Dune 2 Review: Spectacle Soars, Spark Sputters

Dune 2 review: Breathtaking visuals & action, but is spectacle enough? Explore Paul Atreides' complex journey & Villeneuve's masterful world-building, while questioning the film's emotional depth.
Dune: Part II


Denis Villeneuve

Paul Atreides allies with the Fremen on a path of vengeance against the conspirators who have decimated his family. Caught between the love of his life and the fate of the known universe, Paul embarks on a mission to avert a dire future that only he can foresee.

It’s somewhat surreal to consider that Denis Villeneuve might have once had a career outside of science fiction directing. Since his days with Arrival, Villeneuve has seamlessly blended his distinctive directorial gaze with a lifelong passion for the genre, navigating through landmark films (Blade Runner), intricate literary adaptations (Arrival and Dune, the novel), and monumental flops (Lynch’s Dune, among others). In this era of digitized sci-fi, the old Villeneuve, known for crafting films with intense narrative tension (most notably Incendies, Prisoners, and Sicario), seems to have vanished, save for his unwavering rigor in staging.

In Villeneuve’s latest works, complexity is often overshadowed by spectacle, as clearly demonstrated in Dune: Part Two. Unlike its predecessor — which felt more like an extended atmospheric trailer setting up the sequel — this film justifies its existence through the extravagance of its action and the hero’s journey towards greater self-awareness, silently blessed by Joseph Campbell’s paternal figure.

Dune: Part Two picks up where the previous film left off, with Duke Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) seeking refuge with the Fremen after escaping a massacre orchestrated by the Harkonnens. Atreides’ journey is a winding, convoluted hero’s path, filled with numerous adjustments that repeatedly transform his personality, confounding audience expectations. His path is clearly messianic, in anticipation of a savior to lead the resurgence. However, upon closer inspection, this promise of eternity conceals an imperialistic side, historically termed cultural appropriation: Paul and his mother’s integration into the Fremen community eerily resembles more an attempt to override and take possession of their culture rather than a regenerative progress. Among the messianic undertones, Paul Atreides also shares much with Anakin Skywalker, not because Villeneuve drew direct inspiration, but because Lucas incorporated Frank Herbert’s cult novel into Star Wars’ mystic syncretism.

Yet, there’s something about Chalamet’s hieratic stillness (at least in the film’s first part) that leaves us puzzled, something that transcends the characterization of his role, pointing instead to a sort of catatonic expressive drought highlighted by relentless close-ups designed more to appease the young star’s fanbase than to serve the narrative’s dramatic needs. More engaging, character-wise, are the boisterous physicality of Javier Bardem’s Stilgar, and especially the psychotic stylization of Feyd-Rautha by Austin Butler, who leaps from one atrocity to the next with the punk attitudes of a lascivious misfit born from a nightmare, as if Elvis had taken on the guise of a suburban thug.

However, the film’s spectacle is where its true grandeur lies, especially designed for Imax theaters but equally impressive on standard panoramic screens, showcasing action sequences orchestrated with unusual originality, such as lifeless bodies falling from the sky as a prelude to battles filled with explosions, hand-to-hand combat, and moments of finely crafted tension. Beyond the spectacle, Villeneuve’s discreet assignment of specific color and sound symbolism to characters stands out, differentiating them in various lighting conditions (by Greig Fraser, Oscar winner for the first installment) and soundscapes (by Hans Zimmer) according to their community affiliations. The seductive light that bathes Chalamet and the warm desert intensity of the Fremen starkly contrast with the metallic hues, sometimes desaturated to comic book-like black and white, of the cruel Harkonnens; similarly, the metallic and sharp sounds of the latter are in stark contrast to the vibrant and intense tones of the Fremen.

Despite these touches, the film’s limitation is its sheer excessiveness, which, while astonishing the audience with the exemplary construction of a war epic, somewhat corners them into admiring the impeccability of the spectacle, making it difficult to fully engage. Perhaps the third installment, which Villeneuve is presumably already penning, will bridge this gap.

Giampiero Frasca

Cineforum, February 29, 2024


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