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Dune: Part Two review – sci-fi sequel is immense, breathtaking wonder

<span>From ‘cheeky whippersnapper to feared <br>warrior’: Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides <br>in Dune: Part Two. </span><span>Photograph: Niko Tavernise/Warner Brothers</span>
From ‘cheeky whippersnapper to feared
warrior’: Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides
in Dune: Part Two.
Photograph: Niko Tavernise/Warner Brothers

If there’s another blockbuster this year that matches the visual impact of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two, I’ll eat my desert boots. The second Dune instalment is jaw-on-the-floor spectacular. It elegantly weaves together top-tier special effects and arresting cinematography; it layers muscle, sinew and savagery on to the bones of Part One. It’s an inhospitable, brutal kind of beauty that Villeneuve has created – there’s not enough lip balm in the universe to make a visit to the sandblasted wilderness planet of Arrakis look appealing. But this epic action picture, which follows the journey of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) from a cheeky whippersnapper who’s a bit handy with a sword, to a feared warrior, to the prophesied leader of the Fremen tribe of Arrakis, is realised with a retina-searing intensity.

So how is it that Villeneuve has been able to succeed – and make no mistake, Dune: Part Two is an emphatic success – in adapting a book that was long considered to be unfilmable? The breadth and scope of Dune, Frank Herbert’s 1965 far-future saga of interstellar feudal conflict, proved a daunting prospect to previous prospective film-makers. The generous budget available to Villeneuve’s pictures certainly helps – the lack of funds was the factor that sank Alejandro Jodorowsky’s proposed 14-hour film adaptation of the book in the early 1970s. And studio support is another – while Warner Brothers hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory recently, as anyone who has been following the Coyote vs Acme debacle will know, it has at least given Villeneuve the space and freedom to achieve his creative vision (compare this with David Lynch’s less happy experience with his version of Dune, originally intended to run at three hours, then unceremoniously hacked down by nearly 40 minutes). But a crucial element in Villeneuve’s approach, a creative ethos that gels particularly effectively with the material, is his firm commitment to showing rather than telling.

Austin Butler gives a gleefully over-the-top performance channelled through a smile that could strip the skin from your face

A chunk of exposition at the very start of the film, delivered as an entry into the “Imperial Diary’’ and narrated by Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), neatly proves how futile it is to attempt to unpick the intricacies of this densely plotted chronicle. In this case, too much dialogue and plot explanation drain the energy from the picture; it’s far more effective to employ Villeneuve’s preferred tactic of exploring the story visually. This technique occasionally misfires, with some of the transitions between vividly created scenes and set pieces feeling a little cursory and disjointed. But on the whole, it does no harm at all to bathe the audience in heady, colour-saturated atmosphere rather than to spoon-feed them with easily digestible gobbets of plot.

Although Paul is the main focus of the story, this instalment allows other characters to come to the fore, most notably Fremen warrior Chani (an impressive, physically committed performance from the always magnetic Zendaya). But a standout in a supporting role is Austin Butler, playing Feyd-Rautha, the psychopathic nephew of Stellan Skarsgård’s levitating despot, Baron Harkonnen. A vast, seat-shuddering spectacle like this movie is no place for subtlety, and Butler evidently got that particular memo. From the moment he tests the calibre of a freshly sharpened blade with his extended tongue, before trying it on the throat of one of his slaves, he is phenomenal. It’s a gleefully over-the-top performance fuelled by malice and channelled through axe-blade cheekbones and a smile that could strip the skin from your face.

Equally impressive and only slightly less disturbing is Rebecca Ferguson, reprising her role of Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother. Driven by her ambition for her son, and twisted by the gruelling ritual that transforms her into the Reverend Mother of the Fremen, Jessica takes on a chilling ruthlessness, something that Ferguson manages to convey almost entirely through an icily inscrutable gaze and a collection of facial tattoos.

The immense, breathtaking visuals and the grandstanding performances are more than matched by Hans Zimmer’s behemoth of a score. There are passages so thunderous, it sounds as though he somehow harnessed the noise of colliding planets in place of percussion. It’s a fittingly ominous accompaniment to a story that lurches away from passionate idealism, truth and romance, and towards political machinations, betrayals, zealotry, the weaponisation of fear and the looming threat of a devastating religious war. There are moments when Dune: Part Two feels uncomfortably timely.