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Dune: Part Two

By Dwight Brown

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    Feb. 23, 2024 (Houston Style Magazine) — How deep is the sand? How high is the sky?

Director/writer Denis Villeneuve knows how to make a throw-down sci-fi epic. He proved that with his captivating production Dune (2021), which won six 2022 Oscars® for cinematography, production design, visual effects, sound, editing and score. As audiences contemplate this sequel, they’ll expect the visuals, sounds and pacing to be near perfect. But what about the storyline (script by Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts), will it be profound? And how will he treat that heady mix of pageantry and action. Will he reach higher than before? For the first hour, that’s in doubt. Depth and exhilaration are missing. Trying to figure out who is who, who hates who and why the factions are so pissed off is a chore. But there’s a big payoff. Wait for it.

Sometime in the far future, after a climate disaster, water is scarce and sacred. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet, Wonka), the son of a murdered duke, and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning) duck and hide among the sand dunes on the remote planet Arrakis. They’re being shepherded by a group of indigenous rebel fighters, the Fremen, led by the warrior Stilgar (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men). Meanwhile, Paul has a budding relationship with one of the tribe’s members, Chani (Zendaya, Spider-Man: No Way Home). They have love in their eyes, but she also has trust issues with the ambitious interloper.

First scenes depict the resistance fighters roaming the high hills and deep valleys. They’re being hunted by militia from the House of Harkonnen, evildoers that exploit Arrakis for its coveted rare resource “spice,” a drug that extends life. Minus a few skirmishes, the opening is heavy on setup, drama, landscapes and ceremony. Light on adrenalin-pumping action that could break up the monotony or hint at any of the mindboggling warfare prevalent in the previous Dune. At the one-hour mark, the protagonists, their idiosyncrasies and relationships are established. The Fremen’s suspicions of Paul wane, and he takes on an entirely different role in their hierarchy. Even more important, the brutality of the Harkonnen evolves. Viewers are taken to their netherworld. Away from the earth tones of Arrakis, to the stark black and white images of a futuristic land run by the venomously evil and very plump Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård, Mamma Mia!). The ruthless Emperor badgers his chief lieutenant Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista) to stop the Fremen from ruining his extraction of spice. Standing in the wings is the Baron’s scheming nephew Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler, Elvis), a heartless and conniving fiend who is so white, he looks like he doesn’t have blood in his veins.

When the audience gets an extended view of the enemy, and its scheming palace intrigue, finally the clash between good and evil becomes fever pitch. The stakes in conflicts are clear. Action sequences intensify with arena fights, war combat and killings. On screen for all to view are impeccably choregraphed stunts and battle scenes. Enough to make any sci-fi head, with a lust for movement and mayhem, salivate.

This desert world is as intriguing as the deep space in Star Wars or the sea world in Avatar. The settings, absence of water as an everyday element, are a haunting reminder of the dangers of climate change. In fact, when a character cries, a warning is given: “Wipe the tears. Never give water away. Not even for the dead.” The fight by free people against tyranny and the deference to false prophets is also a topical subject. Chani: “You want to control people? Tell them a messiah will come, and they’ll wait for centuries.”

All those important themes are side issues, subplots, background details. At the heart of the script are human feelings, impulses and passion. Young people in love. Family intrigue. Cunning Reverend Mothers. Good people fighting evildoers. Greed. Vengeance. Jealousy. Power grabs. Deep-seated animal instincts. Complex behaviors.

Villeneuve is a master at creating and controlling this futuristic world. Great tastes. A great sense of drama, passion and motion. This is adventure filmmaking at a very high level. Engaging, breathtaking, ambitious and filled with grandeur. It’s like he’s reaching for the sky.

The filmmaker is also skillful at tapping into his cast’s keen abilities. Chalamet, a man/boy, evolves into manhood as the character—and as an actor. Final scenes depict a bravura reminiscent of a stoic Ben-Hur. Audiences couldn’t have guessed that he had that in him. He does.

In her interpretation of the courageous Chani, Zendaya finds the conflicting emotions and altruistic motivation that guide her. Baron is evil incarnate because Skarsgård makes him so. And it’s hard to believe that the blanched white evil nephew with the glistening bald head is Austin Butler. From the movie Elvis! What a 180-degree turn. If the devil was a man, this is what he’d look and act like. Butler masterfully creates this trickery, aided by the voodoo magic of a top-notch makeup department.

An epic and spectacular sci-fi allegory with mass appeal. Filmgoers making the pilgrimage to IMAX and ordinary theaters will want to know if Dune: Part Two has depth and high ambitions. It does. Trailer: youtube.com/watch?v=Way9Dexny3w

Visit Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.

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