Arts and Culture Film

Dune Part Two: A Generational Tour de Force

I have always had an utmost appreciation for films that facilitate meaningful conversations after viewing. Nearly all of my favorite films hold this trait. I love showing someone a film that I feel strongly about and afterward having that “what did YOU think” conversation. From what I’ve heard, Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of those kinds of books. For generations after its initial publication in 1965, it has been held to an extremely high standard in the science fiction genre for its dense subtext and colossal world-building. Despite David Lynch being my personal favorite director, I’ll be the first to admit along with other critics that his 1984 adaptation of Dune was not the adaptation the novel deserved (and as far as I know, Lynch would admit that too). However, from the very first sequence of Dune: Part 2, it became very clear to me that Director Denis Villeneuve not only understood the story of Dune but also understood what makes the sci-fi genre so engaging. Through a narrative tightly woven with politics, moral ambiguity, and visuals that fully deliver an experience that feels otherworldly, Dune Part Two succeeds in nearly every way.

Dune Part Two picks up immediately where the first film left off: Paul Atreides and his mother have been adopted by the Fremen, a religious culture of people who live on the desert planet of Arakkis after the Atreides dynasty was brutally overthrown by a rival faction. In the last film we learned that Paul’s mother is part of a mysterious group of women called the Bene Gesserit who seek to take political control over the universe by controlling men. One way they’d done this was by fabricating a prophecy to the religious Fremen that a messiah will one day come to their tribe and save them from the harsh conditions of Arakkis and lead them to “paradise”. The messiah prophecy had been specifically made by the Bene Gesserit to be taken advantage of by Paul and his mother if ever needed. While Paul’s mother sees no problem with taking advantage of the Fremen to avenge their family, Paul is hesitant as he gets closer to a woman within the Fremen Tribe named Chani. From there, Paul and his mother adapt to the Fremen ways as Paul decides whether or not he should assume his contrived role.

If the above paragraph is a lot to understand, you’re not alone. Dune is very, very complicated. There are space witches, spice that turns your eyes blue, dreams about the future, massive sandworms that can swallow entire spaceships whole, and evil bald people. It is so hard to visually adapt a world so different from our own on film. Yet, this film achieves it magnificently with a budget lower than some Marvel movies. Nearly every shot feels ripped straight off of an ‘80s dark fantasy paperback cover, with entire planets, societies, and cultures that feel real. One scene in particular takes place on a planet that has a white sun, so every scene that takes place indoors and away from sunlight is in full color, yet every scene outdoors is in black and white. Small details like this bring the film to such a grander scale of polish; I can only imagine this is what audiences felt like when they watched A New Hope for the first time in 1977.

So many of the actors in this film knew exactly what performance to bring to a point that I was honestly shocked. Timotée Chalamet, for example, has never particularly impressed me in a role. In Dune Part Two however, he brings what is without a doubt his most powerful performance;we see Paul rise from a young kid in a new environment who wants nothing more than to rightfully retake his prior position of power in the Atriedies dynasty  to a fascist who uses religious syncretism to wage a holy war in his name. Paul is an intriguingly deep character because he is almost the reflection of heroes we know well like Luke Skywalker. We know of the hero’s journey at this point as moviegoers and we know the steps a typical good guy protagonist takes to “save the day.: Yet in Dune we see a different kind of protagonist, one who is forced to a crossroads: either avenge his family by manipulating the Fremen into believing he’s their savior, or live in the deserts of Arakkis forever. Paul makes his decision, and Chalamet perfectly portrays the loss of innocence that follows. 

Another stand-out performance is Zendaya’s role as Chani. Chani has been a part of the Fremen all of her life and is skeptical of Paul and the power he holds over her people. While loving Paul, she slowly detaches from Paul as she sees the evil things he will do to secure power. Chani is a very difficult character to adapt because, in the original novel, she doesn’t really question Paul’s morals at all. She even buys into the Messiah myth with the rest of her people. This unique take on the character from the movie not only gives her more depth and allows the audience to see firsthand just how devastating a parasitic invasion/manipulation of one’s religion and culture can be. 

The last performance I’d like to discuss is that of Austin Butler’s as Feyd-Rautha, a violent and monstrous man who is sent to Arakkis to eliminate Paul and his religious crusade. Butler’s performance shines as he takes the reins of a much more palpable evil than Paul. While Paul pretends to be doing good, and even tells himself that he is to keep himself going, Feyd is disgusting, moralless, and brutal in his methods, delivering a haunting interpretation of the character.

Dune Part Two ends on a haunting note. Just before the credits roll, Paul attempts his final stand to avenge his family, and both times I’ve seen the film the audience has been at the edge of their seats. You’re left with a lot to chew on in terms of morality and positions of power. How far are people willing to go to become history? The film expertly portrays how dangerous charismatic leaders can be, as we’re briefly shown at the end of the film that Paul’s actions have serious consequences on the rest of the universe. Science fiction has always been fantastic at representing controversial themes in a low-brow way to urge its viewers to question their own world as they do a fictional one. After all, George Lucas confirmed that the rebels in Star Wars are to represent that of Vietnamese Rebels fighting a totalitarian Empire in the American-Vietnam war. Dune is a cautionary tale that warns its viewers about religious leaders and the power they hold on vulnerable people. It aims to show just how dangerous a person like Paul Atriedes is in any universe. Walking away from the cinema, I knew that I had witnessed what is likely film history, and I urge any Wheaton student to catch Dune Part Two before it leaves theaters. 

SCORE: 5/5

Letterboxd: CaseyDrury04