Review: In the Rousing, Sweeping Dune: Part Two, a World Becomes Real and a Young Man Confronts His Fate With Ferocity

As is often the case with origin stories, there’s a great deal of world building and character establishment that has to play out before we can even get to the actual plot. Such was the case with filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s first chapter of what is apparently going to be a Dune trilogy, and the result was a movie vast in scope but a little slow in pacing. To my recollection, the film didn’t really kick in until the story re-located to the harsh desert planet of Arrakis, and Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) joined up with the local people called Fremen and began plotting revenge on those who destroyed the rest of his family. And that all happens damn near at the end of Dune: Part One.

Now that Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) is done building his universe (or more precisely, bringing to life the Frank Herbert novel, Dune, along with co-screenwriter Jon Spaihts), we can get to the good stuff. What results is Dune: Part Two, a sweeping, emotionally driven and sometimes disturbing epic science-fiction tale that has everything from beautifully realized action set pieces to a messiah story that takes a turn some might not expect. The villains are more interesting (both the ones we already know and the new one introduced in this chapter), and there is a handful of characters whose allegiances we still aren’t quite clear on, which makes them well worth keeping an eye on.

Back are Fremen characters like Paul’s guide and love interest Chani (Zendaya) and the leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem), who turns out to be something of a religious zealot and believes Paul is the Fremen's spiritual leader. Others—like Chani—don’t believe in messiahs and feel that any leader of the Fremen should be one of their own, which Paul tends to agree with. We also get the return of Paul’s mentor, Josh Brolin’s Gurney Halleck, who survived the wars of the first film and has been something of a spice smuggler since, hiding in the desert with other outcasts. He’s not only thrilled Paul is alive, but sees his ascension as a means to put the Atreides family back in power. Meanwhile, mother Jessica flexes her witchy upbringing and becomes the Fremen’s reverend mother after drinking a poison that only certain women can survive ingesting; any man drinking it will die instantly, or so we’re told. Jessica is also pregnant and is able to communicate with her unborn daughter in an advisory capacity, guidance that influences much of the film's direction.

As for the villains, we see the return of Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Harkonnen, head of the House Harkonnen and architect of the destruction of House Atreides, and his primary henchman and nephew Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista). Beast Rabban has been tasked by the Baron to clear Arrakis of the Fremen who are constantly destroying the spice harvesters that the Baron sends to Arrakis on behalf of the Emperor (Christopher Walken), who allowed the destruction of House Atreides in order to increase the spice business and keep Paul’s father from gaining any more power. Our introduction to the Emperor brings with it his daughter, Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), who is clearly a gifted leader and strategist despite also being used as a pawn by those currently in control.

Perhaps the most interesting of the new characters is the Baron’s other nephew, Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), in easily the best work I’ve seen him do, playing an absolutely psychotic warrior who is brought in to replace Beast Rabban when he can’t get done the job of quelling the rebellion on Fremen. Since the film is rated PG-13, we only get hints of what this maniac is capable of, but it’s clear that his primary fetish is pain, both giving and receiving it. Many of the scenes in which Feyd-Rautha is shown battling people to the death are in black-and-white, as if seeing what he’s doing in color might be too shocking. The entire film builds to a showdown between him and Paul that is about as brutal and nasty as is possible in what is meant to be a family-friendly movie, and that makes it all the more believable and gripping.

It's clear that the entirety of Dune: Part Two is a build toward something bigger. The scale of the battle scenes gets larger, and after teasing them in Part One, we get so many sand worm appearances in Part Two that audiences may get a bit blasé about them (insert your popcorn bucket joke here). But also, the emotions and stakes feel more impactful this time around. It’s clear that Paul and Chani are in love, but the universe (and his mother) have bigger plans for Paul, and as much as he resists the call for him to become a religious leader to the Fremen, circumstances may leave him no other choice. Still, his transformation is not a gentle, gradual one. When Paul turns, Chalamet shows us why he was chosen for this role, as he displays a fury of righteous indignation that I was not expecting. And Chani is not eager to simply stand in line with her fellow Fremen.

I think for many, Dune: Part Two is the Dune movie they have been waiting for from Villeneuve. Splitting the films now makes sense in terms of telling this story properly and patiently, and this feels like the payoff for our patience. And the fact that things once again end on something of a cliffhanger only makes it more exciting that there’s seemingly more to come. At one point, Paul makes it clear that he sees his fate and the fate of the known universe as only a true prophet can. Here’s hoping Villeneuve has the same clear vision moving forward. It’s evident he worships this material, and I think he’s done something bordering on miraculous with this second chapter.

The begins playing in theaters on Thursday, including 70mm screenings at the Music Box Theatre.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.