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film review
  • Dune: Part Two
  • Directed by Denis Villeneuve
  • Written by Denis Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts, based on the novel by Frank Herbert
  • Starring Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya and Javier Bardem
  • Classification PG; 165 minutes
  • Opens in theatres March 1

Critic’s Pick

There is an inherent lunacy required to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Not only because the story is so gigantic in its themes, ambitions and millennia-spanning timeline that it threatens to swallow any filmmaker into the belly of a sandworm. But also because wrangling even the basics of Herbert’s world(s) requires moviegoers to get onside – and quickly – with such concepts as hallucinogenic space minerals, a secret society of matronly psychics, a prophecy that requires the endorsement of interplanetary jihad and those skyscraper-sized, sphincter-shaped worms.

To turn Dune into a workable, digestible piece of big-budget blockbuster cinema – and as David Lynch and others have discovered, you really do need full access to the war chest of a major studio – is for a director to risk a one-way ticket to movie jail. If not the movie asylum.

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Yet with the eye-popping and (enjoyably) ear-splitting Dune: Part Two, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve proves that there is a radically refined method guiding his madness. While his film is not as narratively flawless as the sands of desert planet Arrakis are harsh, Villeneuve’s epic arrives as a big, sincere and essential reminder that film is the home of true push-the-limit visionaries. It is a medium of transformative dreams and immersive nightmares. Or it can be when its powers are harnessed by artists like Villeneuve, a storyteller who is willing to spill the entirety of his imagination on the screen, damn the consequences.

Picking up exactly where Part One left off – this is not so much a sequel as the second half of one movie, with zero patience for neophytes – Part Two finds deposed aristocrat Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) cast out into the harsh wilderness of Arrakis, whose prized natural resource known as “spice” fuels the interstellar space travel crucial to the rule of the galactic empire.

While plotting his revenge against the brutal Harkonnen clan who usurped his father’s throne in a bloody coup, Paul forges an alliance with the indigenous Fremen, including warrior Chani (Zendaya) and tribal leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem). The latter acts as a mentor, father figure and manic street preacher, living with the hope that a messiah will one day help his people return Arrakis back into a lush, green paradise.

Is Paul that saviour? Perhaps. It helps that his mother, the scheming psychic Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), is pushing for just that prophecy to come true as she gains a dangerous influence over the Fremen. Yet Paul, who has a gift for dreaming about events before they actually happen, foresees nothing but intergalactic misery should he lead the Fremen against the Padishah Emperor (Christopher Walken).

Realizing that any and all of the plot points described above sound ludicrously complex or derivative of countless other cinematic spectacles – Herbert’s original books might have literary precedence over something like George Lucas’s Star Wars, but in film it’s the race to the screen that matters – Villeneuve takes a refreshingly unapologetic, all-in approach to the material. This is not a movie interested in hand-holding sci-fi skeptics. You’re either with its gravity-defying space assassins and cannibalistic albino psychopaths rendered in heart-stopping IMAX grandeur, or you’re not.

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Timothee Chalamet in a scene from Dune: Part Two.Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/The Associated Press

Yet the power of Villeneuve’s work here is that only the most cynical of audiences will turn their noses up at Dune’s magnificent, hardcore, often quite brutal weirdness. The director builds his world so seamlessly and with such deft narrative and stylistic confidence that, before you know it, Arrakis feels completely, devastatingly real. As do the men, women and worms populating it.

Chalamet, Hollywood’s best chance at developing a true 21st-century movie star from scratch, possesses an uncertain, humble energy that aptly reflects Paul’s journey from pampered prince to scarred revolutionary. Zendaya delivers the right balance of steely nerve and repressed vulnerability to pull off a tricky role that might have been lost among the sandstorms and explosions were it not for her commitment. And Bardem pulls off an often darkly funny act as a zealot blinded by his own faith.

If Part Two was merely a three-hander between the actors, then it would be a riot. Yet Villeneuve convinces half of Hollywood to appear in the margins, too, including Walken (creepy enough for us to wish that he had played that other big emperor, Palpatine), Josh Brolin (whose grizzled Atreides lieutenant gets one of the most fiery introductions, or rather reintroductions, in recent film history) and Austin Butler (who, as a psychotic Harkonnen brute, trades his Elvis impersonation for a dead-on Stellan Skarsgård riff).

While Villeneuve might carry a reputation for turning chilly source material into uncrackable permafrost – dating all the way back to his early Québécois work – he opens and then offers the entirety of his heart in Part Two. The rousing battle scenes in the final third would mean little without the director and his co-writer Jon Spaihts spending the previous two hours carefully establishing the trifecta of personal dramas plaguing Paul’s every move.

There are a number of points where Villeneuve seems to leap before he looks – even at 165 minutes, parts of Paul’s journey, including a real worm-turn moment, feel rushed. And like Part One, this film doesn’t so much conclude its story as it teases out another, even more colossal one. (If Villeneuve is able to get a greenlight for the outré chaos of Herbert’s Dune Messiah, Muad’Dib bless him.)

But in terms of pure spectacle and shock-and-awe achievement, Villeneuve has produced an adaptation of mad glory and power. Long may he reign.

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