Dune: Part Two

Lead them to paradise... - 9/10

by Jad Sammour

I LOVED DUNE: PART TWO. Throughout this review I will praise almost every aspect of the film and really elevate it to some magnificent status BUT I warn you and ask you to take this as just my opinion and not consider it a benchmark for how you should react to the film or a basis upon which you build your expectations. You will react to the film based on mood, your cinematic sensibilities, and personal biases… and this is okay. As for me, I ATE THAT FILM UP! EVERY SECOND OF DUNE PART TWO WAS PURE ECSTASY.

Dune: Part Two picks up right where Part One left off and adapts the remainder of the novel… you know the basic premise, no need to get into it. Back in 2021 my first viewing of Part One was good but I was convincing myself I liked the film to be honest: I had finished reading the novel and I can be a little bit of a purist sometimes which impacted my viewing experience. Since then, I’ve seen Part One four times and my last viewing was the most positive, so it got me right in the mood and headspace for Part Two. I was still worried about Part Two going into it, however these anxieties dissipated in the first 10 minutes and these feelings of worry got shifted and eradicated by the film’s brilliance and drive. For two hours and forty six minutes (actually two hours and forty minutes if you take away the credits) Denis Villeneuve and his cast and crew delivered a film for the ages, it’s a film that will be remembered as a landmark in science-fiction, and looked at in the league of the “sci-fi classics” - 2001, Star Wars, Blade Runner, Alien, etc. I felt like I was sitting in the IMAX theater for four hours but I cherished every single moment, I wished the film would never end… and sadly it ended, as all good things do (and bad things too! None of them in the film, in my opinion, but generally speaking).

Sentimentalities aside, why is DUNE PART TWO this good? Well, I need a second viewing to properly digest and comprehend what hit me. Having said that, DUNE PART TWO is a mature work of sci-fi cinema that eclipses and dwarves every major blockbuster that’s being thrown into theaters. Comparing it to most big-budget films is an insult to its quality and exaltedness. It’s probably my favorite film I’ve seen in theaters since The Batman and it’s better than The Batman, Denis Villeneuve has a very solid grip over the source material and he loves it so much that this love oozes out of every single shot. The world on screen, Arrakis, feels alive and lived in. The exploration of the fremen culture takes up a big portion of the film and we see some incredible world-building with production design and awesome props: I loved how everything looked and functioned. The fremen culture is examined with its flaws and contradictions and influences displayed and integrated into the story, beautifully so. A lot of people and articles have accused Part One of cultural appropriation and erasure of nomadic and Arabic influences of the fremen which I do understand, though I do not think is an issue, and it is not really that much of an appropriation. Some Arabic expressions featured in the novel were not used, like "Yahya Al Shuhada", "Jihad", "Tahaddi", and the famous exclamation word "Kull Wahad" whereas many others which are more related to character names were not changed - though it is clear they created a "neutral" language for the fremen that distances itself from Arabic. And really, there is no way around this, but the film and the book flat out copy visual cues and actions and words and lore from islamic and beduin culture; it is very obvious how they borrow. Speaking of cultures, the film has two major instances of censorship in theaters: a kissing scene between two male characters was removed and the subtitles downplay the religious themes of the film. The arabic subtitles which translate the dialogue, remove any keywords related to religion. For example, “praying” is translated to “meditating” in context when fremen are praying in ways similar to muslim praying actions. The word belief as in “do you believe in Paul” is translated in arabic to  “trust” . “Prophet” is changed to “chosen one” if I am not mistaken. This may seem insignificant, and I doubt these changes are mistakes by the translator, but this is a form of censoring the film for audience member who do not understand English and rely on subtitles. It’s a last ditch effort by the censorship boards to remove any religious allusions from the film, to sanitize it from “blasphemy” - it’s funny and tragic if you think about it.The fremen were portrayed by non-white actors (Arabs, Latin Americans, Africans, and probably other regions) and one thing I usually find annoying when films have native characters is that usually the natives talk between each other in their oppressors’ language albeit heavily accented but in Dune Part Two they almost exclusively talk in the fremen language between each other which I really appreciated and shows commitment from Villeneuve and the cast. Contrasting the arid Arrakis, also known as Dune, is Giedi Prime which is the Harkonnen planet and let me tell you, even though we see a glimpse of their culture and traditions, what we see is very original and incredible to look at (production design and cinematography), that says a lot about the Harkonnens without actually saying it.

Visually, DUNE PART TWO is insane! The visuals are so so so good, I was consistently expressing awe under my breath every few minutes. The images feel new, different, impressive… I’ve missed this. The images were amplified by Hans Zimmer’s score which was also full of new sounds that build upon the style and texture of the previous film’s score but surprisingly wasn't as articulate as the previous one. The awesome visuals are not simply aesthetic large shots; the beauty of Dune Part Two is tactile and intimate in the close-ups and transportive in the large shots. A desert can seem boring but between storms, eclipses, dunes, and mountains it comes off as awe-inspiring. Then you have the contrast of the barren Dune with Giedi Prime. There is a sequence set on Giedi Prime that was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The infrared cinematography with the organic yet harsh weird shapes of the locations, it’s very weird in the best way possible. It’s reminiscent of H.R. Gieger’s work who was in charge of designing the planet for Jodorowsky’s legendary cancelled adaptation (read about it or watch the documentary). Giedi Prime is one hell of a planet, very unique, has to be seen to be appreciated. I was disappointed by how little we see of Kaitain, the emperor’s planet. There are some scenes on it but they come off as shot in someone’s backyard and gazebo.

Dune: Part One adapts 60% of the novel and Part Two the remaining 40% which feel rushed in the book. Luckily, the writers expand them, adding scenes and dialogue and context to properly flesh things out and make them less confusing or less ambiguous… they even fixed some of my gripes with the book. There are many omissions and changes that work for the best, especially the extended ending which blew me away and made me realize, to cap things off, what a monument of a film I’ve just witnessed. The story is really good and still had me in a chokehold even though I’ve read the book twice. It’s such a good story and this one focuses on Paul’s revenge and the rotten core chosen one prophecy, Lisan Al Gaib. Denis goes overboard in the cautionary tale aspect - which is the point of Dune - to an extent it becomes excessive….we get it, it’s clear. It still works, though. In fact, it makes things a bit more impactful due to how many times it is repeated and explained yet no one is convinced. It shows the darker side (or perhaps the only side) of charismatic leaders and religious fundamentalism. The structure is defined: Paul learning, then the rising tensions and political plays between all factions, and finally the climax of the story as the pot boils and everything converges into one singular point. The film steadily unfolds and takes its time in building the characters and the scope of the story, slowly expanding as time passes, falling deeper into tragedy. 

The performances were excellent. Timothee Chalamet brings his best, with one scene towards the end just giving my goosebumps and hiking up my heart rate (which was really fluctuating throughout the film); I never thought he's capable of giving a performance this commanding and haunting. I am not a huge fan of Zendaya but she was really good here and featured a lot in the film in an expanded role that surpasses her modest one from the book. Rebecca Ferguson turns in a mischievous performance that I did not expect. Javier Bardem is awesome and he is a little bit funny sometimes. Souheila Yacoub was a surprising standout. Stellan Skarsgard returns as the Baron bringing the same glutinous gravitas, Dave Bautista bringing his loudest screams (yet also delivering a sympathetic performance), and Austin Buttler went full-on freak mode: you look into his eyes see nothing but malice and madness, his voice an echo of the Baron’s, his actions are pure, irrational evil but with discipline. Florence Pugh, with a restricted role, managed to have a lot of screen presence and so did Lea Seydoux who shows up, briefly, and steals the show. As for Christopher Walken… I am still not convinced of his casting.

Denis Villeneuve created an epic the likes of which hasn't been seen in a long time. The sheer weight of the film, the dramatic tension, the action, the world-building, the utilization of visual effects, are all on another level. I am at awe! Villeneuve has a way of directing action sequences that feels a bit awkward and different to how it’s usually done. His fight scenes are restricted to tell a story, never superfluous and he even cuts them short if they no longer serve a purpose and this is where I found some decisions to be surprising and incredible. Paul sees visions of a terrible future and although we know it’s a war, we never see it as a swooping wave of violence but almost as an individual struggle where one sees and feels the pain of the sufferers, direct empathy and worry. He’s done this to avoid romanticizing war, to rid it of any spectacle and visual coolness, and this impacts the third act which feels like it was cut short after doing just enough in showcasing the key moments. Villeneuve sometimes overly indulges in visual narration with scenes that are not story or character beats, but immerse you into the film’s atmosphere and events… the guy just loves the book and you see this, you feel it. He also does not shy away from the weirdness of Dune (except for two spoilery-things I will not mention). He finds his way to work around them, one gets omitted and the other is given a very cool rendition that reminded me of the star child from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film has many scenes that mirror scenes from Part One, serving as direct reminders as if they are visions, altered visions, and poetic repetition to create meaning and visually narrate key points. Denis Villeneuve is one of the best directors working today. He’s incredible, a master of his domain!

The collective effort to bring a film is commendable and impressive. The sound design is incredible, the VFX are great, the editing sharp and on point - but be ready for some cutting from darkness to the brightness of the desert, your eyes may adjust but not your soul.

I honestly don’t have any gripes* with the film, I am utterly satisfied with it and beyond happy as a Dune fan and cinephile. I’ve missed sci-fi and blockbusters films made with such carefulness, attention, and passion… high budget films have been becoming stale, repetitive, soulless, dull, and quite frankly, boring. DUNE PART TWO resets the standards and punches them sky-high…. This is film history happening in theaters right now.
*okay some stuff should’ve been given more context and better explained and there still isn’t enough sandworms even though they ride a few, but it is nothing that detracted from the viewing experience.

The pieces have been set for DUNE: MESSIAH, as we wait for its coming...

Make sure you watch it in IMAX because you’ll be seeing it in the 1.90:1* aspect ratio and not the regular theatrical ratio of 2.39:1. To simplify things, when you watch some films on TV you usually see two horizontal black bars on top and at the bottom of the screen, now imagine the bars did not exist and they’ve been filled with the rest of the frame… you'd see more. Regular theatrical releases of Dune Part Two simply omit/crop the top and the bottom of the frame whereas IMAX screens show the entire frame. Personally it should be screened in 1.90:1 everywhere instead of using it as an IMAX gimmick because the frames genuinely look better in that aspect ratio - just watch the IMAX and cropped trailers.
*Some IMAX theaters have an even larger ratio of 1.43:1 but we don’t have one in Lebanon. Speaking of Lebanon, I have discovered that the film was a victim of our delightful censorship board, cutting a scene between the Baron and Na-Baron. 


As for the white saviour allegations which sprouted right after the release of Part One ("Dune is yet another white savior story"), the film makes sure to tell the viewer that it is not one, it puts the idea of "messiah" under a critical observation and uses it to drive the story, examine its origins, the danger of religious figures, of religious fundamentalism, history, storytelling, the figure's entourage. The film drives the point home, creating a disaster you cannot look away from, victory is tragedy, triumph is doom, traditional feelings of excitement are rendered into terror and horror especially towards the end where the "good guys" seem to turn into the "bad guys" in an invasion and war sequence that mirrors the Harkonnen's assault from the first film. The book is more subtle about the danger of messiahs but film overdoes this aspect and creates a scary tale, very much unconventional when compared to a generic good guys vs bad guys blockbuster which this one isn't in any way: in any Marvel, or DC, or any major studio action film the line between good and bad is defined, you know who to root for, while Dune shatters this in the second half and truly makes you think about who to cheer for, but most importantly WHY to cheer for someone. I also have to highlight the role of characters around Paul in his ascent/descent, how some function like a moral anchor (Chani), a blind supporter following his religious beliefs (Stilgar), a manipulative stimulator (Jessica and Alia), and a vengeful friend (Gurney).

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