Written by Tom Augustine.

Frank Herbert’s Dune is a series of science fiction stories that common knowledge might have you group alongside the works of Tolkien, Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, and other luminaries who created immense pillars of geekdom (and, often, remarkable art). There are cosmetic traits Dune shares with these titles, but the series – from my layman, non-reader perspective – ultimately belongs to an ilk of darker, more twisted, more unsettling concepts. This is not to say the works of those earlier masters were without complexity or darkness, but they share a certain accessibility that Dune is resolutely uninterested in. Without the prior knowledge of having read the books, it’s entirely likely that one would go into Dune: Part Two expecting a classic evocation of the hero’s journey, rather than a tortured and deeply tragic inversion of the same. This is a series where even the moments of stand-up-and-cheer heroics carry a trace element of poison, with punishingly few characters you can fully endorse. A stridently political writer, Herbert laced Dune with a range of heady and brazenly modern ideas, as well as visions of a far-distant future bursting with imagery both terrifying and wondrous in their uniqueness. Among the many significant elements that have allowed this densest and most seemingly impenetrable work of popular science fiction to endure are also the series’ fascinating double edged sword – a reverence for and fetishisation of Middle Eastern and North African customs and people – in particular the imagery of Islam.  


I was struck reading up on Herbert by a quote from one of his later novels: ‘All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted.’ It’s hard to imagine a more succinct summarisation of the themes at play in director Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two, a film that pays off in spades the risk of Part One’s scale and confidence that an audience would come if called. It’s a film so expansive, so commendably dedicated to realising the tougher, less palatable elements of Herbert’s story that it reduces that earlier effort to a prologue, the feature length equivalent of a clearing of the throat. Herbert’s quote scratches at themes that Villeneuve has been drawn to time and again in other works – most notably in his finest film up to this point, Sicario, an upsettingly bleak and almost amoral work of mercenary cruelty and hopelessness. Villeneuve, a filmmaker capable of rendering immense and sumptuous images that up to now have often come up lacking in depth, has been vaulted to the Christopher Nolan-esque heights of fanboy filmmaking with a sheen of seriousness and maturity that often belie an inability or unwillingness to genuinely grapple with the ideas their stories are trading in. Villeneuve is an ideal Hollywood blockbuster filmmaker – a maker of works of jaw-dropping majesty that more or less stay within the margins of marketability. His works teem with strange, frightening, often disturbing imagery, none more so than Dune: Part Two – but they’re never alienating. It’s taken me some time to accept that this isn’t necessarily always a bad thing when it comes to our biggest films – there’s value in work that speaks to a massive audience while still foregrounding artistic intent.  

Denis Villeneuve’s wonderful sequel to the immense 2021 blockbuster doesn’t so much exceed that first entry as swallow it whole like a sandworm emerging from the depths. Darker, broader, laden with remarkable images and terrifying implications, it’s a positively thunderous work that ably projects the depth and thorniness of Frank Herbert’s original story – another positive sign of an era of major tentpoles that might just have something to say.

Dune: Part Two is, in almost every sense, an overwhelming film – even for Villeneuve, this reaches new levels of mammoth spectacle you’d have to have a heart of stone to reject outright. Picking up directly after the events of Part One, the film finds the exiled fugitive Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), alongside his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) drawn into the the fight of the indigenous people of desert planet Arrakis, the roughly pan-Middle Eastern Fremen, as they continue to struggle against the villainous Harkonnen family’s iron grip on the planet. When Paul begins to exhibit qualities that may link him to the prophecy of Lisan Al Gaib, a messiah that will lead the Fremen to liberation, Paul begins to form a semi-religious following, pumped up by Jessica’s scheming and machinations. All the while, Paul falls deeper into a romance with Fremen warrior Chani (Zendaya), while House Harkonnen recruits sadistic princeling Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler) to lead the siege of Arrakis. 


As you may have gathered, Dune: Part Two launches itself toward a stratosphere of worthy parallels. Allusions to Shakespeare, Greek tragedy and Homeric myth abound. One might be tempted to classify it as ‘Biblical’. That’s to be expected, but what’s most surprising, and welcome, about the film is how bracingly intimate it can feel at the same time, an aspect that draws it closer to those qualities that make Lawrence of Arabia one of the foremost cinematic achievements. Much of this intimacy is achieved through silences – it’s often an aggressively loud film, but the moments where the bombast drops away are the ones that linger in the mind after the credits roll. But there’s also the value Villeneuve has found in moments of humour and romance, two elements sorely lacking in the first Dune instalment. The latter is largely derived from Paul and Chani’s burgeoning, doomed tryst, the beating heart of a film that could easily have been a cerebral chore. 


The film is bolstered by an enormous ensemble that splits between the exciting faces of blockbusters future and reliable greats from blockbusters past. In the former camp, each player has rarely been better, from Chalamet’s reluctant leader toying with tyranny to Zendaya’s raw, heartbreaking performance as a member of the smallfolk drawn into a chess game beyond her control. Elsewhere, Florence Pugh has a minor but intriguing role as Princess Irulan (eerie parallels can be drawn to her role in Oppenheimer, a film that Dune: Part Two seems to be in conversation with in more ways than one) daughter of the Emperor of the Galaxy, while open-secret surprise cast member (spoilers for the offline crowd) Anya Taylor-Joy appears briefly, promising even further twists and turns in likely Dune episodes to come. Most startling, though, is Austin Butler. Quickly establishing himself as one of his generation’s most exciting performers, his Feyd-Rautha is nothing short of magnetic – a hideous, heartless killer, a void terrifying to gaze into. It’s quite the performance. Of the older generation of actors, best is, of course, the memorably creepy Rebecca Ferguson, building on her Bene Gesserit witch’s descent into evil in spine-tingling fashion; and Javier Bardem, a source of light and humour whose arc may be the most tragic in a film full of them. 


And it is a film packed with tragedies both personal and intergalactic. What makes Dune: Part Two special is its commitment to exploring the real-world parallels of this often absurdly futuristic vision – an element that may also draw controversy from the uninitiated. I was struck by the possibility of a Last Jedi-style backlash from viewers expecting an uncomplicated desert epic rather than a film with, y’know, something to say. Both films, from buzzed-about directors at the helm of massive properties, tackle their material with deconstruction in mind. One kind of deconstruction in particular – the myth of the predetermined One, or, in another parlance, the ‘white saviour’. Dune: Part Two is especially direct in this capacity. It knows that we bring a subtextual modern understanding to the story of Paul Atreides, a white man, coming to lead an army of black and brown freedom fighters. It knows, as Herbert clearly did, the implications of an outsider leading a cause they’ve joined late in the game, and the way even well-meaning saviours are eventually crippled by the agendas of colonialism (the Lawrence of Arabia comparisons here are apt). Chalamet’s Paul is likeable, easy to support, until all of a sudden he isn’t. It is here that the true heart of the film, Zendaya’s Chani, assumes the perspective of the audience, and all we can do is watch on queasily. In Dune: Part One, Chani intones ‘who will our next oppressors be?’ Part Two proves this was no idle musing. 

Is this the best version of Dune we could ever expect from Hollywood? I expect so. Other, far greater filmmakers have tried their hand with the property, resulting David Lynch’s Dune and a legendary uncompleted attempt from Alejandro Jodorowsky. Lynch’s famously marred and disavowed version is a film of remarkable images and surfaces, much like Villeneuve’s version, but is so truncated that it sacrifices all meaningful thematic reasoning. Jodorowsky’s version, for all its surrealism, was in all likelihood never meant for a Hollywood system always known for risk-aversion. There is risk in Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two, both thematic and visual. There are sequences in this film quite unlike any I’ve seen in a cinema in years. The added juice of an IMAX theatre setting (the film was shot with IMAX cameras) overwhelms the viewer, enraptures them. Indeed, the entire Dune project, in an ever more treacherous blockbuster space, has proven to be one massive risk, one that looks likely to pay off. At this point, I’m thrilled at the possibility of a Dune Messiah. Hell, I’d even go for a Children of Dune.

Dune: Part Two is in cinemas now.


Dune: Part Two

Movie title: Dune: Part Two (Villeneuve, 2024)

Movie description: Denis Villeneuve’s wonderful sequel to the immense 2021 blockbuster doesn’t so much exceed that first entry as swallow it whole like a sandworm emerging from the depths. Darker, broader, laden with remarkable images and terrifying implications, it’s a positively thunderous work that ably projects the depth and thorniness of Frank Herbert’s original story - another positive sign of an era of major tentpoles that might just have something to say.

Date published: February 29, 2024

Country: United States

Author: Denis Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, Frank Herbert

Director(s): Denis Villeneuve

Actor(s): Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Austin Butler, Florence Pugh, Dave Bautista, Christopher Walken, Léa Seydoux, Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling

Genre: Science Fiction, Action, Drama

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