Dune: Part Two Review – A More Subversive Angle
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Dune: Part Two Review – A More Subversive Angle

Dune: Part Two filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, to me, is the sort of guy who likes to bite off more than he can theoretically chew with his projects. That’s left him as a director whose work I respect more than I enjoy–stuff like Arrival and the first Dune movie are impeccably crafted, but they work more on a vibes level than an academic one.

But I knew he was capable of making something that hit me in both my brain and my heart, because he nailed it a decade ago with his first big Hollywood studio movie, Prisoners. And Dune: Part Two is Villeneuve’s first film since that one to really work for me in that same overall way. It’s still longer than it probably needs to be–it drags in the mid-section, like so many long movies do–but it’s still a big step up from the first one.

Dune: Part Two picks up directly from the end of the first movie, with the Harkonnens once again in charge of the spice harvesting operations on Arrakis, and with Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) and his magical Bene Gesserit mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) hiding out with the Fremen. But they don’t hide for long–they’ve got a war to wage against the Harkonnens, and the chatter about Paul being a messiah-type figure isn’t quieting down.

There is some dissent, however. While Javier Bardem’s Stilgar is still pushing the religious angle, not all the Fremen agree with that stuff–like Chani (Zendaya), who finds the religious fervor to be pretty annoying. And she’s got reason to be skeptical, since the prophecies about Paul were planted by the Bene Gesserit ages before while they attempted to create a being who would fulfill them. Chani brings this point up plenty, but nobody seems swayed by the argument except those who already agreed with it. Her arguments will probably work for you, though, because Zendaya’s got a really potent and convincing side-eye game–she’s the real star and focus of this one.

But some things are inevitable, as we know. Paul learns the ways of the Fremen very adeptly, culminating in him successfully riding a massive sandworm on his first try–it’s a rousing and triumphant sequence that’ll have some audiences cheering loudly. And Stilgar recruits Lady Jessica to be the new local Reverend Mother, which requires drinking water that contains the spirits and knowledge of past Mothers.

But Jessica is pregnant when she drinks, and her unborn daughter Alia also receives the boon from the water, instantly turning a fetus into, functionally, a major adult character–Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Jessica, spends the rest of the movie relaying Alia’s thoughts and insights as well as Jessica’s own. It’s a weird bit, but also a fun and entertaining one.

The first movie, by contrast, was relentlessly earnest in a way that was tough to get behind–it was basically just a very long first act of a story, like if the original Star Wars had ended when Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi left Tatooine on the Millennium Falcon. It was all build-up and no follow-through–the setup of a joke, but we had to wait two-and-a-half years for the punchline.

Dune: Part Two
Dune: Part Two

Fortunately, Dune: Part Two isn’t dead serious the way the first film was, a necessary shift because of how strange things get in this one, both in tone and subject matter. On top of the Alia stuff, which includes a few trippy scenes, there’s an awesome extended black-and-white sequence set on the Harkonnen homeworld to let us get acquainted with the Baron’s newly introduced evil nephew, Feyd-Rautha (the delightful Austin Butler), and we’ve also got Christopher Walken appearing as the Emperor. Walken does great, understated work here, but he’s also someone we can’t really take 100% seriously–a slight shift in tone overall was necessary just to make his presence work.

But it’s not a lighter tone for its own sake. There’s a “pull back the camera so we can see a bigger picture” element as well, because Chani isn’t the only Fremen who isn’t into all the weird religious stuff. Stilgar, who is portrayed as an extreme fundamentalist this time rather than a representative sample of every Fremen’s beliefs, becomes the butt of jokes in several scenes as he excitedly interprets everything Paul does as fulfilling some prophecy or another. These scenes are played for laughs, because Dune: Part Two frequently reminds us that those prophecies were planted by the Bene Gesserit.

It’s a pretty severe pivot from the earnestness of the first movie–Part Two is a much more cynical beast overall, and in some ways even a subversion of the original and the source material with this new emphasis on Chani’s perspective that wasn’t even in the book.

These two Dune movies end up playing like the first two seasons of a great, long-running TV show. Season 1 is usually where the creators try to figure out what they’re doing as they do it, but it’s not until Season 2 or later that the show’s essence and vision are solidified. While Villeneuve’s first Dune movie felt like an attempt to deliver the objectively definitive big-screen adaptation of Frank Hebert’s Dune, Part Two feels like Villeneuve putting more of himself and his own perspective into this story.

And Part Two is a big improvement over the first movie because of that.

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