‘Dune: Part Two’ Continues the Classic Sci-Fi Saga on a Cosmically Entertaining Scale

When director Denis Villeneuve released the first half of his adaptation of “Dune” in 2021, after pandemic delays, it arrived with mountains of hype. The anticipation was well worth it and the grandiose film proved to be the worthy adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel fans had been hoping for. Villeneuve’s visually immersive trip succeeded at the box office and eventually won six Oscars. Now the director makes doing a follow-up seem easy with “Dune: Part Two,” a sequel even more awe-inspiring than the first film. As the title states, this is not simply a new addition to some franchise. It’s the next chapter for a story too gargantuan for one sole movie. With all of the exposition out of the way, Villeneuve is free to truly go all out in imagining alien worlds, galactic wars and what amounts to a messiah’s rise.

Literally continuing where we left off, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother, Lady Jessica Atreides (Rebecca Ferguson) are in the deserts of Arrakis with the Fremen, led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem). The desert planet is now in the grip of the marauding forces of the Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), who has placed his nephew Glossu Rabban Harkonnen (Dave Bautista) in charge. After eliminating the House of Atreides in the first movie, the Harkonnen are now free to plunder Arrakis’ coveted natural resource, spice. As all occupying armies tend to learn, it won’t be so easy. The Fremen start waging guerrilla war against the invaders while Paul grapples with the firm belief of those around him that he is the Mahdi, a messianic leader foretold by prophecy. He has also grown closer to one of the Fremen, Chani (Zendaya). But love won’t distract him from a thirst for revenge against those who killed his father (Oscar Isaac in “Part One”) and the drive to become a leader among his new people. The Baron Harkonnen is also willing to wage an even more brutal war against his enemies, even if it risks the ire of the Emperor (Christopher Walken).

“Dune: Part Two” personifies a style of filmmaking too rare these days where spectacle and story are finely balanced. Villeneuve has always been best known for his visuals, even going back to smaller films like “Enemy” and “Prisoners,” where psychological suspense was gorgeously lit. As he ascended in Hollywood with notable films such as “Sicario” and “Arrival,” it’s the images everyone remembers. “Dune: Part Two” should be seen on the biggest screen you can find, but the story remains a riveting saga both classical and imaginative. Sci-fi epics have a messiah complex and “Part Two” is the culmination of what was hinted at when Chalamet’s Paul was introduced as a quiet, intelligent young man being groomed for power. Now he is required to be a more potent presence, essentially forming an army of loyal warriors who will follow him into battle. Herbert’s story has a devoted cult following in itself, since it’s one of those mystical parables with obvious references to Islam and Christianity. Paul is a redeemer who might fulfill the promise of Arrakis being reborn into a lush new planet, retaking its original name of Dune. There’s enough room for doubt, and we wonder at times if the prophecy is true or if Lady Jessica, who also ascends as an oracle figure among the Fremen, is not pushing a convenient narrative. Stilgar might also just be a willing, blind believer.

“Dune” fans have no doubt that Paul is the one, but the beauty of this film is that anyone can be taken in. This time it’s an all-out war film as the Fremen battle massive Harkonnen ships and bomb spice processing plants. Dave Bautista is more prominent as the darkly comic fool who can’t handle the locals fighting back against their occupiers. Chalamet and Zendaya are given much more to do on the physical level, combining subtle romance that turns into something more heated with intense action scenes. Zendaya riding a giant sand worm should become a memorable blockbuster image. Villeneuve also pushes further with truly creating the sensation that we are seeing alien worlds and environments. An arena fight staged in the Harkonnen world, where a black sun makes everything black and white, is intensely eerie, with the feel we’ve been dropped in some other place definitely not of our corner of the galaxy. The cinematography by Greig Fraser, who won an Oscar for his work in the first film, is a gorgeous canvas of shadows and light. The desert landscapes feel more alive and interiors are lit with a baroque richness. In approaching the material, you sense the filmmakers wanting to nod at Ridley Scott, David Fincher and James Cameron all at once. 

“Part Two” runs at about 166 minutes, and like the first film it justifies its length. There are new characters but they don’t work as mere filler. The most memorable is Austin Butler (“Elvis”) as Feyd-Rautha, a sociopathic Harkonnen brought in by the Baron to truly wipe out the Fremen. It’s one of those oozing, creepily unnerving roles and Butler does it well, enhanced by great makeup. This was the role famously inhabited by Sting in David Lynch’s 1984 “Dune” adaptation, still slammed and loved in equal measure. Florence Pugh looks taken out of a medieval period movie as Princess Irulan, who we wish would give her father the Emperor advice he would listen to. Christopher Walken is a natural as the latter, looking confidently magnanimous even when the throne room turns into a battle zone. Yet, somehow Stellan Skarsgård still chews all the scenery with perverse menace as the floating Baron. He understands the assignment of being larger than life in a film with wide shots of vast armies and gigantic ships, not to mention priestesses who get hallucinatory potions out of sand worms. Hans Zimmer’s music score is up to the task as well, with its combination of Middle Eastern sounds and electronic thunderclaps.

The first “Dune” famously ended on a “to be continued” note and had the tone of an unfinished movie. “Part Two” surprisingly also ends on a rather open-ended closing, with clearly more story to tell. Villeneuve doesn’t try to offer a complete narrative as Lynch did with his version. The director has not committed yet to a third film, something that might be determined when the box office returns come in. But if he won’t return for a third movie, most likely an adaptation of “Dune: Messiah,” this is still a worthy, grandiose exit. Like “The Lord of the Rings,” we know there’s plenty more. As a filmmaker, Villeneuve has always crafted images of striking relevancy. His great 2010 “Incendies,” about sectarian war in the Middle East, feels more urgent now. “Dune: Part Two” is a grand entertainment but also sustains the ideas of the Herbert novel, exploring the madness of conquest and the power of belief. The staging of it all makes us believe a typically subdued actor like Chalamet somehow fits. It ends on Zendaya racing across the sand towards destiny, breathlessly leaving us waiting to see where the story goes. 

Dune: Part Two” releases March 1 in theaters nationwide.