DUNE: PART TWO Review: Still Handsome. Still Obligatory. Stilgar.

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
DUNE: PART TWO Review: Still Handsome. Still Obligatory. Stilgar.
If it does nothing else, Dune: Part Two completes the circle of the Fatboy Slim-Arrakis EU.
By opening with Christopher Walken’s Emperor Of The Known Universe, this might just be the quirkiest, and most unexpectedly sly, thing about the movie — even if it favours only the morose side of an aging, diminished monarch. If this empire, which runs on Spice and hierarchy, has been built on centuries of sorrow and pain, then all the beauty and all the horror has taken its toll on the Emperor, who sighs with his eyes, and lets documents fall gently from his fingers. Walken refuses to dance, even as he sits on the edge of a most grand and beautiful stage. More is the pity.
Back in 2021, when I reviewed Denis Villeneuve’s Dune in all its IMAX glory, I was not as bullish on the film as the critical or popular consensus. I held back, via the caveat that I could only offer my thoughts in partials. Dune was only half a movie at the time, and was seriously unresolved. Ideas and plot were teased but not fully elaborated. I was not even aware it was a "Part One," until the realisation hit me, somewhere around the two-hour mark, that the film was not going to be the complete story in one three-hour sitting. 
I admit that this left a sting from misaligned expectations. Coupled with a profound fondness for the analogue weirdness of David Lynch’s 1984 beloved fiasco (which still managed to tell the entire story in under 3 hours), I was then, and probably still am, reacting like Tom Atkins world-weary detective in Night of the Creeps, as in “Thrill me.
Now that Dune is supposedly complete, I again have to offer a similar caveat, and say the same damn thing. Dune: Part Two feels incomplete, in both plot and character. There are still many missing elements and pieces. Warner Brothers has deigned to treat the source material as a suitably massive epic, but one to be doled out in a series of handsome, likely cost-prohibitive, instalments. (Why does nobody tell me these things before I go in?) 
I know that movies, in part, have evolved into TV in the same way that TV has, in part, evolved into movies. It is all content now. All middles and no endings. The feeling of watching Dune: Part Two is akin to spending Apple-sized money to upgrade to another polished iPhone every few years. Sure, the latest instalment has some nifty new features, and some refinement on previous features — but I am uncertain that the cost and the resources justify the safe incrementalism — no matter how shiny and sexy, and 'environmentally aware.' At this scale, with all this talent, it could aim for the stars. Instead, it is content to build ornate sand castles; ones which demonstrate capital, if not consequence.
At the risk of this review being me repeating myself, ad nauseam, Dune: Part Two is, unassailably, a spectacle par excellence. It is one of the best looking modern blockbusters that I have seen. In terms of sets, composition, craft, and costume, there is no denying its place in the epic blockbuster firmament. But what of the Spice? The essence? Those grotesque tendrils that lurk, and reach down deep into the unconscious? The ones that rattle the imagination. 
Frank Herbert’s book, published in the mid 1960s, is weird, even by the science fiction standards of Amazing Stories pulp, operatic Asimov, or paranoid Dick. Dune the novel is consciously analogue in a world marching relentlessly towards the digital. It is religious in a century (at least in the West) which was leaning secular. It is drug-addled, and freaky in a consciousness expanding way, in an era of better living through chemistry. In my humble opinion, the audio-visual cinematic version to do it justice should be more Zardoz, and less Star Wars. Perhaps that is just me.  
Villeneuve et al try, and even occasionally succeed, to offer the medieval strangeness of the Dune-iverse. The monochrome-plasma fireworks displays on Harkonnen homeworld Giedi Prime at the coming out party for The Baron’s sociopathic and cruel, but oddly sexually vulnerable, heir apparent, Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler, Elvis has left the building) is satisfyingly grotesque, and unsettling.
As are the psychopharmacological rituals around the Water of Life. The extracted bile of infant sand worms is decanted after a lithe barefoot shaman both wears the worm like a belt, and then drowns it. The resulting in-the-womb odyssey, warped by the elixir, of the unborn daughter of Bene Gesserit Mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, iconic yet inert) is pleasingly incongruous. It is simultaneously both commercially gorgeous, and coldly Kubrickian. More of this, please. The contradiction is the thing.
I realise that the Herbert’s source material leans heavily into the high-fantasy structure of the galaxy of Great House politics and posturing, or in his parlance, the Landsraad. Lords, Religious Sects, Armies, and specialized Merchant guilds create a fragile balance and all that. Dune Part Two cannot quite pull it off.
Herbert constantly reinforced to his audience that everything revolved around the Spice. It was the thing that allowed divine visions, the exorbitant wealth, life extension approaching immortality, and above all, it allowed Empire building and, crucially, Empire maintenance via the rapid-transportation of folding space.
In spite of all the spectacle and the grandeur (“Squint! Squint at the grandeur!”) Villeneuve seems content to ignore the central plot-inciting conflict of the Spice itself being at the nexus of all things. It absolutely blows my mind that both he and screenwriter Jon Spaihts have so wilfully ignored the core concept here.
The Spacing Guild, with its big-brained hyper-evolved human slugs called Third Stage Navigators, were the biggest and best of geopolitical strings pullers, and the folding of space might be kind of important to show us, eh? Don’t hold out on the important, and the really weird stuff, Denis! Maybe in the next one? Here, instead, we get a visual homage to the circles of worshipers around the Kabba at Mecca. It is coolly handsome, and yet, a bit on the nose. 
The rest is politics and religion. Plans within plans, but still somehow missing much of the meat in the sandwich. We are treated to the usual critiques of fanaticism, which were more clever, and more wittily covered in The Life of Brian. And yet, I did appreciate Stilgar as the secret MVP of the film. His gruff warlike earnestness along with his wisdom and pragmatism (not to mention a delightful variety of exotic bird calls) is given the room the breathe; a paradox to peek out behind the corner.
This may sound like a complete non sequitur, but the cadence of Javier Bardem’s line delivery feels like he is channelling Ruben Blades' somnambulistic philosopher and cartel boss from Ridley Scott’s The Counselor. Bardem also had a major part in that film, although he and Blades do not share a scene together. Nonetheless, Stilgar’s credulity and certainty -- “I do not care what you believe! I believe.” -- edges into Python territory, while remaining a compelling and tragic figure.
In something as stoic and forthright as Dune: Part Two, it is most welcome. My audience giggled at times, not necessarily out of any superior secular Western cynicism, but perhaps the abject simplicity of it all. Villeneuve’s Dune movies could use far more of these unconscious contradictions, and less ‘neat ribbon and bow’ on which it spins its narrative. 
As I wrote of Dune: Part One, if there is a 21st century concession to this adaptation of the material, it is lip-service paid to the oppressor / oppressed identity politics. Paul, and by extension, the entire Atreides clan choose to function as a reluctant White Knight: “I am not here to lead, I am here to learn your ways.” This is sensitive, especially in a global blockbuster, particularly because it is not the 60s or the 80s anymore. (Oh, hey there, Palestine 2023.) Either way, at the time, I was not sure if the filmmakers had 'done the work,’ as the kids say. 
Here, in Dune: Part Two, Villeneuve somewhat pulls a Ed Neumier/Paul Verhoeven Starship Troopers move. It takes a 180 turn on some of the author's heroic jihad notions, and desert power, as the cynical product of propaganda. It also succeeds in not treating the Fremen of Arrakis as a monolithic culture. This is a storytelling and thematic win.
Chani (Zendaya) and her generational cohort of younger Fremen share a different, less righteous, perspective on prophecy and power. Her warrior-bestie Shishakli (Souheila Yacoub, earthy and marvellous) gets some subtle human moments until a rather abrupt and lazy exeunt. Dang, if this is not indicative of a script that often fails to know what to do with a idiosyncratic, human, performance, lost in the spectacle. 
The final act, if you can call it that (stay tuned for Dune: Part Three, featuring more Anya-Taylor Joy) is sharply critical of the political utility of messianic cult of personality. Kind of a D.W. Griffith Intolerance-style apology for his ‘justification of Donald Trump’s Build-The-Wall’ thesis Sicario in 2015 -- Villeneuve's best film, whatever you think about its message. Note that Josh Brolin gets more personality and character introduced wearing flipflops in a conference room there, than he does offering up an arsenal of atomic weapons here.
Any pointed critique might get lost here in the spectacular sunsets, sleek knife fights, opulent wardrobes and blockbuster power. Dune:  Part Two still has the blind-spots of Dune: Part One, insofar as it grinds the rough edges off the source material in favour of symmetry and spectacle. It somehow fails to make the case of the how weird the human race can actually be, and settles for depicting only strangeness as surface veneer. It has amazing feathers and vestments, but fails to truly dance with its weapon of choice. 
Oh, bloody hell, bring on part three. But for all that is holy, please include the Spacing Guild next time. It is kind of important.

Dune: Part Two

  • Denis Villeneuve
  • Denis Villeneuve
  • Jon Spaihts
  • Frank Herbert
  • Timothée Chalamet
  • Zendaya
  • Rebecca Ferguson
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Anya Taylor-JoyAustin ButlerCharlotte RamplingChristopher WalkenDave BautistaDenis VilleneuveDuneFlorence PughFrank HerbertHans ZimmerJavier BardemJosh BrolinLéa SeydouxPart 2Rebecca FergusonStellan SkarsgårdTimothée ChalametZendayaJon SpaihtsActionAdventureDrama

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