The film already has a epic sized 166 minute run time (which alongside Part One‘s run time takes the full experience to 5 hours of storytelling) but I feel it could have made the experience even stronger if it let the finale breath a bit more to let the pivotal moments feel even grander.  It’s a rare instance where I’d say an already long movie should have been just a little longer; possibly even rounding out to the full 3 hours.  Even still, all of the classic moments from the book are here, and they are still impactful.  Where the movie actually feels well paced though are in some of the moments that Frank Herbert more often glosses over.  The development of Paul Atreides earning his place within the Fremen society is given more development here than any past adaptation, as is his romance with Chani, which becomes a crucial backbone for the movie overall.   One other thing that the movie sadly lacks apart from Part One is the novelty.  Dune: Part One was such a revelation when it first premiered; a welcome return of a prestige blockbuster in a time when popcorn entertainment in the form of comic book movies still dominated the landscape.  Dune: Part Two doesn’t really stand out as much; it’s just the same movie, but more.  I feel like the two movies are intended to be viewed as a whole, but it unfortunately takes away from the individual merit of the movie itself.  Again these are nitpicks for what otherwise is an impressively mounted film on any other measure.

One of the things that Denis Villeneuve really ups the ante with in this film is the scale of the action scenes.  Part One had some impressive action moments, but most of the best action scenes were contained on a intimate one to one scale.  Here, Villeneuve takes things to a more biblical level, with armies numbering in the thousands clashing on vast battlefields.  This is a movie that definitely demands to be seen on the largest screens possible, which thankfully now in a post-pandemic environment are more widely accessible than they were back when Part One was in theaters.  I caught this movie in 70mm IMAX, and let me tell you that is the ideal way to watch the movie.  Villeneuve took the cue from fellow grand epic director, Christopher Nolan, and specifically shot most of the movie with IMAX cameras with this presentation being the intended showcase.  There are some moments in this movie that will take your breath away with how immersive they are.  Arrakis is it’s own character in the movie, and Villeneuve really showcases the beauty of the familiar yet alien landscape that the planet has.  Even the surreal sunsets with the two moons of Arrakis eclipsing the sun create a kind of eerie crescent unlike anything we’ve seen before.  And then of course, there are the worms.  The colossal titans of the desert are a marvel meant to be appreciated on a vast movie screen, and the visual effects team did a remarkable job making them feel as grandiose as possible.  The scene where Paul Atreides takes his first solo ride aboard the back of a worm is a particular highlight of the movie, with all departments of cinematography, sound, computer animation, and practical effects all working together to create a truly epic moment on screen.  Also, the legendary Hans Zimmer delivers yet another heart-pounding musical score that certainly was rattling the rib cages of everyone in my theater with that mighty IMAX speaker system.

Giving the movie another air of high quality is the incredibly strong all star cast.  Part One had a very impressive cast to begin with, and Part Two managed to maintain all of the holdovers from that cast without losing any of the performance in between films.  Everyone whose character made it out of Part One alive picks right up where they left off and continues to deliver pitch perfect performances in Part Two.  Timothee Chalamet continues to impress in the role of Paul Atreides, a character that was always going to be a challenge to get right especially in this second half of the book, and he rises to the challenge with some impressively commanding moments.  The Fremen characters that only come into the story late in Part One are thankfully expanded upon here, and the actors do a masterful job with their roles.  Javier Bardem’s Stilgar is one of the few characters allowed to be a little more loose and comical compared to the stoic others in the movie, and Bardem gets some well earned laughs in the movie without it feeling out of place.  Zendaya, whose Chani barely factored in the first movie, is the biggest standout in Part Two, as you see her character go through some substantial growth in the story.  Zendaya really captures the passionate fervor that drives Chani as a character, and given all the craziness that goes on, she really helps to ground the movie with her cynical eye towards the myths and lies that have shaped the world around her.  Of the brand new characters, the real stand out is Austin Butler as Feyd-Rautha.  It’s hard to imagine that this is the same actor who played Elvis Presley in the Baz Luhrrman directed biopic just a couple year ago.  He is transformed in this role, and he leaves an eerie impression.  His coliseum fight on the Harkonnen home world may be one of the best villain introductions I’ve seen in a long while.  And while they don’t have a whole lot of screen time, the characters of Princess Irulan and Emperor Shaddam IV do make the most of their presence and that’s largely due to the talents of their actors.  Florence Pugh carries a captivating sense of intelligence in her performance.  And of course Christopher Walken’s casting as the Emperor brings a great deal of gravitas to the minor role and it’s a real coup on the part of the movie to get an actor as legendary as him to be a part of this.

I don’t know what Warner Brothers was thinking by not planning ahead and having both parts of Dune filmed simultaneously.  It was probably an economic choice, but if it didn’t work out, you would have left a beloved story cut unceremoniously short with a nagging open-ended finale that connects to nothing.  Thankfully, Dune: Part Two has become a reality and the full story of Frank Herbert’s original novel can now be appreciated cinematically for all time as a complete whole.  Of course, this isn’t quite the end just yet.  Dune was only the first of many books that Frank Herbert wrote about the desert planet Arrakis and the legacy of Paul Atreides.  Denis Villeneuve has already said that he intends to return to adapt the second book in the series, Dune Messiah, which has a far better chance of getting green lit with the expected huge box office that Dune: Part Two is expected to generate.  In the end, it all worked out for Denis Villenueve, and he may have made it possible for their to be an epic movie franchise that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.  As a movie on it’s own, Dune: Part Two is an impressively mounted movie, though I think it works best as a companion to the first film and vice versa.  Denis Villenueve intended for the two parts of Dune to be a complete whole rather than two individual films with their own unique identities.  While I do appreciate the incredible achievement that this movie is, I do wish it had resonated just a bit more as it’s own film.  It might also be possible that I may warm up to the movie more with repeat viewings, and that I just need to give the film time to fully marinate in my mind.  It happened with Oppenheimer (2023) last year, where it took me two more viewings to fully appreciate that film as a genuine masterpiece.  I feel like Dune: Part Two will stick with me in the same way.  It is an overwhelming experience the first time, and that can be a good thing.  I was sitting pretty close to the colossal IMAX screen at my theater (one of the largest in America) so some distance may help me in the future.  For now, I highly recommend seeing this on the big screen and ideally in IMAX if available in your area.  Few movies are made with this kind of spectacle in mind, and like great epics of the past like The Lord of the Rings, Denis Villenueve has taken a beloved work of literature and brought out it’s full potential as big screen spectacle.  Capturing every detail, from the tiniest grains of spice to the enormity of the mighty sand worms, this movie does Frank Herbert’s vision proud.

Rating: 8.5/10