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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Reel Critic: “Dune: Part Two”

Denis Villeneuve has never been shy about his adoration for “Lawrence of Arabia.” The 56-year-old Canadian filmmaker first saw David Lean’s 1962 epic when he was 19, and the film, which Villeneuve calls “the perfect movie,” has held a grip on his imagination ever since.

In 2021, the writer-director emerged victorious after accepting the infamously daunting challenge of adapting author Frank Herbert’s “Dune” for the big screen, giving the first part of the novel the sophisticated, big-budget treatment that it deserved. Herbert was thinking of T.E. Lawrence’s exploits in Arabia when he wrote the 1965 science-fiction landmark, an influence evident in the writer’s plot of a white outsider who becomes embedded in the culture and warfare of desert tribespeople. Villeneuve’s lifelong passion for “Lawrence of Arabia” therefore seemed to have reached its peak with his cinematic retelling of the early passages of “Dune,” which was even shot in the same Jordanian desert used by Lean.

And then came “Dune: Part Two.” Greenlit by Warner Bros. only after the first film proved commercially successful, the second chapter in the planned trilogy reveals to audiences what Villeneuve has likely known all along: if “Part One” is just a homage to “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Part Two” is the modern-day “Lawrence of Arabia.” 

Delivering fully on the brilliant promise of its predecessor, the sequel is a colossal spectacle made with old-fashioned ambition and futuristic execution, telling a sweeping story of war and religious fanaticism that is unafraid to center on the violent potential of its hero.

Villeneuve and co-screenwriter Jon Spaihts justify the “Part Two” title by positioning this second film in the “Dune” series as a direct continuation of the first, opening the narrative moments after where they left the characters in “Part One.” Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), son of the slain Duke Leto and one of the few survivors of House Atreides, has fled into the scorched dunes of the desert planet Arrakis with his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), after their people were exterminated in a surprise attack by the brutal forces of House Harkonnen. Wandering an endless sea of sand, the mother and son are met by a tribe of the indigenous Fremen whose leader, Stilgar (Javier Bardem), believes that Paul could be the people’s prophesied messiah and welcomes him and Jessica into the community.

Paul seeks revenge against the Harkonnens for his family’s destruction, and he quickly joins the Fremen’s guerilla war against them, rising to renown among his fierce comrades for his heroics in battle. But as the young duke begins to find his way among the Fremen and falls in love with a warrior named Chani (Zendaya), Jessica, a member of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, zealously strives to bring forth Paul as the order’s messianic Kwisatz Haderach, a man with the mental ability to span space and time. “Dune: Part Two” is founded in Paul’s struggle to reconcile these two opposing fates, following the noble man as his character is transformed by spiritual powers infinitely greater than himself.

The depth of the narrative in Villeneuve’s film is spectacularly matched by that of its visuals and sound design. Like “Part One,” a technical marvel that swept the crafts categories at the 2022 Academy Awards, “Part Two” provides a transportive sensory experience that fills the screen and speakers with sights and sounds that have never before been offered by a Hollywood film. 

Cinematographer Greig Fraser and production designer Patrice Vermette embrace the otherworldly nature of the source material to create shocking images of desert landscapes, exotic architecture and alien technology. Fraser’s use of color is particularly striking, as the director of photography primarily plays with shades of orange and yellow that are most prominent in an early scene of Paul and the Fremen fighting Harkonnen scouts during a solar eclipse that drenches the sand in a neon orange glow.

“Dune” sound designers Theo Green and Mark A. Mangini return to conjure the vivid sounds of rustling sand particles and beaming laser blasts, and composer Hans Zimmer is back with yet another thrilling score that envelopes the film in reverberating, percussive tones. Zimmer’s main innovation for “Part Two” is a wistful woodwind and synthesizer theme for Paul and Chani, whose love brings about the film’s most stirring musical moments. 

Beyond those new cues, however, the score is fundamentally — and thankfully — similar to that of the first film. The same can be said of the imagery; notwithstanding new settings and stylistic flourishes, the visual identity of “Part One” largely carries over into the sequel. But if “Part Two” looks and sounds like the first film, it does so on a drastically expanded scale.

2021’s “Dune” was by no means a small film, but the action of the follow-up certainly makes it look like one. Utilizing a seamless blend of practical and visual effects, Villeneuve directs massive combat sequences ranging from intense skirmishes to all-out war. Whether the fight is among fifty combatants or ten thousand, the filmmaker stages and shoots the action in such grand visual dimensions that when the guerilla Fremen and militant Harkonnens battle on the sprawling desert terrain, it is impossible not to see the legendary Battle of Aqaba from “Lawrence of Arabia” reincarnated for a new generation of moviegoers.

Villeneuve, of course, could not recreate the science-fiction elements of the novel without using computer-generated imagery in the way Lean did for his pinnacle of practical, on-location filmmaking. But among twenty-first-century Hollywood films, “Dune: Part Two” represents a director acting on the kind of bold, go-for-broke ambition that is increasingly rare in the risk-averse industry. Villeneuve was notably snubbed of an Oscar nomination for his direction of “Part One” — expect the three-time nominee to receive the nod from the Academy this time around.

This second “Dune” film is not just a gargantuan spectacle, however. Like the revered book on which it is based, it is also a complex work of epic storytelling. Villeneuve and Spaihts engagingly interweave three lines of drama occurring on as many planets. Central to each thread is the political scheming that abounds in the universe, and much of the tension in the film arises from the “Game of Thrones”-esque interplay between the rival houses warring for supremacy. Beyond politics, however, “Part Two” is a film about religion, and it is this thematic focus that gives the story its encompassing scope.

In “Part One,” Paul Atreides is an innocent, principled young man who is thrust into a destiny that promises him power at once terrific and terrible. When audiences are reacquainted with the character in the sequel, he is hardened by tragedy and resolved to avenge those who were taken from him. But as he pursues that path, Paul’s need for vengeance devolves into a baser desire for domination, a shift in motivation caused by the messianic figure’s manipulation by the fanatical religious authorities in his life. This ideological emphasis on the corrupting influence of religious fanaticism is what makes the narrative experience of “Dune: Part Two” so richly expansive. 

Like Lawrence, a good-natured man whose ego makes him cruel after he leads the Bedouin’s revolt against the Turks, Paul becomes less benevolent and more tyrannical as his spiritual grip on the Fremen tightens. In both films, the hero’s journey teeters on the brink of villainy, forcing the stories into unsettlingly ambivalent moral territory. Credit is due to Villeneuve for trusting his audience with a blockbuster action film of such nonconformist emotional appeal. He may not have outdone Lean’s achievement, but his new sci-fi classic would have surely made his 19-year-old self proud.

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Jack Torpey

Jack Torpey '24 (he/him) is an Arts and Culture Editor. He writes film reviews for the Reel Critic column.  

Jack is studying English with a minor in Film and Media Culture. Outside The Campus, he works as a peer writing tutor at the Writing Center and is a member of the Middlebury Consulting Group.


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