‘Dune: Part Two’ Review: Timothée Chalamet Grows Up — and So Do the Sandworms — in Denis Villeneuve’s Epic Follow-Up

On earth, human beings have evolved to enjoy a fairly comfortable place in the food chain. You have to venture far from other people to risk being eaten by an apex predator — say, by straying from the path on safari, or swimming in dark, shark-infested waters. By contrast, no one takes his safety for granted on Dune, the spice-rich desert outpost of Frank Herbert’s early-’60s pulp serial, where surface-dwellers live in fear of giant sandworms that slither at great speed to devour anything remotely edible up above.

Director Denis Villeneuve teased these monsters in his awe-inspiring, if relatively episodic 2021 adaptation of “Dune.” As science-fiction goes, the film rewrote the rules, leading with revolutionary visuals and its equally striking sound design, to the extent that those elements took precedence over the plot: an interplanetary battle for the galaxy’s rarest resource. Mind-blowing as it all felt, we hardly glimpsed the subterranean terrors — just long enough for humans (and their machines) to disappear into mouths the size of sinkholes. In another nightmarish scene, Timothée Chalamet’s spindly Paul Atreides barely outran such a creature, staring up at a maw lined with hundreds of long, sharp teeth.

The sandworms are back in “Dune: Part Two,” just one of the many dramatic payoffs Villeneuve strategically withheld till the other side of a two-year intermission. Whatever you do, don’t mistake this follow-up for a sequel. It’s the second half of a saga, which Villeneuve has hinted about wanting to carry through a third installment, provided “Part Two” earns enough for him to keep going. Like Christopher Nolan, the director is operating on the largest possible scale, pushing the medium to accommodate his vision.

There will be some who start with this film, and why not? The first movie opened during the pandemic, released day-and-date on HBO Max, whereas “Part Two” is being treated exclusively as a theatrical event. Building upon the same aesthetic, Villeneuve treats each shot as if it could be a painting. Every design choice seems handed down through millennia of alternative human history, from arcane hieroglyphics to a slew of creative masks and veils meant to conceal the faces of those manipulating the levers of power, nearly all of them women.

To skip “Dune” and start here means depriving yourself of essential context. Villeneuve and co-writer Jon Spaihts pick up in the wake of a brutal genocide — as ruthless an extermination as America’s PG-13 rating permits — in which the corpses of countless good men lie stacked in piles, fodder for Harkonnen flamethrowers. The film’s opening words belong to Princess Irulan (a new character, played by Florence Pugh), daughter of the Emperor (Christopher Walker), who conspired with a sect of psychic witches called the Bene Gesserit to purge Paul’s clan, the House of Atreides, and hand control over to the Harkonnens, the pale, bald-headed villains of the first movie, led by the Baron (Stellan Skarsgård).

The antagonists are easy to identify; less so the heroes in Herbert’s book series, which tracks the rise of Chalamet’s character — the apocryphal savior, or Kwisatz Haderach — with great skepticism. The movie asks: Is Paul the messiah or merely a self-fulfilling prophecy? Could centuries-old religious beliefs have been implanted with the express purpose of manipulating the masses? While it’s satisfying to see Paul get his revenge in “Part Two,” he’s tormented by visions of the holy war to come and right to question his own destiny.

Like both Anakin Skywalker and his son Luke in the “Star Wars” series (which Herbert’s “Dune” obviously inspired, even though George Lucas beat it to the big screen), this powerful leader is drawn to the dark side. The morality of “Dune” isn’t nearly so binary, and many will miss — or else misinterpret — the deeply ambivalent tone of the movie’s final minutes. What looks like triumph could well be a turn for the worse.

No one would fault you for struggling to keep things straight on Arrakis, the remote, water-starved planet otherwise known as “Dune.” Practically everything here has two names, for this is a world of diametrically opposed peoples with competing languages, some guttural (like the deep, unsettling blast that barks “Power over spice … is power over all” before the shield-like Warner Bros. logo even appears), others silent, communicated via hand signs.

Herbert’s dense novel can be a daunting slog for the average reader, who can’t tell a Sandworm from a Sardaukar — which is one of the reasons Villeneuve’s approach felt like such a breakthrough: It pared the mythology down to something manageable, serving up visceral action set-pieces at regular intervals. The movie air-dropped audiences in a world where foreign customs, politics and technology had long been established, never letting the complexity of those elements slow down the storytelling.

That’s not to say Villeneuve’s “Dune” movies are fast-paced. Channeling the austerity of Andrei Tarkovsky at times, the director takes nearly five hours to cover what David Lynch did in just slightly more than two (though iconic in some respects, the now badly dated 1984 version barely scratched the surface of Herbert’s concerns). If “Part Two” feels slow in places, it’s because Villeneuve takes time to develop the connection between characters, as in a handful of scenes dedicated to Fremen warrior Chani (Zendaya) and Paul, aka Muad’Dib (or Usul), whose undeniable attraction doesn’t align with Jessica’s plans for her son.

Paul may be some kind of Messiah, but the movie puts Chani on equal footing, siding with the Fremen rebels as the Harkonnens launch wave after wave of soldiers to extinguish these “rats.” Considering where the story leads, however, Villeneuve clearly intends to suggest — and subvert — some of the racial dynamics back on earth, casting darker skinned characters in Fremen roles (the group is led by Javier Bardem, who leans into Stilgar’s thick accent), while questioning Paul’s white savior arc. Stilgar himself is Paul’s most enthusiastic follower, putting him through several exciting tests, which include riding a sandworm and drinking the toxic blue Water of Life.

Those trials engage, largely because Villeneuve invests equal time in Paul’s emotional evolution, reflected in the night-and-day transformation between the callow young man seen at the beginning of “Dune” and the assertive, even domineering persona Chalamet puts forth in this film. Villeneuve works closely with DP Greig Fraser to orchestrate striking contrasts, cutting between light and dark, wide macro views of sun-scorched Arrakis and more intimate close-ups, even going so far as to check in on the fetus Jessica is carrying. In one prophetic flash-forward, Paul stands face-to-face with his sister (played by an uncredited Anya Taylor-Joy), though the events of the film take place entirely before her birth.

The more significant new character here is the na-Baron, Feyd-Rautha (a hairless Austin Butler, assuming the role previously made iconic by Sting, his teeth blackened behind a diabolical smile). Unlike his uncle, who’s constantly soaking his bloated body in oily spa treatments, the ferocious na-Baron appears to have been chiseled out of marble, gleaming white during the gladiator match that marks one of the film’s high points. Given his own proximity to power, it’s no wonder the Bene Gesserit (especially Charlotte Rampling’s Reverend Mother) position him as a rival prospect in their own shadow games. It’s this matriarchal cabal, from which Paul’s mother Jessica also hails, that pull the strings in “Dune.”

Audiences spoiled by TV series such as “The Sopranos,” “Succession” and “Game of Thrones,” which juggled intricate strategizing with explosive confrontations over runs of many years, will find in Villeneuve’s multi-part saga a satisfaction few films can offer. It’s an enormous gamble, given the expense of creating at this scale, and a vote of confidence in cinema, which still hasn’t recovered to the pre-pandemic level where the franchise was conceived. The fate of far more than Arrakis is riding on “Dune.”

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