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Review: ‘Dune Part 2’ is extreme blockbuster filmmaking; exciting and laced with high stakes

After 2021’s “Dune” was relegated to the small screen in the wake of pandemic related theatre closings, this weekend, the long awaited “Dune Part 2” brings the thunder, debuting on screens suitable for the story’s epic scale. The sci fi saga starring, well, almost everyone, in a sprawling cast headed by Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya and the giant sandworms who are literally and figuratively the film’s biggest stars, will play exclusively in theatres.

Wrestling novelist Frank Herbert’s expansive story of a psychedelic drug called Spice and reluctant messiah Paul Atreides, into a comprehensible movie has confounded filmmakers for decades. Most notably, David Lynch adapted the 1965 novel into a noble 1984 failure. The story is complex, with many characters and big, brainy concepts.

As a result, the spectacle of “Part 2,” on its own, isn’t for casual viewers. The last movie ended with Fremen warrior Chani (Zendaya) saying “This is only the beginning,” which means the new film isn’t a sequel, or a reboot. It’s a continuation, the second part of the story director Denis Villeneuve began in 2021, and to understand the story, you have to see the first film.

Equal parts action packed and philosophical, “Part Two” picks up where “Dune” left off. Set 8,000 years in the future, Atreides (Chalamet) son of an aristocratic family, and once heir to the planet of Arrakis, a desolate, almost inhabitable place, but rich in the lucrative, and psychedelic Spice, that is home to the Indigenous Fremen people.

Betrayed by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), the former steward of Arrakis, the family is all but wiped out, with Atreides and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), left in the desert to die. If they are to survive it will be with the help of the Fremen – including Chani and Stilgar (Javier Bardem), leader of the Fremen tribe at Sietch Tabr – who call Atreides “The Chosen One” and believe he is a prophet with the power to bring peace to their world.

“Part 2” sees Atreides embedded with the Fremin in a mission of revenge against the House Harkonnen, the treacherous Baron, his sinister nephews, the brutish Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista) and Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), who Atreides holds responsible for the death of his father.

Fighting gallantly alongside the Fremin, he’s mostly unconcerned with their belief that he is their messiah. His feelings for Chanti and his thirst for creating a conflict that will place him within striking distance of Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken), his daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), and Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother and the Emperor’s Truthsayer, Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), are top of mind.

As the reckoning approaches, Atreides is plagued by terrible visions of the future.

There is so much more, but that is essentially the peg on which Villeneuve hangs his epic vision of Herbert’s tale. The director gives voice to the author’s study of vengeance, spirituality, fanaticism, liberation and conquest, articulating the story’s humanist nuances in the framework of a film that can only be described as a spectacle. It’s a bigger, wilder vision, an answer to the stately elegance of the first film.

The action sequences fill the screen. Villeneuve overwhelms the senses with grand images of desert warfare and Atreides sand surfing courtesy of giant “grandfather sand worms.” It’s extreme blockbuster filmmaking, exciting and laced with high stakes. Perfect for IMAX screens.

But the action sequences wouldn’t mean much if the film’s world building and characters didn’t set the stage. Arrakis is a sand swept hell, so immersive you’ll think you have sand in your underpants by the time the end credits roll. The vision of the planet is aided considerably by Greig Fraser’s gorgeous cinematography.

The devil, though, is in the details. On an arid planet, the Fremin syphon water from the bodies of their vanquished enemies to use in their cooling systems. Minutiae like this, and more, give the story depth, creating an exciting world for the characters to inhabit.

The stacked cast of A-listers deliver. Chalamet’s character comes of age on his hero’s journey, shedding any boyish traits Atreides may have had, to become a worm riding warrior and leader of armies.

Also making a mark is Butler as the eyebrow-challenged Feyd-Rautha (the part played by Sting in the Lynch’s adaptation). He maintains the rock star swagger of Elvis, his best-known role, but brings the danger as the sadistic nephew and heir.

It’s good stuff that showcases Villeneuve prowess, even if it feels rushed in its last act.

What Villeneuve isn’t good at, are endings. His first “Dune” film left audiences hanging, finishing up with no definitive ending. The end of “Dune Part 2” doesn’t dangle in quite the same way, but tensions are still unfolding as the end credits roll. Looks like we’ll have a “Part 3” coming in a couple years.

Despite the open-ended conclusion, however, “Dune Part 2,” with its stunning visuals, deep emotional core and good performances, suggests “Part 3” will be worth the wait. 

4 out of 5 stars.

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