Producers: Mary Parent, Cale Boyter,  Patrick McCormick, Tanya Lapointe and Denis Villeneuve   Director: Denis Villeneuve   Screenplay: Denis Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts   Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Austin Butler, Stellan Skarsgård, Florence Pugh, Dave Bautista, Christopher Walken, Léa Seydoux, Souheila Yacoub and Charlotte Rampling  Distributor: Warner Bros.

Grade: B+

When we last saw him, back in 2021, at the close of Part One of Denis Villeneuve’s sumptuous adaptation of Frank Herbert’s famous 1965 novel, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) had been victorious in a ritual swordfight-to-the-death with Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun), a hostile Fremen warrior in the desert wastes of Arrakis.  Paul’s father Leo, who’d been assigned by Emperor Shaddam (Christopher Walken) to govern the planet, had been killed by the ruthless Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), who again assumed guardianship of the sole source of invaluable Spice.  Determined to exterminate the House Atreides, he had Paul and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) dropped in the desert to die. 

But they had made contact with the tribe of Fremen led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and, as a result of Paul’s success in defeating Jamis, were taken in by them as refugees, with Paul quickly attracting the eye of warrior Chani (Zendaya), as well as leading the religious Stilgar to suspect that he might be the desert people’s long-awaited chosen one.

As Part Two opens, Paul has been accepted by the Fremen as a warrior, though the tribes are split about whether he is truly the prophesied savior.  Meanwhile the Baron has handed day-to-day operation of the mines on Arrakis to his brutal nephew Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista), who is charged with restoring Spice production against Fremen harassment.  But his tactics have proven ineffective, and the rebellion continues. 

Paul is intent on avenging his father, destroying House Harkonnen, and assuming imperial power himself.  To do so he debates accepting recognition as the chosen one despite his insistence that he is not the predicted messiah—a strategy his pregnant mother, a member of the priestesses known as the Bene Gesserit, encourages and the devout Stilgar supports, despite the misgivings of Chani.  Meanwhile the Baron, weary of Glossu Raban’s incompetence, plans to replace him with his more cunning, though no less bloodthirsty, younger brother Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler). 

The outcome is a rebel assault on the Harkonnens while the emperor is visiting Arrakis, which culminates in another swordfight, this time between Paul and the well-muscled Feyd-Rautha, and an announcement by Paul involving the emperor’s daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), who has served as a quasi-narrator throughout.

Such in a nutshell is the narrative of “Dune: Part Two,” although there are other subsidiary characters like Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), the erstwhile general of the Atreides military who survived the Baron’s assault and reunites with his former student Paul, and other priestesses of the Bene Gesserit (Léa Seydoux and Charlotte Rampling) whose loyalty is to the imperial house.  Important subplots are also involved, like the mysterious Water of Life, which Jessica imbibes, awakening her unborn child and allowing her to converse with the fetus.  Paul’s decision to drink of the liquid, which is considered fatal for males, is also an integral element in the development of his mythic status. 

Like its predecessor, this is less a popcorn “Star Wars”-like space adventure than a quasi-art film disguised as popular entertainment.  That doesn’t mean that it lacks exciting action sequences, both battles between armies and hand-to-hand combat, but that the emphasis is on mood and suggestion.  In that respect it’s not unlike the first Hollywood crack at the book, David Lynch’s woeful 1984 film, which reflected its director’s idiosyncratic vision but was hacked and undone by interference from its backers.  Villeneuve also represents a distinctive voice—notice, for example, how he achieves many of his effects through indirection, requiring viewers to fill in imaginatively things they’re shown only in part (Paul’s initial attempt to ride a huge sand worm, a sequence mostly shrouded in flying sand, is a good example)—but he benefits from a carte blanche apparently given him by Warner Bros., which seems willing to extend to him the free hand they once gave to Kubrick.  The result is an action film marked more by atmosphere and ambience than by conventional tent-pole moviemaking of the Marvel manner.

The approach does have drawbacks.  It can, for example, lead to a curious indifference to clear transitions (there’s one point, when Paul is undergoing an initial survival test, when one might swear a reel has been dropped), or a lack of clarity (Paul’s strategy for the final battle is laid out briefly in a conference with his allies, but when it actually comes, it’s pretty much a moody blur).  But the narrative ambiguities that Villeneuve and editor Joe Walker contrive are turned into a virtue, accentuating the hallucinatory quality of the story itself.  And when it’s necessary for the movie to deliver a straightforward action moment—like the fight between Paul and Feyd-Rautha—it does so, though without setting aside its unusual look.

That’s attributable not only to Villeneuve’s visual sense, and to the exceptional work of production designer Patrice Vermette and costumer Jacqueline West, but to the painterly widescreen cinematography by Greig Fraser, who uses the desert locations evocatively.  The lavish special effects have been seamlessly integrated into the live-action images, and Hans Zimmer’s ominous score transcends his customary banality.                     

Villeneuve has also chosen his cast wisely.  Chalamet’s slight stature might at first not seem right for Paul, but in fact he corresponds well to Herbert’s description of the character, and his physique emphasizes the unlikelihood of the character’s success; of course his soulfulness is entirely appropriate.  And though one might cringe at Zendaya’s shows of petulance, she gets by.  All the rest are fine, but one might single out Bardem’s scraggily loyal Stilgar, Skarsgård’s bulbously loathsome Baron, and Butler’s preening, sadistic Feyd-Rautha.

The initial installment of Villeneuve’s “Dune” ended inconclusively, of course, but it was, after all, advertised as Part One (although, at the time, whether Part Two would be made was entirely dependent on the first picture’s financial success; after all, there had been plans for sequels to Lynch’s version, but they were quickly scuttled).  The close of Part Two will probably come as a letdown to viewers who are not familiar with the book franchise; it boasts a throne room sequence, but one whose mood is utterly different from the celebratory, heroic tone of the medal-award reception sequence that ends “Star Wars: A New Hope,” and is then followed by a postscript that points to division, not unity. 

That’s the inevitable result of the fact that Herbert’s book pointed toward the further discord he planned for its sequels.  Whether Villeneuve will continue the narrative beyond this film remains up in the air, and even if he does, it will probably be rather far off.  For the moment, if one wants to follow the story without the onerous work of reading, your only choice is the 2003 continuation John Harrison made to his small-screen 2000 version of “Dune” for what was then called the Sci-Fi Channel: “Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune,” which combined the narratives of Herbert’s two follow-ups, “Dune Messiah” and “Children of Dune.”

That mini-series and its predecessor were, of course, rather small-scaled and prosaic compared with Villeneuve’s extravagant effort.  But while devotees must accept the incompleteness, his two films, taken together, represent a visionary imagining of Herbert’s book on screen, which fans will relish even as others may wonder whether it merited such loving treatment.