Movie ReviewsJosh Reviews Dune Part Two

Josh Reviews Dune Part Two

I adore Dune.  Frank Herbert’s novel is one of my all-time favorite books.  I have read it many, many times.  I enjoy all six of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, but it’s the original book that’s the real stand-out.  (I’m not a big fan of the many Dune book sequels that were been written, after Frank Herbert’s death, by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.  I read five or six of them but then gave up.)  I have a lot of love for David Lynch’s 1984 Dune movie adaptation; it’s not a good movie, but it’s so weird and unique that I have a great fondness for it.  I have long been a champion of John Harrison’s three-part Dune adaptation for the Sci-Fi channel from 2000, as well as the 2003 follow-up Children of Dune.  They can both be a little stiff, but both mini-series are packed with terrific performances and ambitious special effects, and I love how attentively faithful they are to the books.  They’re definitely worth watching if you’ve never seen them.

Then came Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 Dune film, which was an extraordinary achievement.  (Click here for my original review.)  It was incredible to see Dune brought to the screen on such a big-budget, enormous scale.  I was thrilled to see how faithful Mr. Villeneuve was to Frank Herbert’s novel, and at the same time, how fearless he was in bringing his own creative vision to the film.  When I first saw Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, I was enthralled by how perfectly Mr. Jackson and his team seemed to have somehow seen exactly how I’d long dreamed about the characters, settings, and events of Middle Earth, and brought them so perfectly to the screen, just the way I’d always imagined.  Denis Villeneuve’s Dune film was different; many of the characters looked and acted a lot different from how I’d ever imagined them.  But despite that, I LOVED THE FILM.  I loved the aim-for-the-fences weirdness and originality of Mr. Villeneuve’s vision.  It all worked for me because, at the same time, I felt Mr. Villeneuve was so faithful to the essence of these characters and this story.

Because of how in love I was with Mr. Villeneuve’s first Dune film, I was scared by the choice to only adapt half of the book in that first film.  I feared that Dune was too weird, too insider, to be a hit with mass audiences, and I was afraid the film would bomb and we’d never get the second half of the story.  I thought it was a mistake not to have made both films at the same time.

And so as much of a miracle as that first Dune was, in many ways, I consider Part Two to be even more of a miracle.  There was such a strong chance (it seems to me) that this film might never have existed!!  And so, I am so grateful that not only does this film exist, but that it’s every bit as spectacular as I’d hoped.

As was the case with Part One, this new film is an extraordinary epic.  This is a long film (its run-time is around two hours and 45 minutes).  It’s vast in scale, taking place over an extended period of time, in many different locations, and featuring a huge cast of characters.  It is a true thrill to see this story that I love brought to life on such an epic canvas.  It’s extraordinary.

Mr. Villeneuve’s eye for visuals is second to none.  This film looks gorgeous, just jaw-droppingly stunning.  It is packed to overflowing with incredible imagery, from gorgeous images of the barren, quiet deserts of Arrakis, to incredible mayhem featuring enormous sandworms smashing through a city and its defending soldiers.  This film looks staggeringly beautiful.  The production design is incredible.  Every single character in this film has a unique and eye-catching look.  There are so many weird outfits and masks and uniforms… it’s all so bizarre; and yet it all fits together beautifully, and it works.  Mr. Villeneuve and his team have created incredible worlds on screen in this film.  The movie is filled with images that have imprinted themselves upon my brain.

Shall we dive into more detail?  Beware some minor SPOILERS beyond this point.

I love how much time Mr. Villeneuve spends, particularly in the first half of Part Two, exploring the Fremen.  I could see a world in which one might try to rush past this stuff, to get more quickly to the point when Paul is back in the fight and leading Fremen attacks against the villainous Harkonnens.  I was impressed that Mr. Villeneuve and co-writer Jon Spaihts had the patience to keep the audience with Paul (and Jessica, Chani, and Stilgar), following Paul and Jessica’s acceptance into Stilgar’s Fremen tribe in the closing moments of Part One.  The film takes its time in that first hour or so, showing us how Paul gradually learns the ways of the Fremen and earns their respect.

Timothée Chalamet was great as Paul in Part One, and he doesn’t seem to have missed a beat here in Part Two, showing us Paul’s growth and maturity as he falls in love and becomes a leader.  I was disappointed that Zendaya’s Chani was only in Part One for a few minutes; it’s wonderful to see how central a role she has here in Part Two.  Zendaya is terrific as Chani; she shows us Chani’s unflappability, her confidence, her toughness, and her intelligence.  She’s a master of the desert and also a kick-ass warrior.  More importantly, I was blown away by Zendaya and Mr. Chalamet’s on-screen chemistry.  There are real sparks between the two.  I was pleased the way Paul and Chani’s love story was at the center of Part Two.  That personal story is a critical anchor for all the sci-fi battles and intergalactic political machinations.

Javier Bardem was terrific as Stilgar in Part One, and I was glad that he too had a much larger role here in Part Two.  I love Stilgar.  I love the way Mr. Bardem played Stilgar’s honor and whole-heartedness.  He’s ready to kill Paul at the end of Part One, but once he’s accepted Paul into his tribe, he allows himself to bond with Paul completely and he has Paul’s back without question.  It’s fun to see the relationship that develops between Stilgar and Paul; it’s at once father-son and also brothers-in-arms.  I was somewhat surprised the way the film played up Stilgar’s religious devotion.  (It becomes almost a joke as the film progresses, the way Stilgar believes in Paul with such religious fervor.)  This is a part of Stilgar’s character in the novels, but I feel like they leaned into that more than I’d expected in the film’s back half.  (The film has characters talk a lot about the differences between the more pragmatic Fremen from the North and the religious zealots from the South.  I wish the film actually showed us a scene or two, after Jessica and then Paul ride to the South, in which we actually saw those zealots.  For the most part, other than the brief glimpse of the Council of Naibs late in the film, Stilgar serves as the main example in the film of the more religiously-focused Fremen.)

One of my few complaints about Part Two is that I wish we’d spent a little more time with Jessica and the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.  Both were stand-out characters in Part One, and while both are still great here in Part Two, I wish we’d gotten more from them.  Let’s start with Jessica, who is played beautifully by Rebecca Ferguson.  The film leans into the schism that develops between Paul and Jessica; she wants him to use the religious beliefs that the Bene Gesserit sisterhood have “seeded” among the Fremen over the course of many years, so that Paul can take control of the Fremen and lead them to victory over the Harkonnens.  Paul, meanwhile, dislikes how the Bene Gesserit have manipulated the Fremen, and Paul is afraid of what his visions show him of what could happen if he unleashes the Fremen’s religious fervor on the universe.  As was the case with Stilgar’s religious beliefs, the Paul-Jessica disagreement was an element of the novel, but they play it up a bit more here in the film.  That works — the character drama is compelling — but I wish we were able to spent a little more time with Jessica and to get a little more into her head.  How does she feel about being thrust into the role of Reverend Mother for the Fremen?  This is not the life she’d expected for herself, I’d bet!  How much are Jessica’s actions guided by her wanting to help find a path for Paul’s survival and success, versus her anger and hatred towards the Harkonnens for the death of Leto?  I wanted to get a little deeper into this character.  As for the Baron, played so deliciously by Stellan Skarsgård, he’s such a delightfully hatable villain, I just wish he had a few more scenes.  I wanted to see more of him!

New to the cast for Part Two is Austin Butler (so memorable as the lead in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis) as Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen.  Mr. Butler is incredible in the role.  First off, what a look!  This bald, all-white, muscular psychopath is instantly iconic (and less silly than the codpiece-wearing Sting from the 1984 film!).  Mr. Butler is fierce and scary in the role.  He’s terrific.

We didn’t get to see Emperor Shaddam IV or his daughter Irulan in Part One, so I was thrilled to see them here in Part Two, wonderfully embodied by Christopher Walken and Florence Pugh (Black Widow, Don’t Worry Darling, Oppenheimer).  Mr. Walken is such an incredible choice to play Emperor Shaddam; he’s so immediately compelling as a powerful and charismatic character.  He’s only in the film for a few moments, so it’s a smart move to cast Christopher Walken, who tells you everything you need to know about this character in one glance.  I’ve enjoyed watching Florence Pugh’s rise over the past several years, killing it in one great movie after another.  Irulan also only has a small role in the film, but Ms. Pugh is terrific.  She shows us Irulan’s fierce intelligence, her persistence, and her nobility.  (I’d have loved a scene between her and Paul at the end.  We don’t get that in the novel — frankly, I’ve always felt that was a small flaw in the books, in that I always wanted more Irulan, to better understand her, to dig deeper into her relationship with Paul — and I felt that here too, particularly because Ms. Pugh is so great!)

I was surprised that the minor character of Lady Margot Fenring made it into the film!  She’s wonderfully portrayed by Léa Seydoux (The French Dispatch, No Time to Die).  She has a terrific scene, seducing Feyd-Rautha.  Ms. Seydoux was great!  (I wish we’d gotten even more of her in the film somehow!)

I loved Josh Brolin (Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, Hail Caesar!, True Grit) as Gurney Halleck in Part One.  Mr. Brolin is terrific as the intense and noble Gurney.  Gurney’s reunion scene with Paul is one of my favorite scenes in the book, and that moment was executed perfectly here in Part Two.  I was delighted at how large a presence Gurney was in the last hour of the film!  I loved the new-for-the-movie scene of Gurney’s showing Paul and Stilgar where the Atreides family’s atomic weapons have been hidden (that was a great choice, as it makes the involvement of the atomics in the finale less of a deus ex machina), and I loved his final fight with the Beast Rabban.  Speaking of Rabban, Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy, Glass Onion) was once again a hoot as this hollering, vicious, dumb evil monster.

I liked the way the film developed the character of Chani’s female Fremen friend Shishakli.  That was a smart choice!  Souheila Yacoub is great in the role.  I like the way she plays Shishakli; she doesn’t like or trust Paul, but we don’t ever get the sense that she’s a one-dimensional antagonist.  Her feelings are genuine, and it’s gratifying to see Paul gradually win her (and the other Fremen) over.  (I do wish the film didn’t skip over the moment in which she gets captured by the Harkonnens.  I think that would have made her final fate even more tragic; I think that moment would have landed harder if we’d already been worried about her being in peril.)

I was surprised Alia didn’t make it into the film!  In the book (and in both previous adaptations of Dune), Alia — Paul’s young sister who, after having been altered by Jessica’s experience with the Water of Life, is born with scary intelligence — is a major character in the third act.  I can understand why they excised her — a talking toddler might just have been one step too weird for the movie — but I missed her.  It didn’t quite feel like Dune without Alia!  I did enjoy seeing Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit, Last Night in Soho) pop up in a vision as an older version of Alia.  (Ms. Taylor-Joy is perfect casting for an older Alia — I hope we get to see her back as Alia in a third Dune movie!!!  Alia is a major character in the second Dune novel, Dune Messiah, so this could be very cool if it happens.)

Speaking of characters I’d have loved to have seen in the film, I wish Stephen McKinley Henderson had been back as the Atreides Mentat Thufir Hawat.  I understand why there wasn’t room for him in this movie, but I’m still bummed because Mr. Henderson was so wonderful in Part One.  (We don’t see Hawat die in Part One, and in the novel, Hawat survives and goes on a fascinating journey.)  Similarly, I’d been excited when I heard that Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Lincoln, Watchmen, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) had a small role in the film; I guess he wound up on the cutting room floor.  (The online rumor is that he would have played Count Fenrig, the husband of Léa Seydoux’s Lady Margot.  That would have been cool!!)

On the other hand, I was happy they found a way to work Babs Olusanmokun as Jamis back into the story for a few moments, despite Jamis’ being dead.  It was nice to see Jamis again!  That connected well to the glimpses we’d seen in Part One of Paul’s seeing Jamis in his visions, teaching him about the desert.

I was very surprised by the ending.  OK, we’re really in SPOILERS territory here, so beware!  The film ended on a far more ambiguous ending than I’d expected.  This hardly felt like an ending at all, and more like a “to be continued” to lead into Part Three.  Wow!  What a bold choice!  The Dune novel has a famously ambiguous ending, so I have been curious for years how Mr. Villeneuve would end his film.  I’d expected this to feel more final in the film, with Paul having killed Feyd, defeated the Emperor, and taken control of the planet (and the Empire).  I thought we’d get some hints of worry, with Paul seeing the potential horror of unleashing religious fanaticism.  But while I’d expected hints of where the story could go, I was not prepared for what we got!  The film dives right into what the opening of Dune Messiah tells us, that the other Great Houses of the Empire didn’t accept Paul’s coup, and so Paul unleashed his fanatical Fremen fighters across the universe, to fight and kill his enemies.  And whereas in the novel Chani is unhappy by Paul’s offer of marriage to Irulan, she seems to grudgingly accept it, here in the film we see Chani and Paul completely at odds, with Chani leaving Paul.  Wow!!  That feels in-character for Chani, so it works, but I was not expecting the film to end with such major plot and character beats unresolved.  I really hope we get a Part Three to carry this story forward to more of a conclusion!!

For the most part, the ending works for me.  My complaint is that I wanted to better understand where Paul’s head was in those final moments.  In both the novel and Mr. Villeneuve’s two films, Paul’s visions are confusing.  This is intentional.  It’s difficult to understand what Paul is seeing, and how Paul is trying to thread the needle of achieving victory without unleashing religious fanaticism across the universe.  But in the film, in the final moments, I wasn’t clear where Paul was at, and that was a problem for me.  In wanted to better understand: did Paul still see a path forward, or was his giving permission to the Fremen to take the fight to the other Great Houses actually a tragic failure?  If this was a tragic failure, as I think it was, I wanted the tragedy of that moment to better land as tragedy, rather than an exciting “to be continued” moment which was more how it played to me.

Have I spent enough time in this review praising the film’s visuals.  Let’s take the scene of Paul’s riding a sandworm.  That’s one of the most iconic scenes from the novel, and I was so happy by how well that moment was captured in the film.  The visuals were incredible, but more importantly, all the characters’ emotions were spot-on: Chani’s worry, Stilgar’s protectiveness.  So great!

Sandworms and the final battle for Arakeen was everything I’d wanted it to be.  I loved Paul and Feyd’s final hand-to-hand battle as well; that was scary and intense!  (Though I do have a small complaint about this aspect of the film’s ending as well.  I wish I’d better understood what happened at the very end of that fight!  I think it was intended a callback to how Gurney got the best of Paul in their training fight at start of Part One; but: 1) how did Paul survive getting stabbed (twice)?  And 2) how exactly did Paul get the better of Feyd?  Did Paul pull Feyd’s knife out of his own chest?  Maybe this will be clearer on a rewatch.

Once again Hans Zimmer has crafted a magnificent score.  In fact, the whole sound-design of this film is incredible.  The film is packed with wonderfully weird, but very memorable, sounds!  From the language of the Sardaukaur to the sound of the sandworms to the pounding of the Thumpers to the harshness when a character uses The Voice… it’s all very impressive.

I’ve always enjoyed the way Frank Herbert’s novel incorporates aspects of Middle Eastern culture and language.  I was pleased by the way Mr. Villeueve’s Part One brought that to life on screen.  Watching Part Two in a post-October seventh world (the day that fanatical Hamas fighters invaded Israel and murdered approximately 1200 innocent Israeli civilians; raping women, burning people alive, and other horrors that cannot be justified whatever one’s political opinions), aspects of this played differently for me, understandably so.  Listening to Paul leading his Fremen warriors in a chant of “long live the fighters!” was chilling to me.  This is not a complaint.  Those scenes are SUPPOSED to be chilling.  This is an important aspect of Frank Herbert’s novel: that Mr. Herbert subverts the usual fictional narrative of the young hero leading his forces to a victory and a happy ending.  In Dune, while Paul’s cause is just, the actions of his Fremen warriors — spreading across the universe and killing their “enemies” on planets across the Empire — is horrific.  That’s not a happy ending.  On the one hand, I applaud Mr. Villeneuve for incorporating that idea into the final moments of his film, denying audiences the happy ending I suspect most people were expecting.  (I know I was!)  On the other hand, as I’ve commented above, I’d have liked the film to have better landed the idea that Paul was making a terrible choice in unleashing his religious fanatical followers upon the universe at the end.  If we’re going to go there in the film, then let’s GO THERE and make the tragedy of this ending more clear.  I know it gets sticky when a reviewer talks about what they wanted to see in a movie, rather than just evaluating what they did see, but for me, this is an important point.

These quibbles don’t detract what I hope I have made clear in this (lengthy!) review — that Dune Part Two is an incredible achievement.  It’s hard to believe this film really exists!  Bravo to Denis Villeneuve and his incredible team.  Bring on a third film!!!  I would be overjoyed to someday see Dune Messiah brought to life on the big screen.  For now, I’m so grateful for these two beautiful, seminal Dune films.  I can’t wait to watch them both again.

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