Dune: Part Two Is the Best Sci-Fi Epic of the Century

The jaw-dropping, action-packed sequel is even better than the first.

Inverse Reviews

Dune: Part One was, in many ways, the antiblockbuster. It’s a movie that began at the end — at the end of a centurieslong secret battle between noble houses we only see glimpses of and amid a sea of change that we can’t even begin to understand. There was no emotional anchor because most of the characters were doomed from the moment we met them and no catharsis because the story wasn’t really over. It’s an incredibly ballsy way to start a sci-fi franchise, and Dune: Part Two, Denis Villeneuve’s electrifying, stupendously action-packed sequel, is no less bold. But while it would be easy (and cliche) to say that Dune: Part Two delivers on everything the first film built up — and more! — the film is more than the sum of its jaw-dropping spectacle and rousing battle scenes.

Dune: Part Two is a sci-fi epic for the ages: a sweeping tragedy of mythic proportions, a cautionary tale of the perils of zealotry, and maybe most importantly of all, a love story. It’s a towering feat of sci-fi cinema that will put Dune: Part Two in contention for the pantheon of greatest sequels ever.

Timothée Chalamet gives a superbly turmoiled turn as Paul transforms into a messianic figure of the Fremen.

Warner Bros.

Dune: Part Two picks up immediately after the events of Part One, with Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) joining the Fremen in their long fight against the Harkonnens. While the zealous Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and his followers believe Paul is the fabled Mahdi, a messiah prophesied to “lead us to paradise,” the younger Fremen, including outspoken guerilla fighter Chani (Zendaya), are more skeptical. As Paul slowly wins over the Fremen by proving his dedication to their cause and leading a renewed campaign against the Harkonnen armies, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) calls in his savage nephew Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler) to bring Arrakis back under their control. Little do they know the “Fremen demon” Muad’Dib, whose troops terrorize their warriors and dismantle their spice production, is actually the last surviving member of their House Atreides massacre — a secret that threatens the Baron’s ambitions for the throne and could topple the reign of the figurehead Padishah Emperor (Christopher Walken) altogether.

The second half of Frank Herbert’s Dune is where things start to get weird. The political intrigue and subterfuge of the first half give way to a messianic Lawrence of Arabia-style epic punctuated by strange rabbit holes into the surreal — when Lady Jessica imbibes the poisonous Water of Life to become the Fremen’s new Reverend Mother, her story could, in any other filmmaker’s hands, threaten to overwhelm an audience with startling visions and phantasmagoria (and, as many nerds will love to tell you, talking omniscient babies). And at times, Villeneuve’s Part Two does overwhelm, with its sheer, seismic scope; its new achievements in immersive, tactile cinema; and its frequent dips into the surreal. Every other scene is a headrush of awe-inspiring images, and every other image is a picture of jaw-dropping sci-fi splendor lovingly crafted by cinematographer Greig Fraser.

Rebecca Ferguson is deliriously good as the empowered Lady Jessica.

Warner Bros.

But Villeneuve and co-writer Jon Spaihts manage to deftly weave the intricate stories and intersecting ambitions of Dune: Part Two by couching it in something universally recognizable: a love story. The budding romance between Paul and Chani is the emotional anchor of the movie. Chalamet has always been an expert yearner (see: Call Me by Your Name and Little Women), but his chemistry with Zendaya manages to immediately sell a romance that is essentially on fast-forward. There’s a tenderness and sincerity to their scenes together — whether Chani is teaching him to sandwalk or Paul is saving her from an oncoming missile — which provides a warm and welcoming contrast to the brutalism that pervades the rest of the film. If Dune left audiences cold for its alleged lack of an emotional core, Part Two satisfies that lack on all accounts.

Despite its stacked and exceptionally talented ensemble (all of whom vie for scene-stealer at some point), Dune: Part Two is very much a two-hander between Chalamet and Zendaya. With Part Two, Villeneuve gets to take Paul’s hero’s journey to new subversive extremes. Herbert always intended Dune to be a takedown of the charismatic Chosen One leader, but Villeneuve dials up the criticism of the story’s inherent white savior tropes by layering in a sense of foreboding doom, allowing Chalamet’s Paul to truly grapple with consolidating his need for revenge and his fear of his devastating destiny. Chalamet gives a truly inspired turn while playing up Paul’s all-consuming dilemma. He’s angry, despairing, impassioned, and even at times sinister. (Part Two makes a good case for Chalamet to play a villain in the future.) When destiny is manufactured and belief is only a thing to be weaponized, what does heroism even look like?

The answer is Zendaya’s Chani, who provides the movie’s beating heart and lone moral compass. Her arc is dramatically expanded from Herbert’s book, with Chani becoming the de facto hero as Paul gets further lost to the fanaticism surrounding him. Zendaya lends a tough weariness and resigned sadness to Chani, as she realizes the inevitable end of their cause.

The romance between Paul and Chani is the emotional anchor of Dune: Part Two.

Warner Bros.

The rest of the cast is just as magnetic, even those with the shortest screen time. Bardem provides a comforting foundation amid the Fremen community, even as his Stilgar becomes fervid zealot. Ferguson is impeccably freakish, especially once Lady Jessica is imbued with the genetic memory of the Fremen. Making up for the loss of her political maneuverings in the first film, Villeneuve lets Ferguson run wild with her schemes to build Paul up to be the Fremen’s prophesied messiah in Part Two, becoming Paul’s best ally and most unlikely antagonist. While Part One’s main antagonists — Skarsgard’s Baron Harkonnen and Dave Bautista’s Rabban — are sidelined in Part Two, Butler’s unhinged Feyd-Rautha takes on the mantle of chief villain with a psychotic glee. Sporting a bald head and a growly, accented voice that can only be described as “Stellan Skarsgard impression,” Butler’s Feyd-Rautha is barely human. Rather, he’s like raw, untempered violence made flesh.

Elsewhere, Léa Seydoux transfixes as the unreadable Bene Gesserit agent Lady Margot Fenrir, while Florence Pugh’s Princess Irulan (basically stuck in the minimal Zendaya role of Part One) is mostly tasked with delivering narration that contextualizes the broad beats of the story while teasing the hidden machinations of the Bene Gesserit.

The more action-packed Dune: Part Two is a tremendous technical achievement.

Warner Bros.

It’s an impressive amount of storylines for Villeneuve to juggle, even within the film’s mammoth 165-minute runtime. But despite the sheer volume of plot, not once does Part Two buckle under the weight, moving at a brisk pace that rivals the most audacious action flicks. By virtue of its foundational nature in sci-fi, there’s a sheen of familiarity to Dune (it’s space Lawrence of Arabia, on drugs!), but Villeneuve manages to streamline its more esoteric elements into a saga that’s part Hamlet, part Greek tragedy, and part Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. That’s because in between all its moving parts and apocalyptic visions, Villeneuve stages some of the most impressive battle sequences since Peter Jackson’s fantasy epic — bloody battles through which you can chart every character arc and subplot, and white-knuckle fight scenes that knock the wind out of you. Part Two is a new achievement in tactile action cinema, from its vision of brutalist, inky planets and Metropolis-meets-Atlantis ancient civilizations to its breathtaking sound design and production. On a technical level, it’s the kind of total escapism few films achieve.

“In so many futures, our enemies prevail. But I do see a way. There is a narrow way through,” Paul tells his mother at one point in the film. Like Paul’s vision of the future, there were many ways for Dune: Part Two to fail. But not only does it succeed, it surpasses the mythic tragedy of the first film and turns a complicated, strange sci-fi story into a rousing blockbuster adventure. Dune: Part Two isn’t a miracle, per se. But it’s nothing short of miraculous.

Dune: Part Two opens in theaters March 1.

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