Dune Part Two review Timothée Chalament Austin Butler

Dune: Part Two is an astonishing epic about ambition, power and political violence

4.5 stars out of 5

The dead are piled high in the opening sequence of Dune: Part Two. Greying, limp corpses are gathered into piles; a people lost to history. “There were no witnesses…” a voice-over intones, as we, the viewers, become the eyes and ears to a history untold. In his second adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic novels, Denis Villeneuve leans deeper into the nature of war and man. The fantasy world of spires, worms and deserts suddenly becomes more rooted in the real world. 

Hatred and misplaced hope guide the film. As subterranean, glistening white human monsters refer to their enemies as vermin, other groups bow down to false gods. The film’s structure feels less clumsy than the first, flowing from one sequence to the next like a song. Watching Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides dance in the desert, going on a walkabout, only to later tame a grandfather worm, we’re struck by the horrible crescendo of a man whose destiny seems increasingly unlikely to lead anyone to freedom. The film doesn’t allow the audience to forget that the Prophetic Paul is the subject of fantasies written, and those who write the prophecies are in a position to ensure they are fulfilled.

As Paul’s prophecies come to fruition, the filmmaking undercuts their significance. From his birth, Paul was trained to step up and fulfil this destiny. The idea of hope and prophecy are slowly peeled away as elements for the oppressor to control a populace. While the believers hold onto a liberated future, they ignore that their control over their destiny has been placed in an outsider’s hands. Their autonomy, rebellion and liberation are no longer their own, but a far-off promise that will likely only trade one oppression for another.

The film’s most spectacular sequence comes around the middle point as Feyd-Rautha steps into a coliseum in a rigged coming-of-age performance. On Giedi Prime, everything glistens. The photography is high-contrast and almost silver, as bodies shimmer in the faint light clouded by industrial smog. The Harkonnen clan’s rippling and unnaturally white bodies are almost plastic in their consistency. The neoclassical architecture, out of place amidst oily, black industry, works as a hopeless display of fascistic power and racial supremacy. With images drawn from the works of Leni Riefenstahl, we feel at least the echoes of violent aesthetics. The brutal violence of these sequences, led mainly by Feyd-Rautha, played with delirious, lisping bloodlust by Austin Butler, underscores rather than contrasts with the overwhelming simulated power of the environment. 

Zendaya Rebecca Ferguson Dune Part Two
Zendaya and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune: Part Two

As he’s done in his other films, Villeneuve utilizes aesthetics to reflect different value systems. The complexity of Dune is finding ways to collapse different ideological structures that all aim to capture as much power as possible within different aesthetic frameworks. As the film continues, the contrast between the different superpowers within the universe collapses. The Fremen’s battle for liberation, helmed by Paul, is unveiled as merely another opportunity for the powerful to regain or appropriate more power. 

From his first feature film, Un 32 août sur terre, Villeneuve has had a long fascination with the desert, featuring it in nearly every single one of his films. Even the blizzard snow of Polytechnique enveloping the school echoes the sandstorms of Dune, an unforgiving landscape as a mythic nightmare. Compared to the first Dune, though, here the desert is rendered more colourfully, not always stale shades of grey. It becomes rich with fiery reds as filtered skies capture the glittering spice. As Paul grows more familiar with the desert, sand as an evil and penetrating force unveils greater knowledge. As he learns its secrets, it becomes increasingly beautiful and its landscape more specific in its variations. Yet, crucially, as the film barrels towards the end, the unveiling of truth and beauty does not necessarily translate to greater compassion or solidarity. 

Emboldened by the success of the first film, we see hints of the strange in this new movie: a talking fetus, worm piss and the smooth (perhaps even toothless) design of Feyd-Rautha. But it all feels so respectable in a way that limits the possibilities of the universe. Villeneuve, well capable of fully embracing the uncanny as he does with the butchered catfish narrator in Maëlstrom or the spindly arachnids of Enemy, only falters in this adaptation in his inability to draw out the strangest elements of the Dune universe. So, Villeneuve’s filmmaking embraces risk but within a rather calculated, audience-friendly framework. It’s an asset as much as a flaw; his ability to tread that line is one of the reasons for his blockbuster success but also a frustrating limit to his talent. It’s hardly a massive drawback in the experience, but it’s notable in an increasingly risk-averse industry that bold visions seem similarly corralled within narrow, classical ideals.

Yet, overall, Dune: Part Two is astonishing. It’s far more self-contained than the first film. Though a third film has yet to be officially announced, the open ending could easily work as an ominous cliffhanger that manages to stand on its own. The movie is sweeping and rhythmic, demanding attention and embracing the peculiarities of its actors, creating a universe that feels textured and laced with malice. Dune: Part Two feels of the moment, as it captures the mechanizations of power, ambition and political violence with surprising depth and nuance. It’s a film about the falsehoods of hope and the resilience of revolutionaries. ■

Dune: Part Two (directed by Denis Villeneuve)

Dune: Part Two opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, March 1.

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