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‘Dune: Part Two’ review: Villeneuve's grand designs

The Dune sequel shows Denis Villeneuve has few equals in creating imaginative CGI spectacles, though his visions still lack a human spark at times

Timothee Chalamet and Austin Butler in 'Dune: Part Two'. Picture via AP

By Uday Bhatia

LAST PUBLISHED 01.03.2024  |  12:30 PM IST

There’s a moment in Dune: Part Two when Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) is having one of his visions. Until now they’ve portended things to come, but this time he sees the past. “I saw our bloodline, mother, written across time," he tells Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), as we're shown his vision of a flaxen-haired baby. Something about the surface the child is on—sleek, black, ropy—helped my brain leap to a revelation a second before the scene confirmed it.

It’s not a difficult jump to make. Denis Villeneuve’s design sense is so consistent and exacting you can see patterns of story in it. He gives the impression, like Kubrick, of a director obsessed with every inch of the screen. There are times when Dune: Part Two explodes into action, Greig Fraser’s camera hurtling about like a desert wind. But more often Villeneuve prefers a languid or static camera, which allows the viewer to take in the otherworldly beauty of his CGI imaginings. It’s a fascinating paradox: a director tasked with making the biggest sci-fi blockbusters, but who’d seemingly rather have viewers gaze at his frames like they’re paintings.

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We left Paul at the end of Dune a king without a kingdom. The Fremen are still wary of him, except for Stilgar (Javier Barden), who believes he’s special, and Chani (Zendaya), who thinks he’s neat. With their help, Paul becomes a proper desert warrior, eventually riding Shai-Hulud, the giant sandworms that the Fremen worship and harness as transport and weapons. With each step, the belief that he may be Lisan al Gaib—a messiah of legend—gains force among the Fremen. Paul himself isn’t sold on the prophesies; he just wants revenge against the Harkonnen for killing his father and the rest of House Atreides. 

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Then there’s Lady Jessica, whose steeliness from the first film has only hardened. She’s convinced her son is the Kwisatz Haderach, a superbeing awaited by the Bene Gesserit order. She coldly plays on the hopes of the Fremen, drinking potentially lethal water to become their Reverend Mother, then pushing the idea that Paul is indeed Lisan al Gaib. She’s also pregnant with a daughter—and holds conversations with the embryo (only a director as unrelentingly serious as Villeneuve could have done these scenes with a straight face).

Villeneuve stages stunning guerilla raids on Harkonnen spice harvesters, Fremen fighters moving like the ghosts through their native sands. So successful are these attacks that the vicious Rabban (Dave Bautista) in replaced as ruler of Arakkis by the even crazier Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), who like all Harkonnen has a hairless marble-white body but—perhaps a mark of his advanced depravity—also a black cavern of a mouth. He’s psychotic, Lady Margot Fenring (an amused Léa Seydoux) reports back to her superiors. A bit rich, coming from the frankly unhinged sisterhood that is the Bene Gesserit. 

The visual invention of the first film—from the dragonfly-like thopters to the desert mice called Muad'Dib (which becomes Paul’s Fremen name)—is carried over and deepened in the sequel. There is outstanding work by the production design, art direction and costume teams, apart from the more spectacular contributions of VFX and Fraser’s photography. Sometimes the execution outstrips the underlying idea. Feyd-Rautha’s introductory fight is in black and white, as if to stress the binary nature of good and evil. 

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Dune: Part Two, like the first one, borrows from the desert cultures, mostly Islamic, of Asia and Africa (fedayeen fighters become ‘Fedaykin’, and so on). Given the whiteness of the ‘great houses’ and the brownness and blackness of everyone else, this is a white savior narrative of galactic proportions—with the caveat that these saviors might turn out to be bad news (there will almost certainly be a third film). “Arrakis in Dune are not Iraqis in their homeland," Hamid Dabashi wrote in an article after the first film. “They are figurative, metaphoric and metonymic. They are a mere synecdoche for a literary historiography of American Orientalism. They are tropes—mockups that are there for the white narrator to tell his triumphant story." The Fremen in Part 2 are easily led, superstitious, always chanting and offering prayers—the stereotype of the middle-eastern ‘native’ in American films. The contempt Hollywood usually has for such characters is suspended in favour of appropriation, though even these characteristics are only adopted insofar as they’re useful, like the markings on Lady Jessica’s face. 

Butler’s nasty Feyd-Rautha is more seductive than he should be. It’s Ferguson who’s truly scary, though, the mother taken over by the zealot single-handedly creating a prophet. Everyone else is subsumed by Hans Zimmer’s deafening music and the enormity of the designs. Villeneuve and co-writer Jon Spaihts are so deep in Frank Herbert’s world they can’t come up with regular dialogue—it’s just Muad'Dib and Lisan al Gaib and Kwisatz Haderach over and over. Dune: Part Two is a monumental barrage of sound and image. It does everything but make the heart leap.