' ' Cinema Romantico: Dune: Part Two

Monday, April 15, 2024

Dune: Part Two

“Dune” is set in the year 10191, which is 191 years after the year ten thousand, which is where the Zager and Evans song “In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)” concludes, a long, long ways out there, in other words, past the point, really, that our feeble 21st Century minds could grasp. It suggests a movie both narratively and visually abstruse, but that isn’t director Denis Villeneuve’s method, and so just like its Part One predecessor, “Dune: Part Two” is not looking forward but back. Whatever Frank Herbert’s original intentions with his 1965 sci fi source material (friendly reminder: I haven’t read it), Villeneuve and his co-writer Jon Spaights are honoring old fashioned Hollywood storytelling by bringing vengeance and destiny up in the mix, crossing “Gladiator” with a more dystopian version of “Roman Holiday.” And even if this 166-minute behemoth does not so much run out of steam about midway through as get bogged down via a filmmaker who has publicly gone on record as not giving a flip about dialogue suddenly becoming overly dependent on it, a paradox weirdly proving his ostensible point, it also does not entirely matter. When “Dune: Part Two” fully engages with its own sense of spectacle, the sandworm will definitely turn for you, my friend.

When last we left Paul (Timothée Chalamet), last duke of the House Altreides, his father (Oscar Isaac) had been slain by order of the evil Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) and Paul and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Fergusion) were holed up on the unforgiving desert planet of Arrakis with its rugged inhabitants the Fremen, some believing Paul to be their deliverer. Stilgar (Javier Bardem), leader of the Fremen thinks he is, though others, like young Fremen warrior Chani (Zendaya) are not so sure. Paul isn’t so sure, either, struggling to wrap his youthful mind around such a far-reaching destiny, having ominous visions as “Part Two” begins of a coming holy war. Heavy lies the crown, and all that. Yet, if heavy tends to be Villeneuve’s preferred tone, “Part Two” surprises for frequently being so light on its feet. Aesthetically, Villeneuve toggles between intimacy and enormity, never letting the scale overwhelm his sense of visual clarity and space, and in a sense, his storyline, at least at first, follows suit. 

Chalamet might come cloaked in the visage of a teenage heartthrob, but he also imbues his performance with the uneasy sense of being the new kid at school. The sequence in which he rides a mammoth sandworm through the desert, a feat of special effects intimating what it might be like to ride a wave at Bells Beach during a 50 Year Storm, might be evidence of the prophecy, but Chalamet gives it the air of a kid proving his self-worth, if not also seeking to impress the girl he likes. That’s Chani, of course, and though Villeneuve can lay the puppy dog love on thick, I’m also not made of stone, and one of the dialogue-centric scenes that works best is the two crazy kids having an intimate conversation alone amid the dunes because Chalamet seems to be pulling Zendaya toward him with his eyes. The scene in which the two of them arrhythmically walk side-by-side through the sand so as not to disturb those pesky worms lasts longer than the general 2.5 second edits honored by most modern movies but I found myself wishing Villeneuve would have held it even longer.

Percolating alongside our (possible) messiah’s road of trials are Baron Harkonnen’s ongoing attempts to harvest the spice of Arrakis and rid the planet of its Fremen. If Skarsgård is once again improbably cosplaying Pizza the Hutt then in reprising his role as Harkonnen’s villainous nephew, Dave Bautista has gone from cosplaying Darth Vader to cosplaying Dark Helmet, yelling, stomping comic relief. No, the emergent “Part Two” antagonist is Harkonnen’s other nephew Feyd-Rautha, played by Austin Butler in makeup making the erstwhile Elvis Presley look like Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett as a bloodsucking vampire, a sneering murderous psychopath speaking in a malevolent whisper. He receives a helluva introduction, demonstrating his skill in a gladiatorial arena as the warm colors of the desert give way to so much Brutalism in brutal black and white, as if Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia” has been reduced purely to its most primitive urges. As soon as you see this sequence, you know where it’s heading, to a duel between our (maybe) messiah and our mercenary. That, however, is when this “Dune” gets stuck in the mud.

If Villeneuve and his editor Joe Walker hardly crosscut at all for the first half, as “Dune: Part Two” moves into its back half, the scenes switch between the good guys and the bad guys and Jessica, too, who takes a worm ride to the south of Arrakis to peddle her son’s prophecy, transforming a movie of sensation and spectacle into one all about moving the plot forward even as it assumes the air of running in place, epitomized both in huge chunks of expository dialogue and in the character of Feyd-Rautha, who after that electrifying introduction is just sort of reduced to figuratively tossing cards into a hat, waiting to go mano-a-mano with Paul. And if Villeneuve proves too literal minded for the more fantastical elements that gradually infuse the plot, like Jessica sipping the so-called Water of Life, he simultaneously proves too evasive to do much with all the political and religious subtext, none of which amounts to much more, really, than whatever the masses watching choose to project onto it.

All that might not even have mattered so much had the movie stuck the landing, but where Chalamet’s youthful air works to his advantage early, it hampers his turn in the back half, as he winds up coming across more reluctantly committed to his fate than twisting into the kind of believer of his own hype the plot would otherwise suggest. And if Chani is meant as the counterweight to Paul’s turn, Villeneuve hangs Zendaya out to dry by mostly just communicating it through unimaginative reaction shots that cruelly leave her looking passive and winsome. The ultimate showdown, meanwhile, between Paul and Feyd-Rautha as well as the emergent cliffhanger pointing toward Part 3 all move with a clinical stateliness that is impressive logically though, unlike the best moments, you never quite feel in your bones. 

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