Arts movie review

Dune: Part Two looks and sounds great, but its wooden characters leave much to be desired

The second installment of Villeneuve’s trilogy pales in comparison to other spacefaring epics, particularly thanks to two unmemorable and uncharismatic leads


Dune: Part Two

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Screenplay by Denis Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts

Starring Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Austin Butler, and Javier Bardiem

R. In theaters.


In the hype around Dune: Part Two, director Denis Villeneuve's second installment of an epic three-part adaptation of Frank Herbert's eponymous 1965 novel, much has been said about Star Wars. Fans have highlighted how George Lucas's spacefaring world overtly cribs from Herbert's spice-driven politics, economics, and conflicts. Some have even celebrated Dune: Part Two as the more compelling success for grandiose interplanetary stories, complete with its modern visual effects and star-studded cast. 

Ever since watching the film in theaters, though, I can't help but feel that the comparison falls short. While Dune: Part Two certainly makes use of gripping otherworldly shots, engaging character and set design, and a memorable, haunting score, it completely lacks the humanity and real character plot arcs of much better films (like Lucas's masterpiece original trilogy, which has all of those things in spades.). 

Picking up where Dune: Part One left off, House Atreides is in rubble after the successful Harkonnen attack has destroyed its city, military forces, and, seemingly, family leadership. In fact, though, son Paul and mother Lady Jessica have escaped and are surviving in the desert of Arrakis through an uneasy partnership with the Fremen brokered by military leader Stilgar. Stilgar suggests Lady Jessica take the Water of Life, a sandworm-based hallucinogenic poison that, although it can be deadly, connects the women who take it to a godlike ancestral power. Lady Jessica accepts, becoming a menacing cultish figure directing the Fremen to support her son. He, meanwhile, is endearing himself to the wary Fremen through learning their language, customs, traditions, and way of riding the sandworms. This effort warms up the icy Chani, and the two begin falling for each other. The backdrops to their budding romance include Lady Jessica's increasing machinations on Paul's behalf to enable his ascendance to the role of "Lisan al Gaib" ("messiah"), the interplanetary politics of the universal Emperor's plans and his relationship with his daughter, and violent Harkonnen leadership changes.

Each of these storylines is driven by exciting and memorable performances: Rebecca Ferguson as the unnervingly powerful Lady Jessica, Christopher Walken and Florence Pugh as the somewhat goofy pushover figurehead Emperor and his daughter, and Austin Butler, Dave Bautista, and Stellan Skarsgard as intensely bald, roided-up Harkonnens. However,  they're all overshadowed by the milquetoast and zero-charisma leads, Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya, who can neither convincingly sell their character arcs nor their romantic chemistry. 

Aside from his omnipresence on Twitter memes, Chalamet's Paul is immediately forgettable; his internal struggles are conveyed in starts and stops, and the burdens he shoulders are more those of a simple pawn than a more complex leader in his own right. Paul, and his crafting by Chalamet, is certainly also a far cry from the thoughtful, empathetic Luke that Mark Hamill so delicately molded into another hot-headed revolutionary leader. And for all their parallels, Zendaya's Chani is no Leia; her romantic feelings, her own principles, and her challenges with Paul's ascendence are all told mostly in magazine-photoshoot smolders from across the dunes, rather than convincing acting. 

(Wooden dual leading performances aside, I want to give a special shoutout to Javier Bardiem, whose first-disciple Stilgar is critical to the evolution of Paul's leadership, but who is also full of plenty of weirdo-religious-uncle comic relief in an otherwise overly-serious film.) 

Ultimately, the actors and their characters work towards conveying a story based on Herbert's epic novel, one rife with religious allegories, Islamic influences, and stories of conflict and revolution that feel imminently relevant given the war in the Middle East and its coverage by media. There's no way Herbert could have anticipated the complexity of these real-life parallels almost sixty years after he wrote his book, but Villeneuve nods to them throughout, although with some notable omissions (such as the use of the word "jihad", a central part of the original text but replaced with "holy war" or "crusade" in the film). But with the underwhelming performances, it's harder to grapple with the messages that Dune: Part Two is conveying. The protagonist is of course Paul, a rebel fighting against an occupying force while the international order looks on uncaringly — an inherently political statement — but because his challenges are so dull and quickly resolved, the deeper themes don't come to the surface. Maybe they will in the next Dune installment, but such is the risk of a middle film, in service of neither starting nor ending the trilogy.

So if the story isn't compelling, and the main characters don't have interesting or sympathetic arcs, why see Dune: Part Two? Put simply, the film looks and sounds incredible. Villeneuve has sharpened his teeth on perfecting his direction of visually captivating, sonically immersive movies for years, from the gritty Mexico of Sicario to the ephemeral alien interactions of Arrival to the futuristic cityscapes of Blade Runner 2049

Sets are burnished with the unforgiving heat of real-world filming destinations including Abu Dhabi, Jordan, and Namibia. Visual effects are core to the worldbuilding, particularly the infamously dangerous sandworms whose gargantuan presence contributes to the most exciting scene in the film. Fight choreography draws on martial arts and short-blade combat to keep scenes engrossing and vicious. Cinematographer Greig Fraser frames long-shot dunes just as well as black-and-white gladiatorial arenas, and everything is made all the more epic with Hans Zimmer's legendary scoring. 

While it's still worth a watch if you can find a big screen and loud speakers, Dune: Part Two is eventually no more than a continuation of the flat characters and muddled messages of its predecessor.