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Staggering action sequences can't help 'Dune: Part Two' sustain a sense of awe

Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya are Paul Atreides and Chani in <em>Dune: Part Two.</em>
Niko Tavernise
Warner Bros. Pictures
Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya are Paul Atreides and Chani in Dune: Part Two.

Dune: Part Two picks up right where Dune: Part One left off. It's still the year 10191, and we're back on Arrakis, a remote desert planet with vast reserves of spice, the most coveted substance in the universe.

The villains of House Harkonnen have regained control of Arrakis after defeating the benevolent leaders of House Atreides. But hope survives in the form of the young hero Paul Atreides, who has fled into the desert. Paul is played again by Timothée Chalamet, whose performance has matured alongside the character: Paul still has his boyish vulnerability, but now he may be tasked with leading a revolution.

Paul has taken refuge among the Bedouin-like nomads known as the Fremen, many of whom believe he is a messiah-like figure who, according to prophecy, will help them defeat their Harkonnen oppressors. To be accepted by the Fremen, Paul must learn their ways and pass the ultimate test by riding one of the deadly giant sandworms that continually roam the desert.

Paul successfully rides the worm, and it's the movie's single most thrilling sequence — one of those rare moments when you can feel the director Denis Villeneuve flexing every blockbuster muscle in his body.

With its heightened life-or-death stakes and sometimes staggering large-scale action sequences, Dune: Part Two is certainly a more exciting and eventful journey than Dune: Part One. But even here, the high points are over too soon, and the movie quickly moves on. Villeneuve is an impressive builder of sci-fi worlds, but his storytelling is too mechanical to sustain a real sense of awe.

Admittedly, there is a ton of plot to get through in Frank Herbert's original 1965 novel, a dense saga of feudal warfare and environmental decay. Paul leads a mighty Fremen insurgency against the Harkonnens, destroying their troops and disrupting their spice-mining operations.

Paul also occasionally clashes with his noble mother, Lady Jessica, who ushers in some of the movie's more mind-bending sequences: trippy hallucinations, spooky religious rituals, and a subplot involving a telepathic fetus that reminded me of the Star Child from 2001.

Lady Jessica is played by the formidable Rebecca Ferguson, who keeps you guessing about her character's motives as she urges Paul to embrace his divine calling. But she gets fierce pushback from a Fremen warrior, Chani, with whom Paul has fallen in love. Chani, played by a terrific Zendaya, rejects the prophecy entirely and urges Paul not to buy into it.

Eventually Paul comes to the cynical realization that it doesn't matter if he's a messiah or not, so long as his followers believe he is. Villeneuve, who co-wrote the script with Jon Spaihts, shrewdly calls Paul's heroism into question, and in doing so, pushes back against the common accusation that Dune is just another white-savior fantasy.

For all Villeneuve's astounding craftsmanship, there's a blankness to his filmmaking that I can't get past.

That said, the movie isn't as adept at handling the various influences that Herbert wove into the novel, which draws heavily on Arab culture and Muslim beliefs. As such, it's hard to watch the movie and not think about current conflicts in the Middle East — and wonder if it will have anything trenchant or meaningful to say about them. That's a lot to ask of even the smartest, gutsiest blockbuster, but Dune: Part Two doesn't rise to the occasion: It ultimately treats politics as superficially as it treats everything else.

For all Villeneuve's astounding craftsmanship, there's a blankness to his filmmaking that I can't get past, even when he's introducing a frightening Harkonnen villain played by Austin Butler, who's utterly unrecognizable here as the star of Elvis.

What this Dune needed was a director with not just a massive budget and an exacting design sense, but a touch of madness in his spirit — someone like David Lynch, who famously directed a much-maligned adaptation of Dune back in 1984. That movie was a flop, but as always, box office only tells part of the story. For sheer grotesque poetry and visionary grandeur, Lynch's film still worms its way into my imagination in a way that this one never will.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.