Dune: Part Two: an impressive sci-fi war saga

Denis Villeneuves builds on Frank Herbet’s space opera with a war movie-cum-swashbuckling adventure loaded with giant worms and vivid villains that occasionally upstage its key characters.

Dune: Part Two (2024)

Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (1965) was first published in the magazine Analog as two separate serials: Dune World (1963-4) and Prophet of Dune (1965). By the time the book was finished, Herbert had already made a start on drafts of what would become the next volume in the series, Children of Dune (1976). The saga continued until his death in 1986 and other hands have kept it going, based on his notes. 

Adaptations have been in the works or on screen almost since first publication, with Alejandro Jodorowsky famously failing to bring a film to term and David Lynch making a compromised, intermittently startling Dune (1984). Since then, the SyFy (formally known as Sci-Fi) channel managed two miniseries (2000, 2003) covering the first three novels; now Denis Villeneuve follows his Dune: Part One (2021) with, essentially, a film of Prophet of Dune. An effect of all this raking over (admittedly vast) territory is that Dune: Part Two is epic in itself and yet an instalment of a longer, unending story. On its own, it’s impressive as a war movie-cum-swashbuckling adventure, but the fact that it offers no beginning or end mutes its effect, especially since the romantic leads tend to get lost in the sand, upstaged by giant worms and vivid villains.

Part One established the universe of the novels: multiple planets, competing family dynasties (Game of Thrones is heavily Herbert-influenced), religious-political factions, the ecosystem of Arrakis and a massacre which sets protagonist Paul on his predestined path as guerilla leader, messiah and (eventually) genocidal tyrant. It also establishes Villeneuve’s Dune as distinct from the source and other filmmakers. Part Two spells out what was already revealed in the precognitive flashes Paul and his mother have thanks to their complicated ancestry (a huge reveal about this is almost a throwaway with so much else going on). 

Herbert, like many authors of space opera, drew on earthly precedents for his novel, especially referencing stretches of history usefully covered in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Khartoum (1966) – all current when he was working on the early books in the series. Villeneuve takes visual cues from these – with a desert setting, it’s hard to avoid David Lean – but also proves Herbert’s theory that historic tragedies repeat on greater and greater scale by making unobtrusive parallels with the current state of power politics in the middle East and the hubs of Empire. Its worst tyrant is even called Vladimir, while the settler/exploiter-indigenous conflicts seem more relevant at the time of release (delayed by almost a year) than they could have at the time of production.

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in Dune: Part Two (2024)

Like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (a Galactic Empire book series first published 1942–50 which influenced Herbert) and George Lucas’s Star Wars (which has always been a cartoon Dune), Herbert’s saga was conceived in an age when politics might have been eternal but technology wasn’t. Adapting or furthering these cornerstone works has become increasingly tricky when audiences start wondering why super-scientific civilisations lack, say, e-mail or any kind of mass media. Computers or ‘thinking machines’ were banned in Herbert’s Dune – humanity destroyed them during ‘The Great Revolt’ against AI

And so news on Arrakis is picked up over what looks like a 1930s crystal set and the military technology of the Empire and resistance consists of 1960s ‘atomics’ (a handy stockpile of nuclear warheads) and attack helicopters (with Vietnam-style door-guns) in the air and mediaeval swords and armour (science fictional personal force shields) on the ground. All battles are surprise attack/routs with one side devastating an enemy camp while the other flee in terror, while the fate of the known universe depends on a one-on-one duel between a hero who’s already seen the outcome in a vision and a cheating baddie who still has as much chance as a villain in a fixed wrestling match.

In soap opera style, Dune characters aren’t complicated but their circumstances (and family trees) are. Like Lynch, Villeneuve has his pick of currently-hot stars and character actors – who do what they can to flesh out with what they’re given. Timothée Chalamet comes to the fore but so much time is spent on who Paul used to be and what he’ll become that a key romance with desert fighter Chani (Zendaya) is under heated. Rebecca Ferguson literally retreats behind a veil as his mystic mother (whose super-power – forcing people to do what she tells them – could probably have saved the universe with far fewer casualties). 

Villains are often better company, despite hackneyed business like murdering subordinates just to demonstrate their perfidy, and the film really crackles when the Harkonnens – bald space vampires with Wagnerian art direction and Leni Riefenstahl choreography – are on screen. It’s even slightly poignant when Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista), big bad of Part One, is displaced by new coming fiend Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), who serves as the anti-Paul and grins with blackened teeth. But the outcome of the climactic duel serves as barely a pause before the next foretold war starts, and we’ve already had precognitive glimpses – with Anya Taylor-Joy as Paul’s unborn-in-narrative present sister – to hint at wars to come. 

 ► Dune: Part Two is in UK cinemas now.