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Dune: Part Two is an impressive spin on religion and activism, all wrapped up in a science fiction sheen.

Messiah Complex

Paul and Chani get some yellow sun
Paul and Chani get some yellow sun

It’s not particularly fair to state Part Two is “better” than Part One, it’s simply the second half of Frank Herbert’s book is more interesting — maybe even more exciting — than the first half.

The first part centered around a rather traditional, corporate narrative, a clash between empires — House Harkonnen and House Atreides — seeking control of a treasured product: the spice harvested on the planet Arrakis.

With clan Atreides annihilated in Part One, Part Two opens with a bonfire of the humanities. It’s a massive funeral pyre carrying with it the darkness of the Holocaust. It’s a powerful visual start to what grows into a much more pointed exploration of belief systems, all while telling its own messiah story.

That messiah is Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet, Wonka), who’s troubled by dreams depicting a disastrous future and mysterious people yet to enter his life. That messiah story is also what fuels a lot of names and ideas that can be off-putting to those who haven’t charged through Frank Herbert’s butt-breaker of a novel, the first of six Herbert wrote. His son, Brian — an executive producer on this movie — has, along with collaborator Kevin J. Anderson, written an astounding 18 additional books. They tell stories exploring different facets of the world and the characters like so many of the Star Trek and Star Wars books lining those old-school bookshelves and Amazon lists.

Given all that source material, Part Two sets the stage for a massive holy war and it ends with all the pieces in place for the next book (Dune Messiah). Villeneuve’s already confirmed the script is well in hand. It just needs a little more work.

It Is Written

“Want to control people? Tell them a messiah will come!” That’s an assertion made by Chani (Zendaya, Spider-Man: No Way Home) and it’s part of the fuel that drives Part Two to a fresh level of relevance that makes it a strikingly timely movie.

“It’s not a prophecy. It’s a story.”

But stories handed down through the generations are at the core of belief systems, traditions and other facets of life.

Therein the battle lines are drawn within the Fremen people, the indigenous peoples of Dune who have been terrorized and massacred by the Harkonnen and their blood lust to control the spice. The geography and the Fremen are divided into a North and South demarcation, with the southern fundamentalists among those who fervently believe a messiah will come to save them from their living hell and bring back trees — bring back life — to the harsh landscapes.

The layers get more interesting as Paul struggles with his own fate. If one were to believe in the messiah, he must be a Fremen. Arrakis must be freed by one of its own people.

Paul comes from a privileged, well-to-do background. He’s not a Fremen, but he wants to learn their ways and blend in. And that’s where a large chunk of Part Two’s narrative places its focus: on the transformation of young, rather frail Paul Atreides into Paul Maud Dib Usul, a master strategist and a leader of people.

The power of faith and the ease with which something seemingly divergent from an expectation can be brought back in line with the desired reality — “The Mahdi is too humble to admit he is the Mahdi” — make for fascinating and wholly unexpected philosophical, theoretical and evangelical themes in a big-budget sci-fi movie featuring giant sandworms. Mystical elements — including some creepy, haunting imagery of various religious rituals — add to the atmosphere.

Sandwalk With Me

Feyd-Rautha gets some black sun
Feyd-Rautha gets some black sun

Both of Villeneuve’s Dune movies are impressive feats of filmmaking, there’s no doubt about that. Shot on location in Jordan and Abu Dhabi, some of the cinematography by Greig Fraser (The Batman) is exquisite and some of the landscapes are enhanced with some well-done visual effects. But, given the movie was shot with “IMAX-certified” cameras, it’s a little disappointing the imagery doesn’t capture the crispness seen in other IMAX presentations, such as Oppenheimer.

Nonetheless, there are still plenty of visuals to admire in Dune: Part Two. One of the best and most interesting ideas involves the planet of House Harkonnen, Giedi Prime. It’s a planet with a black sun and — quite cleverly — the outdoor scenes are in black-and-white. It’s a really nice touch. Especially as the characters move indoors and more colors are revealed.

As with Villeneuve’s other movies (including Blade Runner 2049), there are issues with the pacing. Even with more action and more explosions (and a remarkably loud IMAX soundtrack), Part Two is a bit of a slog. But Part Two still stands as perhaps Villeneuve’s strongest production so far given the emotional resonance it creates with the challenges around religious fervor and a heartbreaking twist in Paul’s romance with Chani.

Part Two benefits from the introduction of more characters — and an impressive cast that brings them to life. Topping the list, of course, is Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone) as the Emperor Shaddam IV. But there’s also Florence Pugh (Oppenheimer) as Princess Irulan, Lea Seydoux (No Time to Die) as Lady Margot Fenring and Anya Taylor-Joy (Last Night in Soho) as Alia Atreides.

And Austin Butler (Elvis) enters the fray as a bald, eyebrowless, toothless and ruthless Feyd-Rautha. He’s quite the menace and a formidable foe to Paul, one who could’ve used a little more screen time to up the anxiety and chip and shatter some of the movie’s density.