Sunday, March 03, 2024


DUNE: PART TWO is probably about as good a film as one can make about Frank Herbert's iconic religio-sci-fi book. The flaws I found in this film are mostly down to how distasteful and uninspiring I find the source material - with its superficial embrace of Middle Eastern and North African culture and the fact that its female characters are almost entirely reduced to breeding vessels. I understand that I am not perhaps the appropriate demographic for the books. But Denis Villeneuve has taken it and created two films of arresting visuals and a stunning score.  Greig Fraser's IMAX cinematography is bold and beautiful and truly envelopes us in Arrakis. And Hans Zimmer is at his finest combining sandworm-commanding drums, rock guitars, and menacing prophecy-reciting choirs.

As this instalment opens, we are mere days after part one. Paul Atreides and his mother Lady Jessica have survived the massacre of their House on the desert planet of Arrakis.  Paul has proven himself a fearsome warrior to the indigenous Fremen, some of whom think he is their long-awaited messiah.  This delights Lady Jessica and Atreides loyalist Gurney Halleck, who believes the Fremen will be a powerful fighting force. But Paul's lover Chani has it right - these prophecies are just stories being used to control the Fremen.  The narrative arc is powered by the choice that faces Paul. Will he be swayed by his prophetic dreams of devastating interstellar war and reject being a messiah. Or will he exploit the Fremen for revenge on the Harkonnens and seize the imperial throne?

There is so much to love in how Villeneuve brings this to the screen. He wisely leaves the sandworms as barely seen epic creatures. The production and costume design of the Harkonnen's world and of the Baron and Na-Baron in particular are arresting. 

But the performances veer from mediocre to weak. I found something almost comical in Timothee Chalamet's petulance as Paul and was unfortunately reminded of THE LIFE OF BRIAN - "He's not the Messiah - he's a very naughty boy!" Once you see the film through that lens - "the gourd!" - there's no turning back. There was zero screen chemistry between Chalamet's Paul and Zendaya's Chani which is odd as they seem to be constantly low-key flirting on the red carpet. Christopher Walken is hopelessly miscast as the Emperor - totally bringing me out of the film with his unique American accent. Only Javier Bardem stood out as Stilgar - petrifying in his increasing religious fervour.

I suspect that performances aren't really what interest Villeneuve. He is all about spectacle. Script and character are somewhat beyond the point for him. But this leads to weird choices around narrative. 

Most obviously, Villeneuve's choice not to allow the narrative to unravel over several years problematic. It felt as though Paul's journey from young pup to Emperor had taken place over a few weeks! Is it really so easy to seize power?  And how is this going to impact the timeline around Alia, who we see as a grown woman in Paul's dreams.  Another choice I disagree with is to minimise the influence of the Guild and put all of the machinations onto the Bene Gesserit cult. 

But perhaps the biggest macro issue I have with both books and film is that there's no-one to really root for. On the one hand you have a decrepit Emperor who seems flaccid and pointless. Then there are the comically evil and therefore uninteresting Harkonnens.  The Bene Genesserit are nuts and seem to have no endgame. The Fremen are religious extremists. And Paul is a self-acknowledged harbinger of mass genocide. It's like watching Succession but without the comedy swearing.

DUNE: PART TWO has a running time of 166 minutes and is rated-PG-13. It is on global release. 

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