Dune: Part Two is a Chipped Masterpiece

After seeing the film, I was initially satisfied with a Letterboxd review, posted almost immediately after leaving the theater. It read as follows: 

“Sci-fi in its ideal state. Dark, grand, mechanically well-conceptualized. There are plenty of minor flaws but every major aspect is perfect. Like the first one, it’s extremely good, but it all feels a bit hollow because it doesn’t have enough intellectual substance– it’s like eating a cheeseburger at a Michelin star restaurant.” 

After the movie sat with me, I realized it deserved more attention than that. In fact, it demands it. The cheeseburger metaphor is a bit silly, so I suppose I should explain what I mean in more sophisticated terms:

Dune: Part Two is a triumph. As a film, it excels in almost every category we associate with this medium. While it has a scattering of minor issues that hold it back, it has no significant flaws, and is among the great cinematic sequels of all time, in the same breath as Aliens, The Dark Knight, and Empire Strikes Back. It is the best in-person theater experience I’ve ever had, and I’ll just tell you now that I give it a 9/10. 

And yet, it’s not good enough. I still see so much room for improvement. 

At the core of this is the fact that it’s not very complicated. It’s a very straightforward movie. There is little in the way of subtext, depth, or anything to really chew on. There is only what is shown, and it’s all very simple and easily digestible. There is absolutely nothing beyond the surface. 

That’s not to say it isn’t smart. In fact, it’s all very clever. The joy of science fiction is seeing how these worlds work, and how they differ from our own. It’s the creative syntax of a story, and I am just delighted by this world. See, in the Dune universe, there was something called the “Butlerian Jihad,” where the empire destroyed all “thinking machines.” So Dune takes place in a far future with advanced technology, but no computers and no robots, which is why you sometimes see humans performing computer-like functions like navigation and record keeping. It’s a really novel idea, and it informs the whole thing, giving Dune the most unique contemporary take on sci-fi. 

Stephen McKinley Henderson as the Mentat– living computer– Thufir Hawat, in Dune: Part One.

I loved seeing the Fremen’s culture of water, how they treat it as sacred, and how they extract it from their dead. Stilgar (Javier Bardem) tells Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) to save her tears, to honor the dead by preserving her water. He tries to stop her from throwing up from morning sickness, seeing it as a borderline criminal insult (“Don’t let it out.”) I still get a kick from Fremen sandwalking in odd patterns because the sandworms are attracted to rhythmic movements. 

As great as most of it is, some of the world-building felt a little bit clunky. I was bothered by some of the mythology around Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet.) Throughout the film, he’s referred to by no less than five different names. There’s Paul, and then his Fremen title Usul, and then his Fremen warrior name Muad’Dib, which translates to “desert mouse.” Of course, he’s also the Fremen prophet known as the Lisan Al-Gaib, but to the Bene Gesserit, he’s a perfectly bred psychic warrior known as the  Kwisatz Haderach. Now, of course, this is intentional, Paul is important to many different people in many different ways. But he did not need a Fremen name and a Fremen warrior name, and the long foretold prophet did not need two different titles from two different cultures. Again, people call him all of these things, and it genuinely did get a bit confusing at times. Of course, this is a minor flaw, but it felt significant to me because it’s the only hint of complexity in the script. 

There’s a common cliche when critiquing open world video games: “wide as an ocean, deep as a puddle.” And that applies to the deserts of Arrakis. They’re breathtaking. In fact, Dune 2 is the most visually impressive movie I’ve seen in a very long time. Even the brief glimpses we get of other planets are great, particularly the aforementioned Giedi Prime, and the harsh white glow provided by its black sun. But the setting has the same problem as the original Star Wars trilogy; it’s an oppressively large interstellar empire, but it feels like nobody lives anywhere. Common sense tells us that there are millions, if not billions of people on each planet, but the scale of everything isn’t communicated very well. So perhaps the emptiness is a function of the setting.

Timothee Chalamet as Paul “Muad’Dib” Usul Atreides, the Lisan Al-Gaib and Kwisatz Haderach (see what I mean?)

An easy way to give the story more depth would be to beef up the dialogue. Director Denis Villeneuve recently had a very worrying quote; “Frankly, I hate dialogue. Dialogue is for theater and TV. I don’t remember movies because of a good line… I’m not interested in dialogue at all. Pure image and sound; that is the power of cinema.”

This is worthy of a broader discussion, but not only is this attitude towards dialogue just flat out wrong, it’s very apparent when you watch the movie. Dune: Part Two is an epic, meditative, philosophical space opera where nobody has anything interesting to say. You get hints of more poetic lines when the Bene Gesserit discuss their plans, and the Fremen are considering whether Paul is really the Lisan al-Gaib. But other than that, the prose is extremely basic. Not poorly written, just dull.

It’s a flaw that is mostly covered up by the actors who elevate these lines a great deal. Almost everyone is excellent. Timothee Chalamet plays Paul’s emotional arc perfectly, his humility giving way to justified fanaticism. Zendaya is the real standout as Chani, a more aggressive and angry take on the classic trope of a native teaching the outsider the ways of her people. As good as she is, it wasn’t my favorite performance, that goes to her eventual rival.

Nobody does more with less than Florence Pugh. Between this and Oppenheimer, she has made a habit of turning small roles into big ones. She turns Princess Irulan into the third pillar of the film alongside Paul and Chani, balancing her responsibilities as the emperor’s daughter and a Bene Gesserit priestess. 

Austin Butler is a very scary and intimidating Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, but he was a little bit too animalistic and cartoonish for my taste. And Christopher Walken as the emperor felt like stunt casting to me. He’s barely in it, and I hate to say that he’s too old to be in movies now, but he’s genuinely struggling to deliver his lines. 

The acting is helped by a busier story than its predecessor, everyone just has a lot more to do. I was very relieved to see that part two placed a bigger emphasis on plot than Dune: Part One. This wasn’t a comfortable take at the time, since it was going for a particular tone and style, and we knew that it was only the first part, but it’s not okay to have a two-and-a-half-hour movie where nothing happens. Villeneuve knew he wouldn’t get away with that a second time. 

Expert overachiever Florence Pugh as Princess Irulan

There’s a much more engaging sequence of events, with more action and political intrigue. As good as the plot is, I think it could have been tighter. I still don’t understand why the emperor had to destroy House Atreides. Walken struggles through some vague lines about how Leto (Oscar Isaac) was leading from his heart instead of his head, and it’s made clear earlier in the film that he did it because the Bene Gesserit told him to. But the lack of a concrete strategic reason didn’t make sense to me. Additionally, the revelation that Paul and Jessica are descendants of the Harkonnens was completely unnecessary. It didn’t go anywhere, didn’t add anything, and felt like a setup for something that was scrapped– Paul kills Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) twenty minutes later, ending that subplot as soon as it begins. 

More attention could have been paid to the action sequences. It’s not supposed to be this bombastic blockbuster, but they’re important to the story and for the most part, they’re great. The war between the Fremen and the Harkonnens is very entertaining and intense, but it doesn’t commit to itself. Another wrinkle in Dune’s worldbuilding is that, since the advent of personal shields that block projectile weapons, wars are mostly fought with blades. It gives the battles a more classical, almost medieval feel. So it was jarring to see the Fremen using laser guns to take out spice harvesters, and sniping soldiers with what seemed to be regular bullets. At one point Chani uses a rocket launcher to blow up a helicopter in a cool, creative sequence that still felt out of place.

And I was very disappointed by the final battle against the emperor. The whole movie shows the Fremen engaging in asymmetric, unconventional warfare against a far more powerful enemy with greater numbers. And then you get closer to the end, and you see just how many Fremen there are, and you realize, “No, actually, we can take you head on.” It’s this awesome sleight of hand, and watching them plan their attack gives you tingles. It’s all gonna come together in this explosive fight. The soldiers on the ground, the worms, the sandstorm, the nukes–

Oh, yeah, the nukes. Midway through the film, we’re told that each house has a secret stash of atomic weapons, and the protagonists use two of them in the final battle. I have a hard time believing this society decided computers were too dangerous but nuclear bombs were okay. Perhaps it’s because they aren’t a civilization-level threat, so they’re more tolerable. Even ignoring the logic of it, they aren’t the type of thing that should exist in this universe. 


Anyway, the final battle starts, and they use the nukes to destroy a big rock structure behind the emperor’s base. Then we get the sandworm attack we already saw in the trailer, then ten seconds of Chani stabbing people, then Thanos kills Drax, and then it’s over. The whole thing is done in five minutes, maybe less. I’m not exaggerating when I say this sequence should have been twice as long. It’s funny, this movie has a three-hour runtime and it still doesn’t feel like enough. 

Even the final showdown between Paul and Feyd-Rautha is too short, even if it is brilliant. This encounter has the same terror and magic as the best lightsaber duels, a display of skill and ferocity, and Paul doing a totally wicked spin move. But it’s hasty and ends in an obvious way. 

It hasn’t been confirmed yet, but it’s incredibly likely that Dune 3 will release relatively soon, and will be based on the second book, Dune: Messiah. And I’m not going to go into the content of that book, but it’s absolutely bonkers, far more esoteric and strange than what we’ve been shown so far. It will be extremely difficult to adapt, but if Villeneuve and co. stick the landing on this, the Dune saga will be the great cinematic journey of our time.