Greatness in the Current-Year

Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part Two”: A Review

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune series, the two-part adaptation of the 1965 sci-fi novel by Frank Herbert, has become a surprise cultural phenomenon. Space opera plots about prophecy, future technology, ancient bloodlines, and resource extraction have been out of fashion for decades – but with Dune, these themes have returned to the popular consciousness. What has also returned is the epic. At two hours and forty six minutes of runtime, the newly released Dune: Part Two follows last summer’s Oppenheimer in bringing back a long running time to enormous commercial success and massive online interest. 

A big part of Dune 2‘s appeal lies in its scale and its visual opulence. The film is astonishingly beautiful. Villeneuve has created a world in which everything has texture and weight, and feels real. Brutalist, high-tech designs contrast with  expansive, alien nature. Each new setting appears rooted in reality. The effect is brought together by Hans Zimmer’s eerie and bombastic score. Heavy stylization can often create a final product that feels comical, but this is not the case here. 

Aesthetic impact is easily Dune 2‘s outstanding quality. It stands far above its peers in this category; no recent sci-fi epic has come close to the standard of skill demonstrated by Villeneuve, Greg Frasier, Jacqueline West, and the others involved in the Dune series’ creative direction. But this is not the whole picture of the film, and key elements outside of the realm of visuals define a far more mixed result.

Dune 2′s script is probably its most controversial component. Much of the story departs from the original source material, and generally weakens it. The southern fundamentalist Fremen are caricaturized, with the character Stilgar serving as the butt of a joke for much of the film. But the strongest diversion comes in the character of Chani, the Fremen warrior played in David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation by Sean Young.

Villeneuve’s depiction of Chani defines her as a character written in 2024 rather than 1965. She parrots lines and ideas found in just about every other current-year mainstream cultural product, including anti-colonial theory and sneering contempt for religion. She has been rewritten into yet another installment of the generic Middle Eastern “freedom fighter” figure now seen everywhere from Disney’s Star Wars to Modern Warfare (2019). The audience is supposed to identify with her, adopt her positions, and conclude Paul’s ascent is something far less than glorious. In this way the movie undermines itself.

Zendaya’s performance as Chani is unconvincing and forgettable. She shares zero on-screen chemistry with Chalamet as Paul, and offers little as an actress. Every other piece of this production feels like it was created with extreme care and attention – except for Zendaya’s performance. Even Paul’s own ominous visions provide a much stronger case to the viewer as to why he should not go to the south, and embrace his role as messiah; but after the Harkonnen attack the northern Fremen, there is no other option than to fulfill the prophecy. At this point, Chani’s objections sound more like a temper tantrum than a legitimate source of thematic tension, and the viewer is swept away in the glory of it all. 

The pivotal scene – Paul’s speech at the war-council of southern Arrakis, in which he claims his place as the prophet of the Fremen – is downright electric. Chalamet delivers a rousing war-cry, and the viewer is brought along as an inspired member of the fundamentalist audience. Chalamet has clearly evolved since The King, and it is all put on the table in scenes like this. The music swells, the tension rises, and the film is brought to a fever pitch; how is this supposed to feel tragic? 

Zendaya in a scene of “Dune: Part Two”

The Chani problem gets at the heart of the ‘issue’ with Dune 2: it is a movie at war with itself. Whether by some disconnect between the writers’ room and the director’s chair, or perhaps some unseen conflict… it is a movie written with one message, that delivers another. The mockery of Stilgar fails beyond the first few instances, as the prophecy is fulfilled and the music swells to new heights with each portend. The foil that Chani is supposed to provide comes across as a childish, self-centered tantrum against destiny itself. 

The message Dune 2 delivers is one that’s rarely seen on film today: become who you are. In some ways, Villeneuve has leaned into the ancient-mythical aspects of Dune far more than Lynch; it becomes a Greek tragedy, in which Paul must accept the prophecy that guides his life. He must embrace what was once considered propaganda, using and then usurping the shadowy power of the Bene Gesserit (“Silence!”) to maintain stable “normalcy”; this is framed as good and right. 

All of this is presented through a stunning visual environment that will not leave us quickly. The slick architecture of Arrakis effortlessly communicates power. The Harkonnen are not merely ugly, but alien – a cruel race, born under a black sun. The dwellings of the Fremen are oases in the unforgiving desert, with allusions to their Amazigh inspiration. Most of the casting supports this as well: Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica delivers a shamanic, almost-cosmically terrifying role at times, and Austin Butler embodies Feyd-Rautha even through heavy makeup and costuming. The costuming in particular is perhaps the best of any film in the past twenty years; Florence Pugh appears regal in a chainmail getup which under any other director would have looked downright funny.

All of these aesthetic choices, from the color grading to even the casting, communicate the true message, at least the one intended by Villeneuve: Paul must ascend and meet his destiny. Zendaya’s Chani, whiny and near-offensively ugly against every other aspect of beauty in this film, comes off as an unsympathetic drag trying (and failing) to stop fate with empty platitudes – far more hollow than the ones she mocks in the fundamentalist Fremen of the planet’s south. Her intended message to the audience is overcome by the sheer epic quality of the events she bemoans, and the visual splendor of the surrounding world. 

Everything in the film that is intended to counter this message comes across as insincere and forced. Clearly, an attempt was made to subvert Paul’s core journey, but it falls in execution. Strong aesthetics have conquered an attempt at a moral lecture, and Villeneuve’s fascination with the coolness of Dune has overcome his desire to shoehorn a lecture into the story. The audience cheers when they are supposed to feel horror, and feels aligned with the often-mocked fundamentalists more than with the intended northerners. The audience wants to see Paul fulfill his destiny. By the final scene, the viewer cheers for holy war, with its atomic weapons and sandworm attacks.

The final impression of Dune 2 is powerful and invigorating. It introduces a conflict, and clearly aims to steer the audience toward the dominant current-year view. But by the time the credits roll – accidentally or not – the film places the audience firmly on the side of destiny and greatness. 

Alaric is a writer and the founder of The Dissident Review. He can be followed @0xAlaric.

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