Dune: Part 2

If I had to say a good thing about Dune: Part 2, it would be this: Denis Villeneuve knows how to command attention from his audience, relying on spectacle, tension and the talent of Hans Zimmer to make the nearly three-hour runtime feel unimposing. For what it’s worth (not much), it is not a boring film and is actually an improvement on its predecessor, which felt woefully insubstantial, even for a film with “Part 1” in its title.

Although I am inclined to give Part 2 a pass on its entertainment factor, I cannot understand the thinking behind Villeneuve’s decision to release this sequel in the state that it’s in. Like Dune: Part 1, this cinematic perplexity fails on almost all fronts in regard to what we as cinemagoers should expect from a feature-length film. Villeneuve once again falls short of delivering a story that resonates. There is an abundance of creativity, but nothing to ground the themes it raises. Worst of all, the film commits the same sin as its predecessor, prioritising awe over other emotions to enrapture its audience.

The film picks up where Dune: Part 1 left off. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) develops rapport with the Fremen on Arrakis, learning the customs and ways of the sand-dwellers. Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and his Bene Gesserit mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), try to convince Paul to take advantage of a Fremen prophecy by assuming the identity of Lisan Al’Gaib, a Fremen messiah.

As Paul’s influence grows, so does the Fremen’s resistance to the Harkonnens. In an attempt to recoup his losses, Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) replaces Rabban (Dave Bautista), one of the primary antagonists of Dune: Part 1, with his psychotic nephew, Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler). 

Paul develops feelings for Chani (Zendaya), which she reciprocates. Unlike most of her companions, Chani is not swayed by the prophecy, and encourages Paul to be his authentic self. Paul professes that he wishes to be equal to Chani, and they grow closer through their shared difficulties as they fight against Spice harvesters (Spice is the name of Arrakis’ valuable natural resource).

Their dynamic is threatened when Paul, at the behest of Jessica, drinks a sacred liquid known as the Water of Life. This changes him, giving him confidence, resolve and a newfound ability to see clearly into the distant future. But it also makes him act strangely robot-like.

Although the premise promises a story epic in scope and feeling, the film itself is quite the opposite. Some moments feel less gratifying than they should be, as when key Harkonnen characters are quickly defeated, while a noticeably liberal use of Hans Zimmer’s musical score disrupts any genuine feeling of emotion. It is a great pity, as the music itself is wonderful, but I do feel that the story never quite does enough to earn it. Its usage in this film is akin to Villeneuve holding up signs with emotions (mostly awe) scribbled on them to alert us of what to feel and when to feel it.  

One of the most damning missteps is the handling of Paul’s transformation. The character had experienced enough in Part 1 for Part 2’s script to be written in such a way that would allow for him to blossom into a proactive agent of change. This does not happen, and instead this blossoming is replaced by a revelatory episode.

To be clear, this episode is not at all revelatory to us. Paul drinks a liquid, he sees things he has previously seen before, but this time more clearly, and he sees other things. That’s about it. Paul suddenly becomes so sure about what is to be done that the so-called Water of Life replaces an entire film’s worth of character development, spoiling any satisfaction to be had with his subsequent victories. It also makes me suspicious of the true nature of this liquid, and I don’t believe this is what Villeneuve intended.

I do not object to what the sci-fi genre affords us in storytelling. The issue lies in mistaking imagination for substance. Imagination is a means, not an end. As a cinemagoer who, admittedly, has not read any of the Dune books, I have no idea what to make of the Voice, or the Bene Gesserits, or why Feyd-Rautha exists (both as a character and as a creative decision). In contrast, there are masterpieces like George Lucas’ Star Wars saga, where the Force is not just some quirk of its cinematic universe, but a way for us to understand its thematic explorations.

Part 2 raises some interesting questions. For instance, can equality exist when people live with varying degrees of purpose? It has to be said that maybe, just maybe, my reservations with this film would be cured come the next film in the series, which I presume will be called Dune: Part 3. After all, Villeneuve has expressed a desire to continue the story, which may be what the series needs in order to drive home whatever it may be trying to say about freedom, power and retribution.

Nevertheless, I doubt a third film would be the missing piece of the puzzle. The problem is not just the story; it is that after two whole films, not enough has been done to make me sufficiently care about its world or its characters. If you find yourself on Arrakis, and you are desperately searching for substance, know this: unless you are high on the Water of Life, you are going to find nothing but sand.

5.5/10

Viewed at Cinemax, Europa SC, Banská Bystrica, Slovakia
Written by Ashley Roohizadegan
Proofread by Lucia Roohizadegan
Ashley Roohizadegan

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