Life & Culture

Dune Part 2, review: the photography goes beyond the line in the sand


Desert storm: a typically dramatic scene from the latest instalment of Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi epic Credit: Warner Bros Pictures


If ever a movie gloried in a vision thing then it is the second part of director Denis Villeneuve’s Dune saga based on Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novels. There are scenes and sequences that inspire awe and not since David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia has desert been so ravishingly photographed.

Instead of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence approaching the camera through shimmering heat haze astride a camel, we have Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides adapting to the great sand landscapes of the planet Arrakis and then mastering the giant sandworms that live under the surface and move at the speed of an HS1.

This Part Two is mostly free of the necessary exposition of Part One, which established Chalamet’s noble line and that his father was killed by the Emperor (here a mopey Christopher Walken). The morally ambiguous factions provide complexity (or confusion depending on whether you saw and understood Part One) including the Bene Gesserit, a sinister sisterhood led by Charlotte Rampling’s Reverent Mother Mohaim whose main purpose seems to be to prosper, whoever is in charge.

All this dovetails into a great existential battle between good and evil. The former are the Fremen, who dress like nomadic Arabs and who at the behest of Javier Bardem’s grizzled Stilgar accept Chalamet’s messianic Atreides as their leader. And then there are the Nazi-like forces of Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) who make Darth Vader’s stormtroopers look as intimidating as a box of Lego.

Inevitably the success of this movie was always going to rely on the big set pieces. And they are really, really big. The giant worms and their gaping all-consuming orifices crash through sand dunes with the force of tsunami. They are also used by the Fremen as a rites-of- passage ritual in which a skilled warrior can surf worms like a dude. Slightly less impressively the beats are hailed like desert Ubers when transport is needed.

Meanwhile, Harkonnen’s monochromatic Nuremberg-style rallies (they live under a “black sun”) are shot by Villeneuve as if his director of photography was Leni Riefenstahl. By contrast, the moment Chalamet’s Atreides masters a sandworm as it hurtles through the landscape puts us so convincingly on the animal’s back with our hero, our eyes squint against the flying sand and grit of the dunes.

A shame that all this invention ends with a sword fight and someone getting stabbed with the age old cliché of everyone having to guess which of the fighters has been mortally wounded. It is as if finally Villeneuve and his co-writer Jon Spaihts lost the will to be brilliant. But what happens before undoubtedly is.

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