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Movie Review - Dune Part Two

“Begun, the Clone Wars have.”

In some ways, the vibe Yoda gives off when he’s acknowledged this end to peace and the start of widespread, costly and deadly war, echoes exactly how we leave Arrakis at the end of Dune: Part 2. The Jihad has begun…and billions will die for it.

If Dune: Part 2 feels more like a middle chapter than a triumphant conclusion…well, that’s because that’s exactly what it is. For as much as Star Wars has “borrowed” from Dune, it’s only fair that you should walk out of it feeling like you did with The Empire Strikes Back or Attack of the Clones: If the good guys won…why do I feel so bad about it? We’ll talk about that more in a bit, but first, let’s get the synopsis out of the way.

Taking place immediately after Part One, House Atreides has fallen and Arrakis is back in the clutches of the Harkonnens. But for how long? The young Duke, Paul, and his mother the Lady Jessica, make use of ancient prophecies sewn throughout the Fremen beliefs to both ensure their survival and to raise an unstoppable fighting force that will not only change the face of this embattled desert planet, but the known universe as well. As plans and machinations spin out of control now that politics has given way to outright war, who will finally emerge with the greatest treasure of the universe? Who will rule Dune?

Let’s get the easy bits out of the way first. First of all, this all-star cast is amazing in every aspect. Timothee Chalamet continues to be the perfect Muad’dib, youthful but worn down from the terrible purpose he knows waits for him. Zendaya’s Chani has more to do here and proves to be a little bit different from the book, as she in some ways serves as a counterpoint to Jessica, keeping Paul grounded by not getting wrapped up in all this talk of prophecy and remaining a skeptic throughout the film. Rebecca Furguson also sees her role not only ramped up as Lady Jessica…but also taken in a very unique direction. It’s a direction that makes sense but it isn’t one traditionally associated with the role: that of a cult-like leader. One of the issues I’m still wrestling with is did she go fanatical for the continued protection of herself, Paul and her unborn daughter? Was it to spite the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood? Or was it, very simply, her own naked and ambitious bid for power? Javier Bardem’s Stilgar is both heartwarming and terrifying: the former by being an almost surrogate father to Paul…and the dad jokes that do ensue from that…the latter by being a firm believer in the prophecy narrative that Jessica is putting forth. Bardem’s performance switches so easily from one to the other, sometimes within the same scene, that one moment you could be chuckling then the next horrified at the dangers posed by the ‘true believer’. Then there’s Josh Brolin…and what he’s done with Gurney Halleck makes you miss him as much as Paul does and grinning just as broadly when he returns. It’s also really worth noting that the way Brolin plays the role that there’s almost a PTSD undercurrent to his hatred of the Harkonnens resulting in a deeper Gurney than what we’ve seen in prior productions. Speaking of Harkonnens, Stellan Skarsgard and Dave Bautista continue their excellent performances as the Baron and the Beast Rabban respectively. Especially noteworthy though is the performance of Austin Butler as the utterly psychotic Feyd-Routha. What I did not expect so much was an internal struggle amongst the Harkonnens. Yes, some of this is present in the book…but while in the pages the plan was to have Rabban replaced by Feyd-Routha and building up his own messianic role by delivering the people of Arrakis from “The Beast”, we actually see this unfold in the film and the two actors portray this contentious brotherhood well. Back to Butler’s performance, in many ways he’s a perfect ‘dark mirror’ trope to Chalamet’s Paul…both on similar paths (as the Bene Gesserit consider both candidates to become the Kwisatz Haderach) but while we’re continually shown Paul’s avoidance of his destiny and the death that would come with it, it’s made clear to the audience that Feyd-Routha would not only embrace it, but amplify it if possible. Lastly, let’s talk House Corrino. I was wary when Christopher Walken was announced as Shaddam IV…not so much by the skill of the actor, oh no…he’s one of the greats. But in his latter years, in some ways he’s descended into caricature. In fact, right now as you read this, you’re doing a Walken impression in your head, aren’t you? Yeah, me too. Not too many actors are able to escape that. Perhaps it’s a combination of the material and his relatively short time in the movie, but fortunately his performance is able to rise above all that, making a detached yet temperamental Emperor of the Known Universe. Florence Pugh as Irulan is…complicated. I’ve only seen her in a couple of roles really: couldn’t stand her in Black Widow and while it was nice to see her nude in Oppenheimer, she left really no impression on me. That being said, the way her character is set up here and what the role has in store for her in the upcoming Dune Messiah, I think she’s doing well in the part. For this film, in some ways she’s our guide through the politics of the Imperium…her portions serve to remind us there’s a bigger picture in play that just the war on Arrakis and she proves to be a very capable guide.

The one thing you’re going to hear the most about this film is how beautiful it is. This is not exaggerated. Villeneuve’s direction and Greig Fraser is downright jaw-dropping. The vistas are epic. If you don’t fall in love with the desert after this film, I seriously have to wonder what movie you just watched, because it wasn’t this one. That said, I think the visual style of the Geidi Prime sequences have to be some of the most inventive and innovative I’ve ever seen. Orbiting a ‘black sun’, the moments we are there are not just simply black and white…they are starkly black and white with seemingly very little in the way of gray. Could you consider this a visual commentary on the Harkonnens themselves? Quite possibly. It’s this sequence alone that makes me lament that the most we’re likely going to see on the home video front will be “special features” that are little more than 5 to 10 minute puff-pieces because I would love some in-depth looks at how this style was determined and more so how it was accomplished. Still, every review you’ve read is absolutely right: just like Part One, you owe it to yourself to see this in IMAX or, failing that, the biggest screen you possibly can.

Now, let’s talk story and themes. Of course you would expect the movie to follow the broad strokes of the novel: Paul rebuilds himself and his identity amongst the Fremen all the while plotting, then accomplishing, his revenge upon the houses that brought his father down. Also familiar are the moments of doubt and the attempts to avoid his messianic destiny as he knows full well that should those events come to pass, countless billions will die as war sweeps throughout the Imperium. In that regard, Paul really doesn’t harbor many surprises for us. What’s worth analyzing here are the very different trajectories that Lady Jessica and Chani take. As I mentioned earlier, Jessica takes on this very cult-leader type role: trying to get as many Fremen as possible to believe that she and her son are the Voices from the Outer World that their prophecy foretold. Once becoming a Reverend Mother, this behavior only ramps up all the more as she abandons any attempts at subtlety or influence, instead using her Bene Gesserit Voice powers whenever it suits her. In many ways, her stance becomes ‘if you don’t believe…I will make you’. Those familiar with Dune know that Jessica’s ascension to the role of Reverend Mother did not come without complications…as her unborn daughter, Alia, becomes pre-born. The film handles this in a really interesting way, having Jessica walk about talking in what is seemingly a one-sided conversation but instead, she’s talking with the fetus in her womb. The way this is depicted really makes her seem crazy or schizophrenic. And that’s the point worth considering. Because as Jessica goes further and further into the picture, she seems less and less sane. It makes sense. Not only would she have the voices of past Reverend Mothers in her head, but those of Alia as well. All these voices always seeking audience would be taxing on anyone. In Jessica’s position however, it’s not difficult to imagine them as maddening. Now let’s look at Chani, the skeptic. Right in that label, we see that she’s going to fall diametrically opposed to Paul’s mother. In that way, writers Villeneuve and Spaihts have already made Herbert’s original ending impossible. Some Dune purists will take issue with that, and I can see why because the way the film ends, with Chani actually hurt that Paul has sought a political marriage to ascend to the Golden Lion throne, seemingly makes the events of Dune Messiah impossible. As a viewer, you can see Paul prepping her for this eventuality, saying at least twice in the closing act of the film that he will love her as long as he’s alive (or something to that effect). Book Paul takes it a step further: She’ll have my name, but that is all. My heart, my loyalty and my heirs will be yours. Even that though, it’s hard to see how that would sit right with someone…especially someone in love. While this may set up a romantic subplot for Dune Messiah, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to take a film that should have the message of being cautious in putting faith in messianic leaders and putting a love-redemption thread in there as well. Yet, given that the third part to this story is to be tragic, perhaps it might work after all. Lastly, I do want to give a shout out to how ‘the Prescience Trap’ was illustrated in the film and what could possibly be the earliest hints at “The Golden Path,” should this series continue beyond Villeneuve’s planned trilogy. Better than the prior tellings, Dune Part Two takes the audience on a more understandable approach to Paul’s reluctant path. His leadership among the Fremen is too small scale, but in order to bolster that and make for a serious threat to the Harkonnens, he has to see the travails ahead. This is made extremely plain to him during the destruction of Sietch Tabr. That takes us to the next step: Paul taking the water of life. Now, gifted with the sight he needs, he’s unwillingly made those visions set in stone. This will be how it unfolds. And kudos to Chalamet’s performance, the audience is made very aware that this does not set right with Paul. He’d rather do anything else. But this is the one way they’re successful…the one way they survive what’s coming. And so…he has no choice. By seeing the future, he’s become bound to it. The way he tells Stilgar to guide the Great Houses that will not accept his rule “to Paradise” has this weight of resignation to it, as much as the quote from Yoda I used to open this review with. Paul saw it coming…but there was no way to avoid it. It was inevitable. His reign will be bathed in the blood of countless worlds. This is already tragic, the fact he laments this destiny, perhaps even more so. Now, with this “path” set, it doesn’t take much to envision an heir that will undertake the salvation of all humanity by becoming the villain and forcing the Imperium to remain on this Golden Path.

Here's hoping the series survives so long as to bring that story to pass.

One last thing to mention…Hans Zimmer’s score. While for me, Part One was bogged down by the incredibly annoying overuse of the theme that first materializes in the piece ‘Gom Jabbar’, sounding like an adhan (or Islamic call to prayer), that’s really not the case here. Yes, that theme re-emerges from time to time, but given it’s excessive prominence in Part One, you’d expect that, but overall, Zimmer almost seems restrained at times with this score…and that’s a VERY good thing. By doing this, he ends up with a wider array of sonic landscapes, themes and melodies that end up complementing the film extremely well…as opposed to feeling like someone is screaming in your goddamn ear every 5 minutes like a child that has figured out a sound that REALLY annoys you, then keeps on doing it or his specialty of ‘bwaaaam…BWAAAAAAM…BUHWAAAAAAAAAAAAM! So kudos to the guy for clearly stepping out of his comfort zone with this one.

Dune Part Two completes the promise Part One set forth. Yes, there are differences from the source material and no, there’s still no big-screen rendition of the scene Herbert declared his favorite: The Dinner Banquet, but Villeneuve and company have captured the heart of this story the way that no interpretation that came before it has. Many critics have gone so far as to say that this is the film that will redefine big screen Sci-Fi from now until the next trend maker comes…and I can’t disagree. Like Part One, this film is a visual feast that is written so well that it will take multiple screenings to digest it all. Even in writing this review after my initial viewing…just like the book itself…I know there are things I’m missing and I can’t wait to take a second crack at them. In a Hollywood that seems like an endless hype machine, always moving from one hot thing to the next, I assure you, the buzz about Dune Part Two is real. You will never see anything quite like this and, if the right execs take the right lessons from this, you might just be witnessing a new paradigm in Tinsel Town…one that reminds us why we go to movies in the first place. It should come as no surprise that Dune Part Two gets our highest rating: The Hypno Cat.

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