Section: Arts

Review: Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part Two” is a cinematic marvel

“Dune: Part Two” is a tragedy. It is not a hero’s journey — contrary to what previous adaptations such as David Lynch’s 1984 film have made Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel out to be. But it is easy to misconstrue the original story as such because the plot of Dune has much in common with a classic hero’s journey. The book follows the rise of a young hero named Paul Attreides — played by Timothée Chalamet — who, amid great hardship, assumes power and seeks to restore peace to a world in the throes of violence. Despite these superficial resemblances, director Denis Villeneuve created an adaptation of the book that follows Paul’s tragic fall rather than his rise. In this respect, “Dune: Part Two” is a triumph of an adaptation, made all the more successful by sweeping cinematography and sets that are truly incomparable.  

What makes this adaptation faithful to Herbert’s intentions while also translating a lore-crammed science fiction novel to a wider audience is the change Villeneuve made to one character: Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica. Women are essential to the novel, but their roles as religious leaders and concubines are subtle and calculating in a world dominated by a patriarchal imperial order. Villeneuve amplifies Lady Jessica’s character to make explicit the unfolding of Paul’s tragic fate. Lady Jessica, played by Rebecca Ferguson in a truly outstanding performance, has a feverish, volatile ambition to make Paul the messiah of the Fremen people. She accomplishes this by preying upon fundamentalist Fremen believers who are eager for the prophecy to be fulfilled. Thus, Paul’s triumphant ascent to the role of the Fremen Messiah is tainted by Lady Jessica’s manipulation of millions. In fulfilling his mother’s wishes — which are connected to a multi-generational scheme crafted by the religious order, the Bene Gesserit, to produce a superhuman who can see the past and future — Paul inevitably brings upon a holy war in which billions of people will die. In both the novel and the film, he is an antichrist who wields religious fanaticism to enact personal revenge against the galactic houses he hates.

Perhaps the weakest part of “Dune: Part Two” is Paul’s lover Chani, played by Zendaya, a character that Villeneuve also changed from the original source material. While Zendaya’s performance was strong, the dialogue between Chani and Paul was weakened by a not-so-subtle directorial voice. Whereas Chani’s purpose in the novel is to echo Lady Jessica’s role as a concubine to Paul’s father, a position which is implicitly powerful but explicitly devoid of any true rank, Chani in “Dune: Part Two” serves as the film’s whining conscience. She frowns and furrows her brow as Paul increasingly accepts the role of messiah and leads her people into a fanatical holy war. The purpose of this change is clear; Villeneuve wants to be sure that the audience does not misinterpret Paul as a hero, but the effect feels like directorial hand-holding. 

Despite this one defect, “Dune: Part Two” is a cinematic spectacle. From the sweeping spice-laced dunes of Arrakis to the monochrome Romanesque arenas of Giedi Prime, the sets are enough to make the film the most epic sci-fi-fantasy since “The Return of the King.” The cinematography, too, captures the barren beauty of the desert planet under an orange moon and the horror of Paul’s visions of famine in the future. Each of these technical components as well as Ferguson’s performance is meticulously calibrated, contributing to an epic film that deftly condemns the messiah figure that is innate to so many stories.

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