Dune: Part Two – Dir: Denis Villeneuve (Film Review)

Give me sandworms, or give me death.

About 25 minutes into the screening for Dune: Part Two, I leaned over to the person next to me and whispered “Maybe it’s a slow burn for a good second half” and, even as the words came out of my mouth, I felt the hollow drop of hopelessness in what I was saying. A few years ago, I sent my editor an email that said, if nothing else, I must review Dune when it was released in the cinema.

Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Austin Butler, Florence Pugh, Dave Bautista, Christopher Walken, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Léa Seydoux, Souheila Yacoub, Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling and Javier Bardem

Then the entire world shut down and we became confined to our homes, and my experience of Dune wasn’t in a reviewing capacity or in a cinema, but on my couch at home. The guttural joy and satisfaction I felt watching, and re-watching, that film never really faded; the deeply ominous and grim sense of foreboding, the exquisite set and costume design, a grounded and restrained tone despite the intensely futuristic story and special effects.

And there are moments of this in Dune: Part Two, the majority of which you will have already seen if you’ve watched more than one of the three trailers, but these are scattered throughout the laborious 167-minute runtime and feel begrudgingly included within the otherwise transparent storyline. But where does it all go wrong? It’s a troubling thought I spent the better part of an evening trying to pick apart, revisiting the first film to find that, too, was tainted by the enveloping awfulness of the second film.

Ultimately, the primary issue with the film is that it tries to adapt the source material for our modern audience and, while the audience itself is arguably not the issue, it’s the lack of ambition or hope for our audience to engage with, and enjoy, even the slightest sense of nuance or complexity.

In the novels, the tragedy of Paul Atreides is acutely highlighted by the decisions he feels he has to make, and then follow through with. Paul is presented as the protagonist, a hero that is displayed in all the complexity that the reader is almost convinced of such, until we later find that his Fremen jihad is too powerful and too far gone to do anything but follow along with as their messiah. Following the events of Dune, we witness the horror that stems from Paul’s atrocities and the universal massacre that takes place, and are forced to reflect on whether his choices were the catalyst for this future or an unavoidable path he was set to follow.

Paul is, by the end of his journey, a lone and lonely figure blindly wandering the desert, a slave to the image of his own making. His character becomes greater than his actions; a reflection on the dangers of power, the destructive and blinding force of holy belief, and an individual created and defined by conflict.

But the lessons within this come from the journey themselves, to believe as the Fremen do that Paul is their saviour, and to witness as Paul does the true horror of that belief realised and embodied in reality. To experience this as it happens, to be conflicted about the outcome as Paul and everyone around him is, and to reflect upon our views of human potential and destruction afterward, that is a hard and challenging lesson; one that is incredibly valuable to our growth.

This isn’t to rant about source material or novels, but to illustrate the depth of the story that is removed for the comforting ease of simplicity and the modern-audience trait of needing to know and be on the side of ‘right’ and ‘truth’ at all times. We are perpetually reminded of Chani’s doubt and suspicions of Paul’s motives and intentions, with both characters’ interactions on screen so clear cut that we’re not given the option but to choose between the two sides.

We’re also never given any reason to doubt Chani, who seems elevated above the rest of the Fremen and not only sees Paul as he is (useless, petulant, self-idolising), but sees everything he isn’t (the messiah), and everything he will become (a monster), wearing the pain of future vindication so clearly upon her face at all times that there’s no option but to know where the story will end, a decision that mutes the impact of the film’s final minutes as a result.

This creates a narrative that feels agonisingly stretched out on screen, every conversation from Paul the same avoidance of the inevitable, and every interaction with Paul cementing the narrative that he neither understands nor can control the power he is attempting to create and wield. In short, a moody boy is so blinded by his own desire for revenge that he ignores the literal visions of destruction it will cause by achieving it.

As of writing, Dune: Part Two has received almost nothing but praise and positive reviews, so I am clearly in the minority of opinion in terms of its critical value to audiences. Perhaps I’m just asking too much from a grand, complex and sprawling sci-fi epic, and should be satisfied with the bloated cliff notes of a pre-determined narrative. Or perhaps it’s a film that is, like the universe it attempts to depict, built upon the powerful and often narrowly selfish vision of a few individuals, each intent solely on having their own narrative desires told to completion.

Do I have anything else to say? It’s beautifully shot, the supporting cast do a fairly decent job of adding some flavour to the film with all the consistency found in a bag of Every Flavour Jelly Beans, the score is present and powerful, but overused at every opportunity, and we get at least three halves of a sandworm to play with on screen.

Rebecca Ferguson goes full possessed witch mode, Florence Pugh has an amazing head piece, and Austin Butler manages to stop roleplaying Elvis just long enough to become an adopted member of the Skarsgård clan. But all of this is marred by the blandness that envelops it; jewels scattered amongst the barren desert.

Oxford Lamoureaux

Dune: Part Two Opens in cinemas today. Click here for tickets and showtimes