“Dune” Sequel Continues To Pile Up Intrigue


Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers.

While the first installment of “Dune” was visually breathtaking, finally giving justice to the vast and colorful world that Frank Herbert imagined more than half a century prior, many viewers found “Dune: Part One” (2021) to be a bit slow on the uptake — it struggled with exposition, taking too long to explain key concepts while also not covering nearly enough ground. “Dune: Part Two” does not have the same problem. Action packed, it remains as visually appealing as the first installment, but it is much easier to follow and is far more engaging.

As with the previous film, director Denis Villeneuve faced the unenviable challenge of adapting a book’s extremely rich universe (and one packed with a lot of inner dialogue that is difficult to convey visually) to the silver screen. Book fans will always quibble with movie adaptations no matter how well they are done, but generally I tend to judge a director’s skill in this endeavor by how well they retain the spirit of the original — are the characters, motivations and themes broadly accurate?

The plot and events can vary widely but the adaptation can still be quite good — the first five seasons of “Game of Thrones” are the quintessential example, with many key plot points and timelines altered, but the soul of the original was largely retained. I’d give Villeneuve a grade of B with the second “Dune.” He gets a lot right, and some of the changes (of which there are many) make sense thematically, but I think he could have done better.

He’s had to slim down the book significantly and I’m sympathetic. Unfortunate casualties of this condensation are the stories of Dr. Yueh and Thufir Hawat — critical characters whose narratives are minimized or written out altogether. If Villeneuve had done a better job of exposition in the first film, especially in regard to Mentats — humans who are trained to think like computers and advise political figures in important matters — this might have been more possible, but Mentats are basically unexplained and denoted with little more than face paint in the first film. Another disappointment is the simplification of the Fremen, who are obviously coded in the original to be descended from ancient Arabic, Islamic peoples from Earth — this nuance isn’t captured well in “Dune: Part Two.

I’m also unsure whether the film really captures the balance between the logical and the psychedelic that underlie Paul’s powers, which is one of the cornerstone concepts of the entire story. In the book, it does feel at times as if Paul’s abilities are intuitive or supernatural, but the context is important. Paul is trained in the Bene Gesserit way and is trained as Mentat as well. His mother and other Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers have access to the memories of all their female ancestors, but Paul can access all the memories of his ancestors, male and female. As a result, he has seen thousands of past realities, and the enhancement of spice combined with his ability to think logically like a computer allows him to see thousands of potential realities dependent on probability — he has so much data, he can model the future decently well.

The film doesn’t really explain this, in my view. This context will also be critical for his sister Alia’s story, whose timeline and narrative have been significantly changed in this adaptation — this could pose serious problems for the third installment. Villeneuve has also stated the third film will be the last, which is worrying — the first three books are often read as a self-contained trilogy (despite further sequels) and the story feels incomplete otherwise, so I’m not sure how he is going to bridge this gap.

That being said, the film does get a lot right, the Bene Gesserit in particular. Unlike most stories with prophecies, “Dune” is cynical — the prophecies were likely implanted by Bene Gesserit for alternative motives thousands of years prior. They are always plotting, controlling, using subtle manipulation tactics and selective breeding to further their aims and leverage soft power. The film also captures Paul’s inner turmoil quite well — “Dune” doesn’t follow the typical “hero’s journey” narrative. Paul knows that his fate has been shaped by others attempting to control him and the Fremen, plotted over centuries by the Bene Gesserit. He doesn’t think he is supernaturally ordained by prophecy and feels conflicted about becoming a white savior or messiah to people who deserve a leader from amongst their own ranks.

In the book this turmoil is almost entirely conveyed through inner dialogue, but in the film, this conflict comes from Chani’s mouth. Unlike her book counterpart, who is an ever-devoted concubine without much agency, Zendaya’s Chani represents the side of the argument that finds a white savior to be dangerous. Villeneuve invents a “north and south” faction not present in the original material — with one faction behind Paul as savior and the other more skeptical. This is a change that, no doubt, some fans will find objectionable, but I think it makes sense. It was an expedient way to convey the two sides of the debate on film, which was present only in Paul’s head in the book.

Regardless of whether you’ve read the book or not, the second installment is well worth watching for the visuals and action alone. I recommend seeing it in IMAX. There are strong performances from Austin Butler and Florence Pugh, and honestly Timothée Chalamet did a better job than I thought he would. I initially felt that he lacked the depth required to play a character as complex as Paul Atreides.

“Dune: Part Two” is a particularly strong adaptation for non-book readers as the world is engaging and can only entice more people to read Herbert’s source material, which has long deserved to hold the same reverence in public consciousness as other space opera franchises.


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