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An empire hangs in the balance of Timothée Chalamet and Austin Butler’s single combat in Dune 2. Photo by Niko Tavernise

When I reviewed the first Dune movie two and a half years ago, I reported that it left me cold, but I allowed for the possibility that the sequel might make the first film look better in retrospect. Now that I’ve seen Dune: Part Two, I’m glad that I left that door open for myself. Not that I’m entirely happy with Part Two, but it does that job, and it’s a better movie on its own.

One of my problems with the first Dune was that the story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) didn’t really start until the end of that film. It picks up in earnest here, as he and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) are war refugees living off the charity of the oppressed Fremen of the planet Arrakis. Half the planet thinks Paul is a messiah foretold by a prophecy who will liberate the planet, while the other half thinks the prophecy is a load of crap. He tries to downplay his status, well aware that being a chosen one will subject him to danger from his followers even more than his enemies. On the other hand, his mother cynically whips up religious sentiment among the people to protect Paul and his unborn sibling with whom she’s pregnant. Paul looks to gain the attention of the emperor (Christopher Walken), unaware that the emperor is the one behind the Harkonnens’ massacre of Paul’s father and clan.

Most of the supporting characters — Paul’s love interest Chani (Zendaya), the Fremen leader (Javier Bardem), and the Harkonnens’ hothead lieutenant (Dave Bautista) — come off as more rounded figures here, so it’s worrying that Chalamet seems swallowed up by the epic scale for so much of the film. He is holding back, but then, five hours over two films is a long time to hold back. Only in the latter stages does he finally cut loose, embracing his messiah-ness and going full cult leader to rally the Fremen against their rulers. It is more than a bit disturbing, especially when he proposes marriage to the emperor’s daughter (Florence Pugh, playing a subtle political operator who nevertheless can still be outsmarted) in front of Chani, a scene made more awkward by the way Paul steamrolls over her feelings.

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Director/co-writer Denis Villeneuve still has some trouble toggling between the plotlines with Paul fighting alongside the Fremen, the Harkonnens fruitlessly trying to wipe out the resistance, and the emperor trying to hold onto power. Fortunately, Villeneuve still has an eye for striking visuals, such as Chani running for shelter while the Harkonnen airship that she shot down crashes behind her in flames. A black-and-white interval replete with black fireworks introduces us to the Harkonnens’ psychopathic heir apparent (Austin Butler) as he slaughters some fighters in a gladiator ring. (A shaven-headed Butler makes a properly hair-raising adversary — he likes stabbing his chambermaids to death just to test the sharpness of his swords, and regrettably, he can win a fair fight, too.) Villeneuve does not disappoint with the movie’s two big set pieces, a ritual when Paul rides a massive sandworm and proves his manhood to the Fremen and the climactic battle when the Fremen deliver a smackdown to the Harkonnens and to the high priestess (Charlotte Rampling), who all have it coming.

The tragic element of the story doesn’t quite hit home here, but I daresay that will receive more treatment in a subsequent film. The better part of Dune: Part Two is the complexity of what it says about religion, as the Fremen’s belief in their messiah propels them to ultimate victory but leads them in a direction that only disgusts Chani. Lady Jessica’s order has been corrupted by its ties to the emperor, but Lady Jessica has her own self-interested reasons for breaking away and installing herself as a new reverend mother. These are subjects that other blockbuster franchises have studiously avoided, or botched, in the case of those Star Wars films. The focus on the power and the limits of faith distinguishes the Dune films from the herd.

 

Dune: Part Two
Starring Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Denis Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts, based on Frank Herbert’s novel. Rated PG-13.

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