‘Dune: Part Two’ Review: Denis Villeneuve doesn’t miss

Warner Bros

Nerds, sandworms, sci-fi fans, lend me your ears: I come not to bury David Lynch but to praise him. Now, it’s not like he needs much of that – the era of Lynch doubters came to a swift end once the Internet united the disparate collection of amateur and professional aesthetes that saw his masterpieces for what they were – but his Dune gets an unfair amount of shit. It’s a grimly gorgeous movie whose idiosyncratic qualities make it stand out in the glut of post-Star Wars cash-ins, mainly because it vaguely detests the entire genre it is uncomfortably slotted in. If Lynch had wanted to direct a proper Star War, he would have directed Return of the Jedi, and perhaps the Walt Disney Company would have been without one of the feathers in its cap today. The ending is the one area in which that movie gets a lot of well-deserved criticism, and enough of that comes from the fact that it is rushed, attempting to tie a messy tangled narrative web into a bow, regardless of whether or not it makes any sense (the Fremen may have their water raining from the sky, but the universe is fully and wholly fucked by this development). The missing ingredient in Lynch’s take on this story is dread.There wasn’t a desire, either on the part of Dino De Laurentis or Lynch, to preserve the meaning that separates Frank Herbert’s saga from the traditional “hero’s journey” plot archetype as delineated by Joseph Campbell. Kyle MacLachlan’s Paul is a traditionally bratty hero struck from the Luke Skywalker mold when he’s something much closer to what George Lucas would realize with Anakin 15 years later: A tragic figure.

For all of the changes that Denis Villeneuve has made to Herbert’s text – and there are more here than meets the eye, despite how often chapter-and-verse faithful it is when it counts – Dune: Part Two retains that central feeling of creeping, terrible inevitability, inverting our expectations for the role that Paul Atredies, Kwisatz Haderach, is meant to play in cinematic adaptations of this complex narrative. Picking up almost immediately where he left off, Villeneuve quickly establishes our status quo with the help of Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), a sort of courtly Herodotus serving her father/the Emperor of the Known Universe (Christopher Walken), as well as the machinations of the Bene Gesserit, the convent of string-weaving fates who have their hands in every pie in the galaxy, regardless if it’s baked, in the oven, being mixed or exists as merely ingredients on the table. Her father has done some bad shit: He’s teamed up with Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) and his family of monsters to bring an end to House Atredies and give the Harkonnens control of the planet Arrakis, the “Dune” of the title, which is the only planet among thousands that has spice, which is an incredibly potent psychoactive drug that also facilitates space travel in a post-thinking machine society. The Emperor’s private army, alongside the Harkonnen military, stormed Arakeen, the capital city, and laid waste to the Atredies’ forces, killing Paul’s father, the Duke Leto. Thanks to the sacrifice of warrior Duncan Idaho, Paul and his pregnant mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) could flee into the desert sands, where they sought relief from the Fremen, the band of Arrakis natives who have a deeply personal connection to the land.   

We rejoin Paul and Jessica as they make their way to the Fremen’s main base of operation, where the former is begrudgingly accepted into their society following his trial-by-combat, in which he struck down a Fremen warrior named Jamis, but this isn’t as endearing as one might hope. Jamis is mourned, his body’s water added to a massive reservoir hidden underground that doubles as a memorial and a mass grave, and Paul remains an outsider, whom the Fremen are right to be skeptical of. He and his mother are scheming, but to different ends: Paul wants to be accepted so that he can lead a guerrilla campaign of revenge against the Harkonnens, while Jessica, a Bene Gesserit, sees ways that she can get her son to power through weaponizing the religious beliefs of the Fremen – seeded by her sect eons ago. They have one faithful believer in Stilgar (Javier Bardem), an older warrior and leader who holds enough clout to ensure that his men don’t kill the kid and his mom on site for their water. His belief in Paul enables the Duke’s son to exist in the Fremen’s secret spaces and allows him to begin his campaign against the Harkonnens. Paul proves himself in battle and adopts the Fremen’s ways as his own, even if he remains skeptical that he’s their Muad’dib. He’s even skeptical of his skepticism, as the visions he receives from the spice, premonitions of a future that very well may come to pass, show him leading the Fremen on a jihad that will kill untold billions of innocent people. Perhaps the only person standing in his way is Chani (Zendaya), who has grown close to him, and as the pair fall in love, she starts to notice how this war is changing him – and how Paul is slowly growing to believe in his mythos.

I’m not particularly worried about spoiling a 60-year-old novel for any readers who haven’t had the chance to read it yet, but I’m not going to share any more story beats. Really, they aren’t as important as you might think – Dune suffers from the same malady that John Carter did, where enterprising minds strip-mined its narrative and detail before it could make its way to screen (if you ever want to read a fun literary burn, read what Herbert described as a “Three-P-O” in the later Dune books) – but Villeneuve has no interest in the familiar, beyond what he’s beholden to preserve the text’s meaning. He and Lynch are united in more than one aspect, but their aesthetic ethos is almost parallel in how they take the incomprehensible alienness of Herbert’s future world and translate it to the screen by altering the textures of contemporary sci-fi cinema. Star Wars was ugly, so Lynch’s film was disgusting, and Villeneuve’s science-fiction era is defined by a kind of cinematic slickness, with the jagged machinery of the X-Wing replaced by the smooth curves of a smartphone. What he does to pervert this style is by making it feel spectacular or, more precisely, impossible. Sure, the details are rich when they matter – the absurdly thrilling scene in which Paul finally takes to the back of a Sandworm and hitches hooks into it so he can ride atop it is only made all the more compelling by how thoroughly rendered the animal’s anatomy is – but Villeneuve’s embrace of psychedelic mysticism and what its accompanying toolkit enables him to build is the key difference-maker here.

Kubrick comparisons are pretty passe because everyone always gets him wrong, but it’s telling that, out of all the things that one could walk away from something like 2001: A Space Odyssey with, Hollywood took the style and story beats of the segments on Discovery One as his chief innovation, rather than the flight into an absurd, gorgeous metaphor that overwhelms an audience in the final half-hour. Beyond the imagery of in-utero fetuses, which both films share in bizarrely gorgeous quality, Villeneuve is perhaps the closest out of his contemporaries to reach that level of psychedelic face-melting within studio sci-fi genre filmmaking. There are downright beautiful moments in which, alongside cinematographer Greig Fraser, the director simply just sheds any notion of appropriate realism and goes for pure mood-fueled fantasy. The most striking among these is a visit to the Harkonnen homeworld, which serves as an introduction to Paul’s mirror-image nemesis Feyd Rautha (Austin Butler, doing a Skarsgaard impression that’s so good it’s hard not to believe it’s one of the man’s sons). The planet is under a “black sun,” which, to Villeneuve’s credit, is a choice that directly informs everything about the Harkonnen style in an anthropological way, but the way he shows this to us is almost impressionistic in its quality: the world is rendered in a stark black-and-white, with anything the light touches quickly robbed of its color. It’s a fantastical showcase of artistic force that he somehow pulls off without a trace of self-satisfaction among the resultant awe-filled it generates inside the viewer. He’s just stunting on motherfuckers at this point, because this is just one of many gorgeous sequences that this film is stacked with.

The usual accolades also apply: the cast is uniformly excellent, especially now that they’re able to exist more fully as characters, thanks to all of the groundwork that was laid in Part One, and the new additions are equally as good, with Butler, Pugh, and Walken slotting wonderfully into this established universe. Villeneuve remains one of the few filmmakers who know how to properly use post-Inception Hans Zimmer – as a part of the overall sound design, and not simply as a composer – and his music serves to punctuate on-screen action in a seat-rattling fashion (I’m not joking when I say that the screen in the Dolby-equipped theater was rippling like a pool of water during some of the action sequences). His production design team is absurdly brilliant, and his ability to stage a fight scene only gets more and more accomplished as the project scales up in scope. But I do worry about how people will react to the film’s ending, which is a deviation from Herbert’s book and potentially audience-alienating. Based on the sacrifices made to bring the text to the screen, it’s understandable why some of this happens the way it does – time compression is an important aspect in making this interpretation of events work – but there are a few things that might make some think twice, as well as the whole realization that this particular Hero’s Journey isn’t exactly one that anybody would want to follow. Villeneuve must have received assurances that he’ll be able to bring Dune Messiah to the screen; otherwise, I’d doubt he’d end it like this: it sets up a finale, and if you’ve read these books, it’s going to be difficult to bring Messiah’s anti-story to the screen.

If anybody can do it, however, it’s Villeneuve, who has given science-fiction cinema a much-needed shot in the arm and has made the kind of Dune adaptation that makes everybody see what your cooler nerdy friends saw when they read the books back in high school.