Monday, February 26, 2024

'Dune: Part II': a stunning epic


 Huge in scale, long in the telling (166 minutes). and sporting arcane references from author Frank Herbert's landmark 1965 sci-fi novel, Dune: Part II has arrived. Don’t fret. Director Denis Villeneuve, who released Part One in 2023, delivers a movie with enough visionary heft and action to justify its epic scope.
  I thought Villeneuve's initial effort represented a marked improvement over David Lynch's 1984 sci-fi foray into Duneland, making the most of a drama steeped in intrigue and boasting enough bizarre-looking characters to sustain several otherworldly parade floats.
   More action-oriented than Part One and benefiting from cinematographer Grieg Fraser's stunning desert imagery, Part Two tells a story even non-fans should be able to follow as opposing planets in a vast galactic empire vie for control of melange, a rare spice that serves as an emblem of power.
   In this edition, we spend more time with the Fremen, desert dwellers of Arrakis, the planet where spice is mined and refined and where the heartless Harkonnen have become an occupying force.
    Much of the movie involves efforts by Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) to earn a place among the Fremen. Paul wants to join their fight against the Harkonnen, led by the blubberous Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard).
   Eventually, the Baron unleashes his nephew Feyd-Rautha, a sneering, sadistic villain brought to frighteningly sharp life by Austin Butler.
    Villeneuve keeps a large supporting cast from swamping the various throughlines. A dust-covered Javier Bardem adds humor to his portrayal of Fremen leader Stilgar. Dave Bautista brings bulky menace to the role of Beast Rabban, another Harkonnen sadist, and a subdued Christopher Walken turns up as the emperor who presides over a vast planetary imperium. Josh Brolin returns as Paul's one-time mentor.
    With all that out of the way, let's get to the heart of the movie, provided by Chalomet and Zendaya, who plays the Fremen warrior Chani, a young woman dedicated to ridding the Fremen of oppressive colonial rule. 
     Paul, who earns the Fremen name Usul, and Chani fall in love, allowing the movie to raise questions about Paul’s loyalties. Is he for Fremen freedom or will he use their belief in him to augment his power? Can the aristocratic Paul be trusted by the justifiably suspicious masses?
    Much is made about whether Paul might be the messiah some of  the more fervent Fremen have been awaiting, allowing the movie to touch on additional issues concerning the dangerous ways religious and political aspiration can corrupt each other.
    The stakes may be starkly drawn, but characters are nicely shaded. Rebecca Ferguson returns as Paul's mother, encouraging his ambitious side and sometimes finding herself at odds with her son.
     Part Two thrives on scale, booming set-pieces (a gladiatorial battle with, alas, a crowd that looks CIG-generated), and the summoning of giant sandworms that live beneath the surface of Arrakis and are the source of melange, the spice with near-miraculous powers.
       For all its intricacies, betrayals, and plotting, the story retains its thematic resonance. What moral prices must be paid to control the spice.
      Now, after almost six hours of movie, Dune isn't finished. Questions remain for Paul, Chani, and the entire empire. Expect Part Three. I find that a bit dispiriting. If a story can't be told in six hours, maybe it's a miniseries.
      But the world of Dune remains intriguingly complex, full of characters whose roles shift and evolve. Credit Villeneuve with filling the screen with enough exotic flavor and bold action to keep Dune vividly alive through two helpings. 
      There's no reason to think he couldn't do the same in a third.

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