“Dune: Part Two” Leads a Burgeoning Franchise Into Paradise

In 2021 I walked into a theater completely unfamiliar with Dune. As a horror fan, I’d dismissed Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel and David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation as a story about giant worms and spent years making unflattering comparisons to the 1990 monster masterpiece Tremors. I bought a ticket to Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation because it was the next big movie to see and entered the theater knowing nothing about the story. I found myself entranced by the gorgeous yet deadly landscapes, the otherworldly styling, and the touching family drama playing out through the fall of House Atreides. I still haven’t finished the book, but I went into Dune: Part Two ready to be wowed. To say I was pleased would be an understatement. Villeneuve’s second chapter tops it’s fantastic predecessor in every possible way with exquisite set pieces, gorgeous visual design, astounding action, and a stunning cast. Simply put, Dune: Part Two is a tremendous achievement in filmmaking and a sci-fi sequel for the ages.

Villeneuve picks up the story immediately after the ending of Dune. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) has just killed in battle for the first time and found temporary acceptance with the Fremen of Arrakis. Viewed as both threats and potential saviors, he and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) navigate the tricky social structure of the sun-scorched planet. Meanwhile, Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), daughter of the Emperor (Christopher Walken) deals with the fallout from her father’s choice to wipe out House Atreides. Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) struggles for absolute control over spice production while a new villain emerges from his murderous family tree. As tensions rise, Paul gains status as a Fedaykin and falls in love with fellow warrior Chani (Zendaya) while attempting to distance himself from the prophecy now guiding his life. Lady Jessica unfortunately takes the opposite approach. With Paul’s sister now growing inside her, she travels to the fundamentalist south of the planet hoping to stoke the fires of religious frenzy. 

By contrast, Dune feels like a table setting for this intricately plotted film. Characters put in place in the exciting opening chapter now begin to live out their destinies and jockey for position in this turbulent world. I can’t speak to faithfulness to Herbert’s celebrated novel, but this complicated plot is well-paced and expository while remaining accessible for newcomers to the saga. Each move makes sense and mostly follows well-established characterization, allowing the story to progress at a breakneck pace without overwhelming the audience. Some quieter elements of the plot like the deadly Water of Life and the Bene Gesserit’s levers of control feel occasionally murky, but Villeneuve does his best to present this complex plot as a coherent thread. We feel the weight of these shocking moments even if newbies to the story don’t totally understand how we got here. 

Chalemet leads this exceptional cast in a nuanced performance that pulls us along his dark hero’s journey. Beginning as the naive young Duke, he slowly evolves from reluctant leader and grieving son to gallant young lover and war hero before fulfilling the prophecy as a stone-hearted commander. Chani proves to be our conduit for this transition in a heartbreaking performance that feels simultaneously steely and sorrowful. Zendaya navigates a cavalcade of conflicting emotions as she rides with Paul on this treacherous journey. It’s through her eyes that we see how far he’s come and everything he’s giving up on his quest for revenge. Javier Bardem adds humor and heart as the aging warrior and surrogate father Sturgil. A southern fanatic at heart, Bardem flexes his comedic muscles as the full breadth of this character’s charming persona shines through. If Chani is a conduit for the audience, Sturgil serves as a representative of his people. We watch him make questionable leaps of faith as the prophecy he was born with takes shape before his eyes. Moments of humor lean into disquieting dread as Paul’s visions remind us that religious devotion can also lead to danger and destruction. 

Villeneuve expands the world with additional cast members reeling from disruption to the universe’s fragile economy. Christopher Walken sets a dissociated tone as the aging and ineffectual Emperor led astray by a duplicitous advisor. Charlotte Rampling returns as the sinister Reverend Mother Mohiam whispering in his ear. Skarsgård and Dave Bautista also reprise their roles as the villainous Harkonnens struggling to capitalize on the devastating blow they’ve just dealt to House Atreides. Florence Pugh and Anya Taylor-Joy prove to be flashy additions to the cast, but they’re not given much to do at this point in Herbert’s story. Perhaps as intended, their inclusion only serves to make us eagerly anticipate Villeneuve’s next installment. 

Dune gave us a deplorable villain with the glutinous Baron Harkonnen and the irrational Beast Rabban (Bautista), but Dune: Part Two delivers even more terrifying monsters. Austin Butler steals the Harkonnen show as the psychotic young Feyd-Rautha, next in line to inherit the valuable planet. In a mostly physical performance, he manages to convey intense malevolence and dangerous unpredictability with a simple tilt of his head and flick of his tongue. He is a force to be reckoned with and a new challenger for Paul’s precarious position. Butler remains the flashier villain, but Rebecca Furgeson proves to be the film’s horrific star. Seamlessly transitioning from conscientious mother to cunning priestess, she wanders through the film continuously plotting with her pregnant belly. The mere flick of her eyes is enough to show not only dangerous instability, but the frightening calculations behind the power she’s amassing. 

Villeneuve builds upon the gorgeous visual style he established in his opening chapter, dazzling us with exciting revelations and lush new worlds. Not only do we blast through sparkling sand as Paul rides his first sandworm, we follow the Fremen army as they begin to disrupt spice production one harvesting crew at a time. Each sequence is more spectacular than the next from gliding assassins to Fedaykin fighters bursting from concealment underfoot. The firepower is intense and set pieces deliver a breathtaking level of artistry without losing track of the complex story. The heat and shimmering sand of Arrakis are mesmerizing and fall in sharp contrast to the stark, black and white visuals of the Harkonnen realm. The film’s most stunning sequence (an incredibly high bar) is an arena battle in which Feyd-Rautha proves his mettle in a high-stakes exhibition match before a roaring crowd. Contrasting with the sun-scorched world of Arrakis, this introduction feels like a modern nightmare with sharp black angles, sinister faces, and danger lurking around every corner. 

Dune: Part Two weaves together an endearing love story, a dazzling adventure, an inspirational hero’s journey, and a warning about the cost of religious propaganda. Villeneuve outdoes himself with an ambitious second installment that tops his stunning franchise opener in nearly every conceivable way. Dune: Part Two rises head and shoulders above its mesmerizing predecessor, carrying the baton to a satisfying conclusion that feels both joyful and horrific. With a stellar cast, flawless production design, and staggering action this sequel will have audiences at the edge of their seats from start to finish – unable to tear their eyes away from the intricate spectacle.  

Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.