‘Dune: Part Two’ review: Behold, the Lawrence of Arrakis!

In 1962, British filmmaker David Lean directed an epic biography of a white man going to Arabia, joining desert tribesmen, going native to a great extent, and using his special knowledge and skills to help them win an epic war against the Ottomans—one that ended up fundamentally reshaping the world. The film, Lawrence of Arabia, was a big commercial success and won several Oscars. More importantly, in the years after its release, its technical and artistic achievements redefined the very notions about the scope and possibilities of cinema as an art form.

With his second entry in the Dune saga, French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve could well achieve something of the sort. A primer for those who are not clued-in about the buzz: Dune is also about a white man going to the desert (albeit in a hostile planet in a distant sci-fi future), joining hands with tribesmen there, going native to a great extent, and using his special skills to win a planetary war that reshapes, well, the universe. (There is a thesis to be written on why deserts become fertile fields for cinematic artistry.)

In every conceivable way, Dune’s scale is bigger than Lawrence of Arabia. If Lean’s film was essentially a proudly old-fashioned cultural adventure story set in one part of a vast, exotic continent, Villeneuve’s is a dark and dense political allegory with a violent political conflict of galactic proportions at its centre.

The book it is based on, Frank Herbert’s Dune, is considered a foundational classic of modern science fiction. Through the book, Herbert introduced readers to a world in the distant future, where the governing system is both futuristic and feudal. A clutch of noble houses hold entire planets as their fiefs, and they in turn are governed by a brutally calculating interstellar emperor. It is a civilisation that greatly values technical and military superiority, and the most coveted commodity is melange, or spice, a psychotropic drug that extends life and enhances cognitive abilities required for space travel.

The first entry in Villeneuve’s Dune saga, released in 2021, served as an introduction to the meaty part of Herbert’s epic. It introduced the young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), whose noble family is sent by the emperor to rule Arrakis—the only planet with melange deposits and, therefore, highly coveted among the noble houses. In Arrakis, the Atreides family and its standing army fall victim to interplanetary palace intrigue and are killed off. Only Atreides and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), survive. They flee deep into the desert, where the indigenous Fremen tribesmen are preparing for a war. They want to take back the planet from the foreign intruders.

The first film ended with Paul and Jessica meeting the Fremen and coming to know them better. The second entry wastes no time in picking up from where the first one left. Paul and Jessica join the Fremen, adopting the Fremen way of life as far as they could, adjusting themselves in the new order of things. The Fremen lead a drugged-out existence because the spice helps live and fight in an arid and hostile planet populated by strange creatures. They also consume another drug—hope in the form of religion. They believe that a messiah will come, give them redemption and make the planet green as it once was.

A section of the Fremen fashions Paul as a messiah candidate. Initially hesitant, Paul begins consuming the spice in life-changing proportions. The decisions he make alters not just his psyche and the nature of the war, but the Fremen way of life as well. He becomes, in many ways, the Lawrence of Arrakis.

To be sure, this one is not really designed as a second film in a traditional movie series—the film cannot stand on its own, as The Dark Knight does in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy or, to a point, The Matrix Reloaded does in the Watchowski sibling’s quartet. Dune: Part Two works more like your favourite Breaking Bad episode—part of a larger whole but a work of art in its own right, meant to be watched and re-watched, appreciated and re-appreciated, long after you are done with the first binge.

This is a significant creative decision because films in general have been losing significance as a medium of art. “That’s not cinema,” Martin Scorsese complained of special effects-driven Marvel superhero films a few years ago. “The closest I can think of them, as well-made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks.” Cinema, Scorsese insisted, was about revelation—“aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation”.

Happily, for him and us, the past few months have seen bold re-assertions of what cinema as a medium can do. There was Scorsese’s own Killers of The Flower Moon, a thematically ambitious, 3.5-hour study of sociopathy in America; Nolan’s Oppenheimer, a visually and narratively engaging biography of the America’s most mystifying scientist; and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, which flips the Marvel formula to convey a smart and subversive commentary on feminism and patriarchy.

But none of these films, perhaps, comes close to Dune: Part Two in giving new meanings to Scorsese’s definition of cinema as an aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. Villeneuve refrains from fully exploiting the plot’s sci-fi sensibilities—he could well have given it a commercially viable, theme park-like feel—and instead infuses it with a subtle mix of adventure, mystery, dread and even humour. Also, within the film, Paul’s journey is shown as a revelation to himself. From being a “young pup”, as one teacher describes him, Paul goes on to become competent in the ways of the desert, and capable and cruel in ways he could not have imagined. Jessica’s own life takes turns that compel her to face up to who she really is, and accept the truth and act accordingly. Even the one principal character who has shortest character arc in the film—Chani, the Fremen warrior who becomes the love of Paul’s life (Zendaya, in the film’s standout performance)—ends up in an identity crisis.

Villeneuve stuffs the tale with religious, spiritual and political underpinnings—Paul becomes not just the leader of the Fremen, but their messiah as well; he eats the spice, but the spice also eats him; and he comes to learn a secret about his family that shakes not just his convictions, but also the foundations of the empire. It is a film about revelations in more ways than one.

Villeneuve’s narrative achievements are rivalled by the craft of his crew. The cinematography, by Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, The Batman), is a testament to why big screens are not luxury, but a necessity. His use of colour and light is masterly—if Arrakis is shown in hues that are bright and pallid as occasions demand, the world of the Harkonnens (the house that massacred the Atreides family) are shot in nearly monochrome. Fraser also gives politically loaded visuals—a huge sporting event in the Harkonnen world invites associations to the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Hans Zimmer, whose work in the previous film won him the Oscar for best original score, is in his elements. Happily, his propensity for loudness has somewhat been tamed, and his striking use of electronica with natural and more traditional sounds gives an audible authenticity to the on-screen clash between the materialistic empire and the spiritual Fremen. This is arguably his best work since Interstellar, and it is complemented by the fluid work of Joe Walker (Sicario, Arrival) at the editing table.

There are niggles, though. Chalamet, excellent as he is in the central role, comes a bit short in bringing the gravitas that the film’s final act calls for. And Villeneuve has not been entirely successful in avoiding, or papering over, the kooky parts of Herbert’s novel.

But these are trivial things. With Dune: Part Two, the project of condensing the sprawling Dune mythology (spread across 26 books and several stories) into a wieldy and coherent series of films continues in spectacular fashion. It is a project that many legendary directors—from Alejandro Jodorowsky to David Lynch—were unsuccessful in completing. That Villeneuve has reached it thus far, and in such fashion, makes this a cinematic breakthrough.

Movie: Dune: Part Two

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Austin Butler, Florence Pugh, Dave Bautista, Christopher Walken

Rating: 5/5