DUNE: PART TWO

★★★★★

THE PROPHECY IS FULFILLED IN THE ASTOUNDING SECOND ACT OF THE DUNE SAGA

THEATRICAL REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
28th February 2024

"Lead them to Paradise."

Just as with its acclaimed first instalment, the second part of Denis Villeneuve's gargantuan adaptation of Frank Herbert's landmark science fiction classic 'Dune' rests on a prophecy. The Fremen, the indigenous peoples of the planet Arrakis, believe that a stranger will come from the outer worlds to lead them to freedom, after centuries of enslavement and violence by the Great Houses of the known universe in their pursuit of the precious spice melange. When we first hear this prophecy, when young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet, 'Call Me By Your Name') is told of it by his mother the Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, 'Doctor Sleep'), it is as a story spun by the mysterious sisterhood the Bene Gesserit, a myth made up and fed to the Fremen over centuries to prepare the way for a powerful pre-ordained figure they can manipulate and control, the Kwisatz Haderach. It is nothing more than a lie, concocted for long-term political game, and in the first film, that's mostly what it remains. We have only suggestions of how it weaves into the spiritual beliefs of the Fremen, but always through the eyes of those who know it's nothing more than a story. Paul knows it's all a game and never fully interrogate it.

In 'Part Two', that prophecy becomes a tangible reality. For the Fremen, embodied by Sietch leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem, 'No Country For Old Men'), the coming of the Lisan al Gaib is as real as the sand beneath their feet or the sandworms that populate their planet. They believe with religious fervour to the point of fundamentalism, centuries of careful work by the Bene Gesserit ensuring that story has transformed into myth, myth into religion. And for them, Paul Atreadis is the manifestation of that prophecy, following the signs that they were given to signify the coming of their prophet. The belief that something is coming can keep a people under the yolk of control without their realising, holding their breath, waiting and waiting. And when that something they have waited for finally arrives, it unlocks a power too tantalising not to exploit.

The question, though, is who will be the one to exploit it?

It's in this second film that such questions, woven into the glorious fabric of Herbert's masterpiece, become all the clearer. The first film drew us in, set up the politics and players of this feudal intergalactic world and the role of Arrakis within it. By the end, all the pieces were in place for the narrative to finally begin. This isn't a criticism of the first film; in fact, it worked to its advantage. With the narrative so beautifully streamlined, we were able to connect with the characters, understand their motivations and watch their relationships build and crumble. If it weren't for this careful table-setting, the second half simply wouldn't have worked. As David Lynch's maligned 1984 film proved, Herbert's novel is too big, too complex to be contained in a single feature film, to be condensed to its base elements. Breathing space is important. It allows the audience to access the world, the characters and, most importantly, the ideas. 'Dune', at its best, is a novel of ideas, on the nature of power, on the manipulative influence of religion, on the horrors of colonialism and environmental damage. To lose them would be to lose the heart of 'Dune' itself.

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As gigantic as 'Dune: Part Two' is (and I'd warrant to say that we haven't seen anything this enormous on-screen since 'Mad Max: Fury Road', maybe even since 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King'), it never loses sight of foregrounding these concerns and ensuring they are rooted in the action and the characters. In many ways, 'Part Two' feels more intimate than 'Part One', the intensity of the drama even more present in conversations between two characters as it is when manifested as giant visual spectacle. All the major characters of 'Dune' find themselves here caught in the push-and-pull of inevitability, of a future where something will crack or shift or change. It isn't just the prophecy at play; the actions undertaken in the first film must be answered for. For those with influence on the events to come, their first move is to decide where they want to position themselves in relation to this incoming shift. Their second is to force their way to that position in any way possible and hold it for dear life.

For most, it's a question of power. Lady Jessica, pregnant with her second child, has the safety of what is left of her family at heart, and her training as a Bene Gesserit offers her specific advantages, to take what has already been set in place and use it to her benefit. For the victorious Harkonnens, it's about cementing their position, obliterating opposition and making their status essential and indispensable. For the Bene Gesserit, it's ensuring that their contingencies are in place, recalibrating the mechanisms to ensure everything continues as planned. For Paul, however, the path isn't as clear. He can feel the pull towards power, the tantalising opportunity offered to him by the Fremen prophecy and where he sits in relation to it. It isn't just his spice-induced visions that warn him of consequences if he takes that opportunity; he knows that his ascension to the role of the Lisan al Gaib would be built on a lie, "just a story", and that to sell that story as hope to an oppressed people is not hope but yet another form of oppression. He wants to disappear into the Fremen, not dominate them. More specifically, he understands what ultimate power in his hands would mean. Jessica tells Paul that his father, the slain Duke Leto Atreides, did not believe in revenge. Paul's answer is that he does, and that if he were given the opportunity, he would burn the institutions that sanctioned the death of his father to the ground. His visions tell him that something terrible will come if he takes the mantle of the Lisan al Gaib as an act of revenge, but in his heart he already knows that, and as the walls begin to close in around him, that "narrow way" towards absolute power becomes inescapable.

The difference for the Fremen, and in particular Chani (Zendaya, TV's 'Euphoria'), is that the choice of where to position themselves in this game for power is determined by what will serve the ultimate collective good rather than the good of the individual. Stilgar believes the prophecy will fulfil this, but Chani understands with astute clarity that the prophecy exists to enslave them, not empower them. If their strength doesn't come from within, then they cannot ensure they won't just exchange one institution of power for another. As she asks in the opening narration of the first film, "Who will our new oppressors be?", and her determination to find a way to freedom that doesn't involve a deal with these devilish white colonisers first leads her to believe in Paul as a leader, companion and compatriot, and then to question his choices as he shifts course towards prophet and messiah. Chani's arc is perhaps the most significant departure Villeneuve and co-writer Jon Spaihts take from Herbert's novel, but it's also one of their best decisions. It places her as the voice of reason rather than compliant companion, trying desperately to hold back the tide of what is to come, making the inevitability of where 'Dune: Part Two' leaves us all the more powerful and all the more devastating.

Driven by enormous stakes anchored in vivid and well-constructed characters, 'Dune: Part Two' does not waste a frame. Complementing the erudite adaptation is Villeneuve's startling talent for visual storytelling. So much of the power of the film comes from the individual in the face of the enormous. As with the first film, they are dwarfed by the landscape and its ecology, the sweeping sands and the endless sky, but as the film progresses, we see this shift to the individual exerting power over the enormous. Villeneuve balances the film with recurring images, particularly around Paul and his new antagonist, the deliciously viscous Harkonnen heir Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler, 'Elvis'). We see both command the attention of legions, and the film's visual language, at least on a surface level, suggests they do so with different intent. Feyd commands through terror, while Paul commands with hope, but the languages of power echo one another regardless of intent. Reaching the point where these contrasts begin to resemble mirror images takes great care, and Villeneuve, cinematographer Greig Frasier and editor Joe Walker navigate this transition incrementally. The sight of Paul before an army of sandworms instills the state of awe we expect, but maybe not the kind of awe. Anyone who has read 'Dune' could see that this path was laid right from the prologue of the first film, but it's even more vital here that, when the turn comes and the film reveals its true thematic intent, audiences unprepared for this are able to accept it.

Not only does Chalamet convey a gravity and an authority, but is at points genuinely unsettling. The frantic boyish energy has settled into a moral conviction, a certainty, laced with a danger and an unpredictability. It's some of his finest work to date.

Integral to that is Chalamet's performance, and while he seemed an obvious choice for Paul in the early stages of the film, his work as Paul ascended to the all-powerful leader Muad'Dib shows us a side of him as an actor we haven't seen before. Not only does he convey a gravity and an authority, but is at points genuinely unsettling. The frantic boyish energy has settled into a moral conviction, a certainty, laced with a danger and an unpredictability. It's some of his finest work to date. Just as startling and just as impressive is Zendaya's performance as Chani, her love for Paul preserving the man he was and highlighting the horror of the man he becomes. She delivers many of the most powerful moments of the film, her strength and defiance simultaneously sending shivers up your spine and breaking your heart. The emotional core of the film belongs to her, especially as we see everyone around her lose their humanity and autonomy.

In fact, the whole cast is expert at navigating the tonal shift Part Two takes, whether that be the cold determination Ferguson gives to Lady Jessica or the passionate belief that drives Bardem's performance as Stilgar. The Harkonnens are far less complex, but that highlights their danger. Butler's performance as Feyd is animal, unhinged, primal and hungry. He wishes nothing but to consume, and while this is perhaps not as spiritually dangerous as Paul's convictions, it results in an unrelenting onslaught of violence, a violence he sickeningly enjoys. The already impressive ensemble established in Part One is only strengthened with 'Part Two', even if actors like Florence Pugh as Princess Irulan and Léa Seydoux as the Bene Gesserit sister Lady Margot Fenring lurk around the edges of the drama. They still come with a sense of history and leave a powerful impression, much like Chani had in 'Part One', and if Villeneuve is given the chance to complete his trilogy, these impressions will blossom into equally full, equally complex characters in the future.

When 'Part One' was released in 2021, I remember feeling a sense of relief. The foundations of this adaptation had been well laid. The world was vivid and immense, the characters felt tangible and the pieces were in place for where the story needed to go. Chani's final line, "It's only the beginning", felt like a promise, that the same level of care would persist, that the best was yet to come. 'Part Two' fulfils that promise. It's a sensorial marvel, staggering in its scale and astonishingly beautiful in its execution. Even at its most violent and most bizarre, it's never nothing less than breathtaking, whether that be through the power of its images, the propulsive rhythm of its editing, the integrity of its performances or the symphony of its score and sound design. On a technical level, it's science fiction storytelling of the highest order, setting a standard (much like 'The Lord of the Rings' did for fantasy) that will be hard to match.

Of even greater relief though is that, in the process of adaptation, Denis Villeneuve and his collaborators have not lost sight of what is so special about 'Dune' - the surprise that, within this grandest of space operas, is one of the most exhilarating, surprising and unsettling fables on the complexities of power, how it is gained and how it is wielded. In many ways, with the clarity hindsight, its metaphors are even clearer than in the book. On the page, they come as a sudden shock, a slap in the face, a realisation that you, as the reader, have been manipulated by the familiar tropes of the hero's journey and stories like the Arthurian legends, unaware of the destructive power that was being unleashed right under your noses. Over the nearly six hours of Villeneuve's film adaptation, it's a slow realisation, the dawning of a black sun. It feels inevitable, as it does for Paul and Chani. And just as with the book, its arrival is thunderous. The prophecy is fulfilled, as it must be in all good myths and legends, but what is paradise for some is oblivion for others.

Even if Villeneuve doesn't get to adapt the second book 'Dune Messiah' and finish his grand vision of Frank Herbert's saga (and it would be truly insane if he didn't), his two-part adaptation of 'Dune' stands as a singular, complete work of its own. It has achieved the impossible, captured lightning in a bottle, tamed the wildest of classics and rendered it anew in a new medium and for a new generation. That they were allowed to execute it on this scale is a blessing. That they were able to preserve the heart of the novel is a relief. And after so many aborted and failed attempts to adapt 'Dune', the greatest of science fiction novels, the fact that we now have an adaptation this enormous, this magisterial, this breathtaking, is nothing short of a miracle.

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