Film Society x The Student: “Dune: Part Two”

Caden Stockwell ’25 offers his critique of “Dune: Part Two,” arguing the sequel fails to gain momentum and only offers setup for the next movie.

Film Society x The Student: “Dune: Part Two”
Caden Stockwell ’25 reviews Denis Villeneueve’s new film, “Dune: Part Two,” the sequel to 2021’s “Dune: Part One.” Photo courtesy of

Premiering three years after the release of “Dune: Part One” (2021), Denis Villeneueve’s sequel “Dune: Part Two” (2024) picks up right where its predecessor left off. Adapted from Frank Herbert’s novels, “Dune: Part Two” follows the journey of Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet, as he attempts to unite the Fremen, the native inhabitants of the desert planet Arrakis, against the nebulous House Harkonnen, the ruling imperial force on the planet.

Following two and a half hours of setup from the first film, “Dune: Part Two” jumps right into the action, much more propulsively than its predecessor. Paul proves himself capable to the Fremen, learns their customs, and overcomes a series of challenges. He also develops a romance with Chani (Zendaya), a mysterious Fremen woman who in the first “Dune” was the subject of many of Paul’s visions. While Paul initially insists that he is not the messiah prophesied to bring prosperity to Arrakis, others, most notably Stilgar (Javier Bardem), insist that he is. Paul adopts his Fremen name Muad’Dib, and while Stilgar and the Fremen see him as their savior due to an ancient prophecy, the film tells us through Paul’s visions of countless dead bodies and the looming, almost horror-esque score, that this story is only headed for disaster.

While “Dune: Part Two” remains largely captivating throughout its two hour and 45 minute runtime, I found the plot messy and uneven. The film starts off running but loses steam as it goes on and falls apart narratively. It flutters between past, present, and future with a cacophony of visions and memories, but lacks anything to keep the viewer grounded. Plot lines and characters are quickly cut off after they’re introduced, only to be hurriedly replaced by uninteresting new ones.

A key example of this is antagonist Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (Austin Butler), who arrives with a bang in perhaps the strongest scene in the film, establishing his character as a menacing presence. However, Feyd-Rautha’s potential as a major villain quickly fizzes out and he plays a minimal role in the rest of the story. Butler is far from the only underutilized actor in the film: Florence Pugh, Stellan Skarsgard, and Lea Seydoux all have what are essentially bit roles. Anya Taylor-Joy is in the film just long enough for audiences to ask, “Is that Anya Taylor-Joy?” before promptly disappearing. However, these actors do make the most out of their minuscule screen time, which cannot be said for the leads.

Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya were clearly miscast in their respective roles. Zendaya can’t escape the one facial expression she holds throughout the film and is far too recognizably a movie star, from her appearance to her mannerisms, to plausibly pass as an ordinary, humble Fremen. Chalamet is similarly miscast, lacking the charm required for the role. In many ways, “Dune” is a cautionary tale about the allure of charismatic figures — one that fails because Chalamet is not very charismatic. He’s mopey and burdened by visions of a horrific future but is never plausible as a figure that would attract devotion from millions.

One defense of the film is that the specificity of narrative and performance doesn’t matter all that much. After all, the “Dune” saga is a spectacle; it’s the imagery that matters most. As Villeneuve himself recently said, “I don’t remember movies because of a good line, I remember movies because of a strong image. I’m not interested in dialogue at all. Pure image and sound, that is the power of cinema.” It’s an interesting sentiment, and one that would be much stronger if his own images weren’t so boring. The film lacks every key tenet of visual storytelling, and instead creates pretty pictures without any meaning or substance. Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser use scale as a cheap substitute for interesting framing and blocking, making the film’s visual language flat and monotonous. On the other hand, David Lynch’s flawed but far superior adaptation of “Dune” (1984) contains a much more expressive and creative visual landscape filled with surrealist imagery and expressive, colorful environments. The oft-mocked special effects in Lynch’s film have infinitely more life than anything in Villeneuve’s dull and realist interpretation of the far future.

The one exception comes in Feyd-Rautha’s aforementioned introduction scene. The scene is set on the planet of Geidi Prime, which orbits around a black sun, creating a stark black and white outdoor landscape. The transition from color to black and white as characters move from indoor to outdoors is subtle and effective, and it’s a fun and interesting visual shift from the dry orange hues of the rest of the film with a compelling in-universe explanation. It’s the kind of imaginative and creative choice the rest of the film is sorely lacking.

The other aspects of the film’s craft aren’t much stronger than its imagery. A prime example is Hans Zimmer’s obnoxious and blaring score. It’s certainly loud, but no amount of droning noise can substitute for genuine tension or excitement, both of which are missing from much of the film.

Some of the film’s unappealing qualities could be defended as simply being flaws of Frank Herbert’s novel. To that I would say that a good adaptation should fix the failings of its source material. “Dune” was no doubt a revolutionary and influential text that created a well-realized fantasy world, but at some point we have to acknowledge that its story isn’t particularly well-told. What the film needs is an auteur unafraid to alter the original to fit their own vision, not a dry journeyman like Villeneuve.

As a continuation of the first movie, “Dune: Part Two,” in theory, should be all payoff and no setup. Unfortunately, by the end of the film the audience is only left with the message that, once again, things are only just beginning. Although there is a third part coming, it was upsetting to see that after two and a half hours of setup in the last film, “Dune: Part Two” is essentially just another three hours of setup. I can only hope that the upcoming adaptation of “Dune: Messiah” will finally deliver on the promise of the first two films, but I won’t hold my breath.