We tend to like our space operas with well-defined heroes and villains. Whether it be Star Wars or the latest incarnation of Power Rangers, the line between nobility and corruption is made clear whether it be through direct action or the color scheme of the costumes. Hell, even in something as sophisticated as Denis Villeneuve's two Dune adaptations the heroes are largely surrounded by pure, white sands while the villains literally dip themselves in black goop (neither this review nor the Dune movies are sponsored by Gwyneth Paltrow -- as far as I know). What is immediately striking about Dune: Part Two is how it continuously questions its own mythology. While the whole of Dune is essentially a story of heroes and villains in a race for ultimate power and control through the ultimate commodity, what it is actually about (the films, anyway) are the power, control, influence, and questions the presence of a messiah manifest. In Villeneuve's first Dune film Timothée Chalamet's Paul Atreides was a boy born into a destiny beyond his understanding. What makes Part Two the more complex, interesting, and arguably more epic of the two films is both Paul's understanding of and ultimate embrace of this destiny that has been prescribed to him his entire life. 

In the first film, Paul's father (Oscar Isaac) tells him, "A great man doesn't seek to lead; he is called to it." In Part Two, we see that calling play out as Paul is guided in his decisions - through both dream-like visions as well as his mother (Rebecca Ferguson) parlaying a prophecy into as much of a reality as she can - to the point there is hesitation in Paul's actions, a sincerity as Zendaya's Chani sees it, that makes him question whether seeing this prophecy through or putting a stop to it altogether is the better decision for the universe as a whole. There is of course, much more going on around Paul, the Fremen people, and the planet of Arrakis on which they reside that factor into Paul's deliberations, but for as much time as Dune: Part One spent on building the mythology of Frank Herbert's universe it only seemed natural that Part Two might then define what makes this mythology, these characters, and these worlds worth investing in. Rather, Villeneuve and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) spend much of the runtime of this continuation within the ethical questions Paul seeks to (re)solve - questions that could also be applied to the religion and politics of this universe that naturally mirror our own. The result being that by investigating these questions and conflicts the characterizations and significance of what could easily be perceived as pure nonsense do, in fact, become meaningful as if the attention and care paid to the depth allows for the breadth to sustain itself.

Chani (Zendaya) watches as Paul confronts more than just another foe in Dune: Part Two.
Photo by Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures/Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures - © 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

In other words, Part Two takes the time to delve into these character conflicts against the backdrop of the turmoil within the Harkonnen House and the strategization of the Bene Gesserit while introducing the ultimate powers that be in the Emperor (Christopher Walken) and his daughter, Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh). Villeneuve accomplishes such while not just sustaining but expanding the visual scale and tone established in his first film. Hans Zimmer's score is as epically solemn as Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser's color palette, but that isn't a backhanded compliment as the stark contrasts in those aforementioned colors representing good versus evil are ultimately heightened to such extremes that the introduction of the film's big bad in Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), nephew of Part One's big bad Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), becomes a full-on black and white sequence. Just as breathtaking as the sweeping sand dunes of Arrakis if not as tactile, this sequence brutally illustrates Butler's embodiment of - if not necessarily evil itself - at least that of Bill Skarsgård's vision of evil (in both voice and appearance, which isn't saying nothing) while arguably being the film's secret weapon. 

The first, contemplative hour of the film remains with Paul and the Fremen as both he, his mother, and the audience are steeped in the ways of the natives lifestyle and traditions. Whether directly taken from Herbert's novels or not, the film isn't exactly subtle about its critiques and comments around the politics and beliefs taking place in this universe that (again) equate nicely to our own, but while the propelling of Paul's arc from that of discovering his prophecy to potentially fulfilling it is compelling for a multitude of reasons the idea he is only working against himself and a faceless army of goons the Fremen seemingly dispatch again and again with little effort thanks to their home court advantage inevitably grows a bit stale. The introduction and foreboding presence of Butler's Feyd-Rautha immediately implements a momentum this nearly three-hour epic required, pushing both the drama and the scope to substantially higher levels than the first film even aspired to.

While much of the engagement with Part Two lies in the combination of Paul's smaller psychological drama being played against the visual grandeur of these worlds and cultures Villeneuve and his teams have built from Herbert's words (some of the specificity is insane), there are certainly also broad, straightforward plot points and characters the film doles out in order to maintain the facade of a huge, crowd-pleasing blockbuster. Again, like comparable space operas, Dune: Part Two, even more than its predecessor, is keen to feature this massive ensemble where the likes of Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Dave Baustista, and Léa Seydoux also show up as chess pieces, making the moves being made all the more appealing. Picking up right where Part One left off, Paul and his mother are stranded with the Fremen as the seemingly lone survivors of the House of Atreides. Elsewhere, Baron Harkonnen is fed up with Beast Rabban's (Bautista) inability to control the mining of the spice on Arrakis leading him to the decision to give control of the planet over to Feyd-Rautha. Though Baron is still assumed to be the master manipulator in this game the introduction of Walken's Emperor and possibly even more importantly - his daughter who, like Paul's mother Jessica, was raised by the Bene Gesserit - are the group truly deserving of questioning for why things have begun to unfold as they have.

Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) squares off against Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler) in director Denis Villeneuve's latest epic.
Photo by Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures/Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures - © 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

It would be easy to dismiss these characters purely as pawns on the Emperor's board though, even if they amount to that as well. In fact, it is the distinction the film makes in proving these characters are more than as much that makes all the spectacle and special effects that much more awe-inspiring. Specifically, Paul's growth and arc while directly dealing with being made to feel like a patsy make for what are the most captivating facets of the film. Paul comes to the Fremen with the inherent idea he is potentially the messiah in this prophecy many of the Fremen faithful believe. Part One more explicitly implied Paul as this "chosen one" figure to the point it seemed it is also what the movies wanted the audience to believe. It's not that this is walked back in Part Two, but more this second chapter adds context to and exposes the systems at play in a way we are made to question if these ancient beliefs are in fact genuine or if they were created more as a means to an end by the powers that be. Paul's internal struggle is also around whether he genuinely believes he can fulfill this prophecy (he seems to want to believe, but can't allow himself to fully buy in) and whether pretending to fulfill his role in said prophecy will at least afford him to conduct justice for his family and the Fremen against those with more selfish objectives or will squashing the belief in such nonsense as a whole be most beneficial; essentially exposing the Bene Gesserit, the Harkonnens, the Emperor, and any others in positions of power for who they truly are. 

It is through the presence of Zendaya's Chani - a dissenter who is part of a larger group of nonconformists in the Fremen - and she and Paul's ever-evolving romantic relationship that Paul comes to see the choice he must make all the more clear until it perfectly crystallizes itself in the final, one-on-one showdown between Paul and Feyd for both control over the spice trade and Irulan's hand in marriage. As with most situations involving war, genocide, and the exploitation of resources the right decision always seems clear, yet it is often not chosen in favor of sacrifices and compromises that might lead to a clearer picture and a more promising tomorrow. Deep down, Paul knows which is the honest choice, but he also believes by selling this singular opportunity that he is doing what is best for most in the grand scheme of things. It's honorable, selfless, and in terms of the film - completely engaging - but there is still this lingering feeling that by overlooking the undervalued and seemingly unimportant that Paul will miss the aim he seeks to achieve. Needless to say, it will be fascinating to find out what exactly Paul has created and unleashed by committing to his choice, whether he remains a hero or becomes a villain, whether he continues to call the white sands of Arrakis home or begins to dip himself in evil goop, when Part Three rolls around in a few years. 

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