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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

‘Dune: Part Two’ (2024)

Cinema can provide an escape from reality and science fiction is supposed to foretell the future. You have to choose your film wisely, however, whilst that genre as often explores the present. Thus it is that Denis Villeneuve’s sequel, an immersive continuation of his earlier epic, features fantastic technology and exotic settings but also religious division, separatist wars and bitter enmity. Fortunately there is also room for love, and for awe.

“All died in the dark”, we are told at the start of a screenplay written by Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts via a diary entry by the Emperor’s daughter, Irulan (Florence Pugh). She is reflecting on the slaughter of House Atreides seen in the previous chapter and the point is rammed home by grim scenes of flamethrowers and piles of bodies. The imagery is powerful and sets up the theme of brutality that runs throughout the film. With the victorious House Harkonen now installed as overseers of Arrakis, the fleeing heir Paul Atreides and his mother Jessica – pregnant with his sister – are being grudgingly accommodated by the indigenous Fremen. Grudgingly, because some of these desert-dwellers see Paul as the fabled leader who will help them rise up and retake Arrakis whereas others, including his soon-to-be lover Chani, are rather less convinced. This spiritual split emerges in parallel to and as enrichment of the high-level duelling between dynasties seen so far, and is welcome even if it also introduces a choppy pacing that goes on to bedevil the film.

The narrative scope narrows briefly even as the visual ambition widens in a tense pursuit and combat scene in which a patrol of black-clad Harkonen troops hunt Paul and Jessica in the deep desert. The genuinely breathtaking method by which the soldiers escape – at least initially – from the threat of counter-attack shows Villeneuve’s awareness of the possibilities of his chosen medium to thrill. He is equally alive to those quiet passages, though, in which the mother-son relationship played by a still-impressive Rebecca Ferguson and still-lacking Timothée Chalamet acquires added depth but also added tension, with Jessica taking her own side in the battles to come. Here Villeneuve’s framing of Ferguson – tightly, vulnerably – emphasises the actress’s resemblance to Chalamet and her willingness to surrender to the exposure of IMAX-compatible shooting.  Chalamet, meanwhile, does have some simple but effectively played sequences with Zendaya as Chani whose emotional charge did move me.

These characters are seen exclusively within the Fremen community this time round, placed by Villeneuve, his cinematographer Greig Fraser and production designer Patrice Vermette in a series of stone and mud brick enclosures that emphasise intimacy and nature. Often lit only from above, they make up the underground habitat termed a sietch – extraordinarily, in light of my opening paragraph, the word seems to have Ukrainian roots. Filming took place in Abu Dhabi and Namibia, though the Berber cave dwellings of Tunisia (think the Lars home in Star Wars) and Orientalist art of the nineteenth century, particularly the work of Frenchman Jean-Léon Gérôme, are probable influences on the set design. The blizzard of sound and dust that accompanies the feat of worm-riding, faced and of course overcome by Paul in a key scene, is handsomely mounted albeit curiously underplayed. There is then a deal of very convincing world-building here, aided by the immensity of the IMAX presentation I experienced, even if the wildly-varying quality of the finished image – now grainy, now perfect, now grey, now warm – starts to present another barrier to full enjoyment.

A presumably more intentional shift in tone occurs when the action moves to Giedi Prime, home world of the Harkonen, imagined here not as the verdigris steampunk of David Lynch’s 1984 adaption of Frank Herbert’s novel but the harshly monochrome world of a death cult, in which a sea of chalk-white faces worship beneath a black sun as Feyd-Rautha Harkonen (Austin Butler) despatches the last of the Atreides retainers in a gigantic arena. The look is merciless, disturbing, indeed almost upsetting in its intensity, like ancient Rome channelled by H. R. Geiger. Infra-red filming and more of Hans Zimmer’s growling, rasping score contributes to this truly dark atmosphere.

Arrival of the Emperor – played, unexpectedly, by Christopher Walken – and his army on Arrakis increases the powerplay aspects but presented further challenges to my reading of the storylining. Combined with that visual inconsistency, the overall effect became one of butt-joined segments instead of a smoothly integrated whole. That said, the mirror-finished imperial ship and the ‘tent’ extruded from it are impressive, and provide an obvious clash of texture and technology when they are assaulted by the worm-riding Fremen for the climax. With the other great Houses advancing and Paul embracing his version of the native prophecy and becoming, it is heavily hinted, a fanatic himself, the path is set for the ‘holy war’ warned of in a final voice over.

This is an absorbing feast of a film. It has a real sense of the other when it comes to places and, mostly, those who inhabit them, and the gentler scenes at the outset are balanced by the ferocity of the ideological action later. Villeneuve brings a European feel to proceedings that seems oddly appropriate, including a visual style that nods to everything from Moebius to punk rock (Pugh’s costume at several points appears to echo that of Hazel O’Connor in Breaking Glass). It isn’t perfect, by any means, yet I opened my earlier review by hoping for part two and by the time the closing credits rolled I very much wished to see part three. Long live the fighters.

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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