Movies · Reviews

‘Dune: Part 2’ Soars As an Epic Sci-Fi Sequel

Villeneuve brings the epic scope, Zendaya brings the heart and humanity.
Dune part two
By  · Published on March 1st, 2024

Making a big studio film is always a risk, and intentionally splitting the central narrative across two or more movies amplifies that risk in every possible way. Sometimes it pays off as with the Star Wars franchise’s nearly half-century run, and sometimes it shits the bed — studios spent $400 million making three Divergent films only to cancel the fourth one leaving the whole series without an ending. Dune hit theaters and HBO Max in 2021 with the sequel’s production dependent on its success, and happily, that success came both on the big screen and small. Nearly three years later, that sequel has arrived, and Dune: Part Two is a magnificent follow-up that blows open the action, themes, and relationships of the first in fantastically thrilling ways.

Dune ends with the annihilation of the House Atreides empire leaving only Paul (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), alive. The pair are taken in by cautious members of the Fremen as Paul proclaims his intentions to help the people secure freedom from oppression, and the new film picks up mere hours later. Fremen leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) believes Paul to be the much prophesied messiah come to save the Fremen people, others suspect he may be a spy, and desert warrior (and frequent guest in Paul’s dreams) Chani (Zendaya) finds her own convictions about the whole thing conflicting with intense romantic feelings.

Meanwhile [space wipe!], elsewhere in the universe, Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) is growing tired of losing very profitable spice harvests to Fremen raids on Arrakis. He dispatches his sadistic nephew Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler) to squash the rebellion and kill the mysterious Muad’Dib (it’s Paul!) leading the charge. Seems like a simple enough clash between good and evil, but what if Paul’s own visions of a Holy War — with him at the helm — takes priority?

There’s a lot going on in Dune: Part Two, far more than a review’s plot synopsis can handle, and all of it sings with drama, tension, thrills, and incredibly rich character beats. Director Denis Villeneuve shows once again that science fiction is his home as he builds on the first film’s setup to deliver a true epic. Enormous set-pieces, visually stunning effects, costume design as eclectic as it is mad, and exciting action share the screen with charisma, torrents of emotion (courtesy of a terrific Zendaya), and a shifting darkness worthy of an Empire Strikes Back comparison.

Zendaya’s Chani was present in the first film, but she appeared mostly as a silent vision before finally arriving late in the third act, but she’s every bit the heart and soul of Dune: Part Two. You immediately buy into the fierceness with which she fights and stands for her people, and while there’s the tease of YA romance early on she quickly finds her footing as an independent voice leery of Paul’s status as savior to the Fremen. Her love is tangible, but it’s at odds with legitimate concern leading to an emotionally torn performance.

Chalamet shines too and hasn’t felt this all-in and tangible since Call Me By Your Name (2017), and Ferguson doubles down as a human monster prone to twisted, heinous, and devious moves in the shadows. Other returning performers including Josh Brolin, Dave Bautista, Charlotte Rampling, and Bardem all do good work, but newcomers quickly make their mark. Christopher Walken plays the emperor of the known universe, Florence Pugh is his daughter, and Léa Seydoux joins Lady Jessica as another member of the secretive and powerful Bene Gesserit. It’s Butler who steals his every scene, though, as a brutally intense Harkonnen with his own cruel plans for the future.

While the bulk of the film’s hefty (but never really felt) running time unfolds on the golden, red sands of Arrakis, Villeneuve wisely shifts our attention elsewhere at times. The script, co-written by Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts, uses that time to introduce new characters and story threads while cinematographer Greig Fraser and production designer Patrice Vermette take the opportunity to cut loose on the visual front. Scenes on the Harkonnen home planet feel almost monochrome in the starkness and their milky, alien-like skin, and it works to maximize the oppressive nature of their rule.

It’s tempting to read some connection to today’s very specific, real world conflicts into the film’s depiction of the Fremen and their oppressors, but that would be a mistake. The tragedy and oppression have very real counterparts, but the same could be said of the 80s when David Lynch’s adaptation was released, of the 60s when Herbert’s novels first hit shelves, and nearly any other time in human history. It’s just what we do as a species, every time, all the time, and Herbert’s fiction just added sand worms. All fictions borrow liberally from reality, and to get hung up on correlation is to derail the experience that is Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two.

The film can be enjoyed merely as a big, surface-level thrill ride delivering memorable sequences like Paul’s first attempts at riding a giant sand worm and characters worth rooting for or despising. The textures and themes are there, though, for viewers who like their blockbuster entertainment woven through dense world-building, critical commentaries on theocracies, colonization, and the ease with which people succumb to religious delusion. Come for the spectacle, stay for the heart and heroism, the delicious villainy, and the emotionally epic finale. No matter your tastes, Dune: Part Two has you covered.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.