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Dune 2 Review (Spoilers)

            Denis Villeneuve’s gargantuan follow-up to his 2021 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic has gotten widespread acclaim, and for good reason. Even in the trailer, it’s clear Dune 2 might just be one of the best sequels of all time. It has some of the most sumptuous visuals the sci-fi genre has seen in years, and it will certainly be a frontrunner in many awards categories when that time comes; but despite all of that, I couldn’t help leaving the theater somewhat bewildered. Paul’s quest for revenge against those who violently overthrew his father’s colonial rule takes him to places so dark not even he is willing to fully commit—at least not at first. Truthfully, I don’t think Villeneuve’s script handled this transition from hero to tragic figure well at all. It’s a film so focused on telling us the concept of heroes is bad that we never feel close to the story’s protagonist, making the rest of the movie lack the gravity it could possess.

            Cinematographer Greig Fraser’s work on the first film was a bit jarring, with some scenes looking like a perfume commercial; and while this film is definitely not without its awkward camera movements, I do think it’s a lot better looking than the first. The lighting sometimes borders on expressive, leaning into the warm orange hues of Arrakis to heighten tense moments. Scenes set in the open desert are often harsh, flooded with brightness, and everything feels very purposeful. The infrared cameras used for scenes set on Giedi Prime first seemed like a gimmick but actually do a wonderful job of capturing the harsh worldview of the Harkonens and make some big scenes feel bigger, if that’s even possible. Like the promotional materials say, this was definitely filmed for IMAX. The enormous yet minimalist landscapes are a perfect canvas against which Villeneuve’s operatic drama can unfold. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s often spoken about the difficulties of composing shots with such an expansive frame, but Fraser for the most part seems to do a decent enough job at creating tableaux that are intricate while still feeling intimate. The sound design is wonderful, adding a tactile feel to the world. From grains of sand caught in the wind to the rustle of clothing, each choice in sound allows audiences to sink that much deeper into the world Villeneuve and Co. have created. This, however, is sadly my favorite thing about the film.

            It’s funny how, in a cast as stacked as this one, Javier Bardem as Stilgar is the standout. With what could have been a minor side character, Bardem builds so much depth and emotion into his performance, becoming the emotional center of every scene he’s in. The film’s stars, on the other hand, are a different story altogether. I didn’t find anything about Chalamet’s Paul to be particularly compelling, which is a huge issue considering he’s the protagonist. The character didn’t feel lived in, and I found a lot of the line deliveries to be somewhat stilted. Chalamet couldn’t seem to find his way into this role, and I don’t blame him. Some of the dialogue was so loaded with exposition no actor could make it come alive (more on that in a sec). Zendaya does a bit better, though there are a handful of moments where I felt like her expressions were a bit overdone, verging on ham-fisted. It felt as though both actors were hyper-aware of the camera rather than embodying the script. But with writing like this, it’s hard to imagine any actor doing extremely well.

For the vast majority of Dune 2’s nearly three-hour runtime, Paul seems determined to avoid the fate laid out before him. Despite his family’s firm conviction, he swears he’s no messiah and seems genuinely terrified of the genocide that’ll take place if he does embrace this role. So, to see his position on this matter completely change due to a single vision and a sip of poison bordered on ridiculous. We don’t see him struggle with his destiny or even try to resist it once he learns about his lineage. This was especially frustrating because the film spent so much time giving the characters and world the space they needed to develop, only to have the biggest change take place within a ten-minute period. We don’t understand what it is about his visions that cause Paul to suddenly be okay with genocide, nor are we able to track the changes in his psychology and emotions. We blink, and he’s a completely different person. Perhaps spending more time with his character could have helped set this up, or hearing him speak more about his inner life, but Villeneuve’s on record as saying he hates dialogue as a cinematic tool, which explains a lot. Some lines here are rough—very rough. With so much firepower both in the acting and visual department, and a budget verging on two hundred million dollars, it’s a shame Villeneuve failed at the starting point, before shooting even began. Dialogue is as much a part of cinema as lighting or shot composition; if the writing’s not there, it’ll have an echo effect on all other elements. For a filmmaker to handicap themselves by eschewing one of the most useful tools the medium has to offer, on a project of this size, is unconscionable.

These are the same complaints I had regarding the first entry into this trilogy. I do think it’s a film that’s worth watching, especially in theaters, but I just wish it had been written better. As is, the script leads to issues in the actors’ performances, which causes a lot of other issues in the movie’s emotional logic. It’s a lot of fun, and is full of spectacle, but is also a great case study on why filmmakers shouldn’t prioritize one tool over another when making a movie. Dune 2 hits theaters this weekend, and you should watch it, but tamper your expectations. If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more!


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