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‘Dune: Part Two’ review: Bigger, wormier and way far out

Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya in “Dune: Part Two.”

By Manohla Dargis

Having gone big in “Dune,” his 2021 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s futuristic opus, director Denis Villeneuve has gone bigger and more far out in the follow-up. Set in the aftermath of the first movie, the sequel resumes the story boldly, delivering visions both phantasmagoric and familiar. Like Timothée Chalamet’s dashingly coifed hero — who steers monstrous sandworms over the desert like a charioteer — Villeneuve puts on a great show. The art of cinematic spectacle is alive and rocking in “Dune: Part Two,” and it’s a blast.

It’s a surprisingly nimble moonshot, even with all its gloom and doom and brutality. Big-screen enterprises, particularly those adapted from books with a huge, fiercely loyal readership, often have a ponderousness built in to every image. In some, you can feel the enormous effort it takes as filmmakers try to turn reams of pages into moving images that have commensurate life, artistry and pop on the screen. Adaptations can be especially deadly when moviemakers are too precious with the source material; they’re torpedoed by fealty.

“Dune” made it clear that Villeneuve isn’t that kind of textualist. As he did in the original, he has again taken plentiful liberties with Herbert’s behemoth (one hardcover edition runs 528 pages) to make “Part Two,” which he wrote with the returning Jon Spaihts. Characters, subplots and volumes of dialogue (interior and otherwise) have again been reduced or excised altogether. (I was sorry that great character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, who played an eerie adviser in the first movie, didn’t make the cut here.) The story — its trajectory, protagonist and concerns — remains recognizable yet also different.

“Dune” turns on Paul Atreides (Chalamet), an aristocrat who becomes a guerrilla and crusader, and whose destiny weighs as heavily on him as any crown. In adapting “Dune,” Villeneuve effectively cleaved Herbert’s novel in half. (Herbert wrote six “Dune” books, a series that has morphed into a multimedia franchise since his death in 1986.) The first part makes introductions and sketches in Paul’s backstory as the beloved only son of a duke, Leto (Oscar Isaac), and his concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). When it opens, the royals, on orders from the universe’s emperor, are preparing to vacate their home planet, a watery world called Caladan, to the parched planet of Arrakis, aka Dune.

The move to Arrakis goes catastrophically wrong; many members of House Atreides are murdered by their enemies, most notably the pallid, villainous House Harkonnen, and Paul’s father dies. Paul and Lady Jessica escape into the desert where — after much side-eyeing and muttering along with one of those climactic mano-a-mano duels that turn fictional boys into men — they find uneasy allies in a group of Fremen, the planet’s Indigenous population. A tribal people who have adapted to Dune’s harsh conditions with clever survival tactics, such as form-fitting suits that conserve bodily moisture, the Fremen are scattered across the planet under the emperor’s rule. Some fight to be free; many pray for a messiah.

“Part Two” opens with Paul and his mother hunkered down in the desert, hiding behind a sandy crest amid a company of Fremen warriors. Among these are Chani (Zendaya) and Stilgar (Javier Bardem), who personify the Fremen’s divergent ideas about liberation. Stilgar is a man of faith who, not long into the sequel, starts to believe that Paul is the Fremen messiah. This requires Bardem to keep repeating variations of the same true-believer line (basically, Paul is the one!), which he does with expressive, at times humorous animation. Chani, who in turn believes that a Fremen must lead them to freedom, initially views Paul with enough knitted-brow skepticism to give their inevitable romance a little frisson.

Chalamet and Zendaya make an appealing duo, and the two performers fit together with tangible ease as their characters grow close. Both actors are fun to look at, and every bit as watchable and glamorous as old-fashioned Hollywood stars (I kept wondering what product he uses to tame his curls), which is amusing but makes sense for their outsize roles. Chalamet and Zendaya tend to overwork their glowers and puppy eyes in their less chatty scenes (the desert quiet can make loose talk deadly), but together they humanize the story, giving it the necessary personal stakes and a warmth that helps balance the chilling violence.

“Dune” is finally a war story, like many contemporary screen spectacles, and it isn’t long into “Part Two” before bodies begin to fall. In the swiftly paced opener, Harkonnen soldiers, led by a bald shouter called the Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista), descend to the desert floor from their flying machines. Wearing bulky uniforms that make them seem as lumbering as old-school deep-sea divers, the soldiers seem too ungainly to take on the Fremen, agile fighters with parkour moves and billy goat balance. Villeneuve is good at surprises, though, and he knows how to marshal contrasts — light and dark, immensity and puniness — to create interest and tension. Soon enough, the Harkonnen are rapidly jetpacking through the air, and it’s on.

“Part Two” moves with comparable dexterity despite all the weightiness, the byzantine complexities and knotty conspiracies shared among different factions. The sequel brings back a number of familiar faces, including Josh Brolin as Atreides loyalist Gurney Halleck and Stellan Skarsgard as monstrous Baron. The leader of House Harkonnen, the Baron spends much of his time killing his minions or marinating his often-bared, massively spherical body in a tub of what looks like crude oil. Rabban, his inept nephew, is soon overshadowed by the most striking addition to the “Dune” detachment, another nephew, Feyd-Rautha, a malignancy played by an unrecognizable, utterly creepy Austin Butler.

As spectrally white and seemingly hairless as his uncle, Feyd-Rautha looks like a bulked-up worm. He’s a warrior and every bit as wicked as his uncle. Yet he isn’t the usual sexed-up antihero despite the curves of Butler’s muscles and his sensual pout, and the character remains a disturbing narrative question mark. Feyd-Rautha becomes Paul’s challenger, but he also serves as a counterpart to the huge sandworms that travel beneath Arrakis’ surface and produce the planet’s invaluable natural resource, known as melange or spice. As crucial as petroleum, as addictive as smack, spice sparkles like pixie dust, alters minds, turns eyes vivid blue, but mostly, it keeps this universe running — and violently churning.

For all the challenges that Villeneuve has faced in adapting the novel to the screen none have seemed more insurmountable than remaining faithful to the complexity of Herbert’s Paul Atreides, whose power is less than triumphant. Disturbed by his mother’s ambitions and haunted by apocalyptic visions, Paul remains as unsure of his destiny as you are. Don’t expect many answers by the end of “Part Two” — as I said, Herbert wrote five additional books — although, like me, you may want to put your money on Zendaya.

‘Dune: Part Two’

Rated PG-13 for warfare and worms. Running time: 2 hours, 46 minutes. In theaters.

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