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“Dune: Part Two” review: bigger, wormier and far away

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Herbert’s novel is a superb, juicy slice of bookmaking, a meticulously detailed and pleasantly gripping fantasy about belief and doubt, survival and struggle, idealism and nihilism. Herbert was a world builder par excellence and he drew on astonishment references to create a fantasy realm. The results are unusual enough to inspire curiosity and, at times, a sense of wonder, even as the story maintains a connection to reality outside its pages. It’s a dense palimpsest, with influences ranging from Greek mythology to Shakespearean tragedy and Jungian psychology. Many times, particularly in its depictions of a hostile environment and religious fanaticism, it can also feel like a warning for the present.

Villeneuve’s approach to adapting the novel is actually one of judicious distillation. Like the first film, “Part Two” moves the plot forward fluidly (it’s easy to follow), through dialogue and action sequences that are true to the spirit of the book, to its arc overall narrative, its atmosphere and its strangeness. The dialogue feels natural, even when characters throw out names like the Bene Gesserit, the mysterious religious sisterhood that takes on greater importance in “Part Two.” Just as importantly, the action sequences don’t drag the movie down or make the rest irrelevant. Mainstream adventure films often alternate between expository sequences and action sequences with tiresome predictability; here, everything flows.

“Dune” is ultimately a war story, like many contemporary films, and it’s not long into “Part Two” before bodies start falling. In the fast-paced first episode, Harkonnen soldiers, led by a bald screamer named Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista), descend onto the desert floor from their flying machines. Wearing bulky uniforms that make them appear as heavy as old-school deep-sea divers, the soldiers appear too ungainly to take on the Fremen, agile fighters with parkour moves and goat-like balance. Villeneuve, however, is gifted with surprises and he knows how to manage contrasts – light and dark, immensity and modesty – to create interest and tension. Soon, the Harkonnens jetpack quickly through the air, and off they go.

“Part Two” unfolds with comparable dexterity despite all the heaviness, byzantine complexities and thorny conspiracies shared between the different factions. The sequel brings back a number of familiar faces, including Josh Brolin as Atreides loyalist Gurney Halleck and Stellan Skarsgard as the monstrous Baron. Head of House Harkonnen, the Baron spends much of his time killing his servants or marinating his massively spherical body, often stripped bare, in a vat of what looks like crude oil. Rabban, his inept nephew, is soon eclipsed by the most striking addition to the “Dune” posse, another nephew, Feyd-Rautha, a villainy played by an unrecognizable and utterly frightening Austin Butler.

As spectrally white and seemingly hairless as his uncle, Feyd-Rautha resembles a bulky worm. He is a warrior and just as evil as his uncle. Yet he’s not the usual gendered antihero despite Butler’s curves of muscles and sultry pout, and the character remains a worrying narrative question mark. Feyd-Rautha becomes Paul’s challenger, but he also serves as a counterpart to the enormous sandworms that travel beneath the surface of Arrakis and produce the planet’s invaluable natural resource, known as melange or spice. As crucial as oil, as addictive as smack, spices sparkle like pixie dust, alter minds, turn eyes bright blue, but above all they keep this universe running – and boiling violently.

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