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28 February 2024

Dune Part 2 is pure spectacle

Denis Villeneuve has finally made Frank Herbert’s novel into a successful franchise, with no self-consciousness – or irony.

By David Sexton

Now we know: Frank Herbert’s Dune can be filmed successfully. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One, released in 2021, ended with a challenge: “This is only the beginning!” So it has proved, for, despite its release being delayed by Covid, the film was a box office success, grossing $402m on a budget of $165m. Nominated for ten Oscars, it won six, for score, sound, cinematography, design, editing and effects.

So here is Dune: Part Two, an immediate continuation, picking up the story an hour or so from where it left off, so it would be wise to see or re-see the first part, before attempting this whopper. Our hero, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet, world’s most winsome wuss), is lost in the desert with his witchy mother, Lady Jessica (fabulous Rebecca Ferguson, 40 to Chalamet’s 28, so she had him young), after the invasion of the sandy planet of spice Arrakis (arid Iraq?) by their deadly rivals, the brutal baldies of House Harkonnen.

Paul, ducal heir to House Atreides and also the inheritor of special powers from his mystic mum, has just defeated and killed a top warrior of the indigenous people of the desert, the blue-eyed, quasi-Bedouin Fremen, in a ritual knife fight. This has much impressed the leader of their tribe, Stilgar (Javier Bardem, the only actor here playing it tongue-in-cheek), who now believes Paul to be their messiah. Whenever Paul shows himself at home in the ways of the desert, Stilgar reverently says: “As written!” The tribe’s top girl, Chani (Zendaya), whom Paul has long been seeing in his visions of the future, is less convinced by the claims of this typical white saviour, despite their burgeoning romance. So Paul and his mother must prove themselves worthy of acceptance by the Fremen, she by drinking electric blue juice, the Water of Life, thus absorbing “centuries of pain and sorrow” and becoming their Reverend Mother, he by joining their guerrilla war against the Harkonnens and proving his mettle by riding a sandworm.

Sandworms, which can reach more than 400 metres long, charge around under the dunes engulfing in their massive spine-studded circular maws everything that makes a sound, like monster lampreys (in David Lynch’s catastrophic 1984 adaptation of Dune these mouths were less symmetrical, more labia-like, but Villeneuve is no perv). The Fremen get around without attracting their attention by skating erratically over the sand, and calling them with metal bangers when they do want them to come. For the Fremen bravely use the sandworms as transport, sticking prongs into their leathery backs and being dragged along by them in a form of sand-skiing, an Instagram-worthy extreme sport. In one of the biggest scenes here, Paul fearlessly summons one of the biggest ones ever seen and scoots along on it to the ever-pounding music of Hans Zimmer.

Meanwhile, the baddies have not been idle. The Padishah Emperor of the Known Universe (Christopher Walken, hopelessly miscast, much too refined) and his impressive daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh) may be directing operations, but the fighting is being done by the frankly fascist Harkonnens, led by hugely obese Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård and a ton of prosthetics). Becoming impatient with the ineptitude of one slaughterous nephew, Rabban (Dave Bautista), the baron has commissioned another, more murderous, to take over, Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (a muscular, depilated, whiter than white Austin Butler, fresh from Elvis). “He’s psychotic!” “That’s irrelevant!” This is not a film that will be savoured by sufferers of alopecia.

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In Dune: Part Two’s grand closing scene, after many battles, Paul and Feyd-Rautha duel to the death with special daggers. They are watched by the extremely cross Chani, for, though she and Paul have already plighted their troth on many sand dunes at the magic hour, she knows that he plans a dynastic alliance with Princess Irulan, also watching. To be continued!

Villeneuve and his crew orchestrate this spectacle skilfully, without a trace of self-consciousness, let alone humour. (You wonder: when are French and Saunders coming? I did, anyway.) It is perhaps the only way to treat Herbert’s pulp fiction. The question remains why futuristic fantasy is always so very backward, not just swords and sorcery, but abjectly obsessed with tribes and feudalism, emperors, palaces, uniforms and robes, noble houses and aristocratic bloodlines. Perhaps it’s obvious but we’re too polite to say. “Babies do not want (said he) to hear about babies; they like to be told of giants and castles, and of somewhat which can stretch and stimulate their little minds.” (Samuel Johnson.)

“Dune: Part Two” is in cinemas now

[See also: The Iron Claw review: Zac Efron stands out]

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything