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Dune: Part Two review – Denis Villeneuve tries hard to turn high-end pulp into holy writ

This follow-up film is freighted with more self-importance than you would meet in the biblical epics satirised by the Monty Python crew

Dune: Part Two
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Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cert: 12A
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Austin Butler, Florence Pugh, Dave Bautista, Christopher Walken, Léa Seydoux, Souheila Yacoub, Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, Javier Bardem
Running Time: 2 hrs 46 mins

The most startling moment in Denis Villeneuve’s continuing slog through distant deserts – a project that lives to startle – comes with an accidental (maybe) allusion to Monty Python’s Life of Brian. We shan’t spoil, but you can probably guess it has something to do with the pressures of being appointed Messiah.

Though Javier Bardem, back as the Freman bruiser Silgar, is allowed his moments of levity, Dune: Part Two is freighted with more self-importance than you met in the biblical epics Python satirised. Those had colour, zest and Gina Lollobrigida peeling grapes erotically for half-naked Yul Brynner.

Dune: Part Two has near-monochrome, piety and Zendaya, wrapped up in fatigues, pounding the desert with a similarly martial Timothée Chalamet. (No harm to Zendaya, who is fast emerging a star of the old school.) As the earlier films sought to smuggle smut into sacred texts, the current project looks to be attempting the reverse journey: turning high-end pulp into holy writ. Just look how madder fans have already reacted to a lone negative review of Part Two – traduce not the Book of (Frank) Herbert!

This is not quite a negative review. Villeneuve has a singular flair for enormousness, and it would take a weary brain not to revel at the confidence of his achievement here. We hardly need to reprise the plot in detail. Paul Atreides (Chalamet), exiled duke of the house that bears his surname, is now among the desert people known as Fremen. He has learned how to ride their giant worms. He has made friends with Zendaya’s plucky warrior.


Elsewhere, a host of stars – some returning, some signed in the transfer period – are plotting at the court of Emperor Shaddam (Christopher Walken). Florence Pugh is unsmiling as the emperor’s daughter. Charlotte Rampling is back veiled as the reverend mother. Léa Seydoux is barely there as the Wodehousely named Lady Margot Fenring.

“The Bryllis ran swiftly on five legs, using the other two to send out crylon vibrations,” Raymond Chandler famously wrote in his satire on contemporaneous science fiction. Whether you care or care not about all this space-opera hoo-ha, it can’t be denied that Villeneuve has devised dazzling visual signatures for the contrasting worlds and warring societies. One may not emerge whistling Hans Zimmer’s meteorological score – part hurricane, part malfunctioning car alarm – but one is tempted to hum along to that achingly elegant design, even if it is impossible (and I honestly tried) to avoid the cliche that compares such things to perfume commercials. Don’t you see Zendaya and Chalamet on screens as you walk through duty free on the way to the gate? Well, you damn well should.

The chatter and intrigue are aimed at arranging a showdown between Paul and the intergalactically malign Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen. The distinction between how that role is handled here and how it worked in David Lynch’s much-maligned 1984 Dune says much about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the projects. Sting was funny in underpants. Austin Butler, speaking in an eerily impressive impersonation of Stellan Skarsgård, who plays the character’s uncle, finds a mean place between ice and electricity as he slices his way through errant underlings. Butler relishes the opportunity, but his creation is more of an inorganic energy than a sentient being.

Ultimately, we end up with an abundance of craft and a forest of lore wrapped around personal narratives too flimsy to sustain marching feet. Chalamet is a good actor. He was perfect as the fraught cannibal in Bones and All. But he doesn’t have enough gears to shift from confused dauphin to compromised tyrant. His hero is more than a very naughty boy, but he’s not yet the Messiah (or Napoleon, for that matter).

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist