Thursday, July 18, 2024

After seeing the first installment of Denis Villeneuve’s reenvisioning of Frank Herbert’s beloved sci-fi saga, the prospect of “Dune: Part Two” left me with a modicum of dread. Why? Villeneuve (“Arrival,” “Blade Runner 2049”), who is a competent craftsman and then some, had done well with a rote, by-the-numbers introduction that, while serviceable, didn’t seem to have the gravitas – or the legs – to go above and beyond David Lynch’s much-made-of 1984 version. Plus, who was going to take on the role of the ruthless Feyd-Rautha that Sting made so memorable in the Lynch version, and would Timothée Chalamet’s taciturn and aloof Paul Atreides ever give us a reason to yield up a precious thimble of perspiration? Questions to which we now get answers.

“Part Two” is bigger, a notch better and longer too, mostly because much of the requisite backstory has been dispensed: A feudal empire occupying the desert planet of Arrakis, the only source of melange or spice, a drug that lengthens one’s life and can imbue super-prescient capabilities and space travel via hyper warp. (Call it oil or coca for cocaine and you’d have the precious resource analogy.) The displacement and oppression of the Indigenous folk of the planet – yes, Herbert bridged feudalism and colonialism, for a double fucking of people simply going about their daily lives.

There’s more action in “Part Two” – and more worms – as Chalamet’s Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), transition into the messiah realized and Reverend Mother of the Fremen, the Indigenous people, by drinking the blood of one of those giant sandworms. It’s a crazy acid trip that kills most who decide to drop out and tune in; only those destined by prophecy make it through, or something like that. Paul even gets to ride a worm (far less cheesy than Kyle MacLachlan’s sand surfing back in 1984, but somehow not quite as satisfying). And of course there’s the whole big take-back-the-planet throw-down with the Harkonnens, bad guys led by a grotesque baron (the always excellent Stellan Skarsgård, nearly unrecognizable under makeup and CGI) who violently displaced House Atreides as stewards of Arrakis in “Part One.”

The mega battles are mostly blessedly brief – clearly Villeneuve knew that throngs of shadowy figures wielding knives in a sandstorm wasn’t a sustainable spectacle. The visuals that make it onto the screen are lean, pointed and stunning, some through fine editing and special effects (including beguiling shots of moons and distant planets) as well as scrumptious cinematography by Greig Fraser (“The Mandalorian,” “Zero Dark Thirty”), not only of vast sandscapes but in the gladiatorial arena on the home planet of House Harkonnen, shot in a post-nuclear-blast ashy black-and-white. That’s where the baron’s nephew, Feyd-Rautha, slices up a few Atreides holdovers as part of his birthday celebration. (Feyd-Rautha is played by “Elvis” portrayer Austin Butler, bringing his own bite to the part and looking like one of the pasty, skin-headed war boys out of 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.”)

As far as the casting goes, Chalamet and Ferguson grow in their parts. There was something off about Chalamet in “Part One,” and that lingers some here too; the sum of the parts doesn’t quite add up. Winners are Zendaya getting more screen time as Chani, Paul’s Fremen warrior instructor and love interest; Javier Bardem’s cagey Stilgar, one of the Fremen elders who feels like he could walk into any David Lean-directed desert epic and be at home; Butler; and, in smaller parts as members of the priestess-witch sisterhood known as the Bene Gesserit – Lady Jessica belongs to it – Florence Pugh as the emperor’s daughter, coming into her powers; Charolette Rampling as the Mother Reverend, in consultation with the emperor; and Léa Seydoux, lithe and fawning as Lady Margot, who’s assigned by Rampling’s Mother to ferret out Feyd-Rautha by any charming means possible. The one negative is the casting of Christoper Walken as the emperor. Don’t get me wrong, I love Walken and nearly everything he’s done, but the soft-spoken Jersey boy heavy in outer space doesn’t quite make the warp jump.

With its coveted resource as the plot-triggering core, and a crash-and-burn extraction process, “Dune: Part Two” isn’t far off from an “Avatar” chapter. It has a different ecosystem – desert instead of jungle and water – but the same invasive avarice. It packs in a lot thematically beyond space colonialism, though. Religion comes under scrutiny: Is it a means of pacifying and controlling the masses, as Chani challenges, or can sustained faith lead believers to a better place? As prophecy meets politics, the players in Herbert’s universe reveal themselves to be playing games within games as the ones holding the strings of power vie for legacy and control.

Speaking of the future, just like with “Part One,” the next “Dune” chapter isn’t announced at the film’s conclusion. Rest assured there will be a “Part Three.”

Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.