Latest: Dune: Part Two is a wild, violent masterpiece that changes the plot | CBC News

The only thing you could fault Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 epic Dune for was also, really, the only reason it worked. 

After all, Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel, a mythopoeic, quasi-religious, desertpunk, anti-colonial, anti-demagoguery, speculative history masterpiece, was long deemed pretty much unfilmable. Simply making a cohesive movie out of it is the Hollywood equivalent of splitting the atom — and others have tried.

Already saddled with a faithful but bloated 2000s miniseries, one self-described “failure” of a David Lynch movie and another from surrealist director Alejandro Jodorowsky that was somehow so terrifyingly bizarre it was cancelled when his other 1970s desert nightmare, El Topo, made it to theatres, adaptations of Dune carry some bad blood.

Which is why Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One was an act of movie magic: racking up over $400 million US at the box office, pulling in six Oscars and making an unlikely leading man out of Timothée Chalamet. And it was all based on the director’s ability to ignore an impulse to condense and instead spread a single story over two films releasing years apart.

In the sequel, finally out this week, Villeneuve managed to do it all over again. Dune: Part Two is a towering achievement of artistic vision, clearly crafted by a man with both a deep love for the source material and mastery over his craft. 

The only problem is, like Part One, the only way to accomplish this was to make something that is, for all intents and purposes, not even really a movie. 

WATCH | Dune: Part Two trailer: 

A return to a complex world

Focusing on a single planet caught in the crosshairs of an interstellar feud, Dune follows the powerful Atreides family as it attempts to govern the desert world Arrakis.

The position is particularly valuable to patriarch Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac in Part One) and his son Paul (Chalamet), as Arrakis is the only known source of “spice.” Both a drug and sort-of-but-not-really fuel (forgive me Duneheads, I have a word limit), that substance happens to be the most important resource in the universe. 

The Atreides management of the planet, which was previously controlled by the decidedly more evil Harkonnens (led by Stellan Skarsgård’s fantastically disgusting Baron Harkonnen), is hampered by threats that more than warranted the first book’s four appendices and 30 page glossary.

Paul is up against everything from the indigenous “Fremen,” to the witchlike “Bene Gesserit” sisterhood, Sardaukar, slip-tips, shigawire and, of course, Shai Hulud — the gigantic sandworms that are the source of both spice, and the film’s uncomfortably familiar tie-in popcorn bucket.

The background is a hugely complex and, to the uninitiated, potentially impenetrable wordsoup. But Villeneuve’s genius way around that wasn’t to simplify or substantively change Herbert’s plot; instead, he went the other way.

Stellan Skarsgård appears as Baron Harkonnen in a still from Dune: Part Two. (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Even before he got confirmation that he’d get a sequel, the Québécois director split the novel in two — and the first movie was marketed as simply Dune, without the “part one” that would indicate to audiences that it was part of a franchise.

Dune: Part One, though beautiful and made with obvious intention, operated more as a primer for a hypothetical future film than a self-contained story of its own. Dune: Part Two doesn’t close the loop. Instead, it kicks the can down the road once again — calling for a sequel that might finally tie the whole breathtaking thing together. 

Another beginning

In Part One, the stumbling block was simple: a singular focus on exposition. Because of a need to get movie-goers up to snuff on whose crysknife pierced which Mentat’s stillsuit, we eventually arrive at the end with a better understanding of the characters and world — but at the expense of any fully realized character arc.

Part Two feels similarly awe-inspiring but not quite finished, though for a different reason. It begins with Paul wandering the desert after a violent coup and attempt on his life by the Harkonnens. Forced to take refuge with the Fremen, he falls back on an old trick. 

Having predicted a situation like this, the mystical Bene Gesserit had already seeded the planet with fabricated prophecies of a coming messiah from beyond their world. Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), take advantage of this, positioning Paul as the fabled Lisan al Gaib, come to bring freedom to the Fremen and turn their planet into a lush paradise. 

A woman with bright blue eyes peers out from under a hood. Her face is covered in tattooed letters of a non-english language.
Rebecca Ferguson appears as Dune’s Lady Jessica in a still from the film. (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

That gives Part Two a much more cinematic track to follow: the Avatar, Pocahontas, Fern Gully or Lawrence of Arabia (a direct inspiration for Herbert’s Dune) formula of a turncoat colonial hero come to identify with and save a persecuted population.

But a large reason why Herbert’s novel eventually found such a wide audience is because of a fundamental misunderstanding of its intent. In fixing that, Dune: Part Two now brings a subtext to the fore that demands more closure than it gets.

Dune Messiah is the most misunderstood of Frank Herbert’s novels,” Frank Herbert’s son, Brian, writes in the introduction to Dune‘s sequel — initially hated for the same reasons the original was loved. 

“The second novel in the series flipped over the carefully crafted hero myth of Paul Muad’Dib and revealed the dark side of the messiah phenomenon that had appeared to be so glorious in Dune. Many readers didn’t want that dose of reality.”

Villeneuve, a lifelong Dune fan who carved Paul’s Fremen name into his graduation ring, understood that message: the theme so cleanly following the Bertolt Brecht quote “Unhappy the land that needs heroes,” it’s seemingly echoed in the text as, “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”

WATCH | Québécois director Denis Villeneuve on bringing Dune home:

Dune director Denis Villeneuve on premiering the film in his home province of Quebec

Director Denis Villeneuve attended the Dune: Part Two premiere in Montreal on Wednesday. The French-Canadian filmmaker was born in Quebec and started his career in Canada before directing Hollywood films such as Arrival, Prisoners and Dune.

To get that across, he made his few changes. 

“People were thinking Paul was a hero, [Herbert] wanted to be the opposite. He wanted Paul to be [an] anti-hero,” Villeneuve told CBC at the Montreal premiere. “Me, knowing that, I decided to make my adaptation to be more faithful to Frank Herbert than to the book.”

Dune: Part Two makes its audience directly aware that Paul’s successes aren’t successes; they’re dangerous manipulations. And when you’re not allowed to see his actions as direct Labours of Hercules, but instead actions that exist only to get to the real point of the story, even this masterpiece can’t be called perfect.  

But this is also the movie’s saving grace. Because Villeneuve subtly darkens Paul’s choices and gives vastly more agency to many of Dune‘s women — like Florence Pugh’s Princess Irulan and most vitally Zendaya’s Chani —  Dune: Part Two sets a future movie up to more cleanly, and explosively, confront its major theme.

If and when a sequel — or sequels — stick that landing, Villeneuve’s Dune franchise could be viewed as a flawless triumph. But how do you judge a story without an ending?

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