Denis Villeneuve crafts an action masterpiece in “Dune: Part Two”

Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides in “Dune: Part Two.” Denis Villeneuve, whose previous work includes “Prisoners” and “Arrival,” directs the film. // Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

“Power over spice… is power over all.” 

Denis Villeneuve has crafted a magnificent retelling of Paul Atreides’ rise in “Dune: Part Two,” adapting the last half of author Frank Herbert’s novel without compromising its tragedy and richness. The film is genuinely breathtaking to behold, a true cinematic achievement that proves quality and budget are not mutually exclusive. Villeneuve refuses to let the film settle into the dullness audiences have grown accustomed to from studio blockbusters, leaning into the dark, complicated tale of power-lust that made the story so intriguing to begin with. 

For the uninitiated, the first movie focused on House Atreides, the noble family assuming control from House Harkonnen of the desert planet Arrakis — the only place spice can be found in the universe. Spice is the most valuable substance known to man, powering interstellar travel and exerting powerful psychotropic effects on those exposed for too long. As soon as the Atreides make themselves at home, though, House Harkonnen invades, massacring the Atreides and taking control of the planet. Young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet, “Lady Bird”) and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”), are some of the only survivors. Paul’s mother is a part of the Bene Gesserit, a mystical, quasi-religious sisterhood, and she believes Paul is the Kwisatz Haderach, their prophesied messiah. The pair soon meet the Fremen, and it quickly begins to spread that Paul might be the Fremen’s messiah, as well. 

Confused yet? It’s a testament to Villeneuve’s skill as a filmmaker that he makes this story — long considered unfilmable — not only coherent but fairly straightforward. He doesn’t rush the plot, but he also avoids getting bogged down in the politics, religion and factions of Herbert’s world. For a story that runs a combined six hours, nothing ever feels like a distraction.

“Dune: Part Two” picks up right where the last one left off, with Paul beginning his journey towards becoming a Fremen, with a growing number of people believing Paul is their prophesied savior. It is the start of a darker, more morally nebulous story than the first film. If you thought “Dune: Part One” was setting Paul up to be cinema’s next Luke Skywalker, “Dune: Part Two” is more than willing to crush those hopes into the Arrakis sand. The story it tells is not hopeful, but it is captivating.

While Lady Jessica slinks off to build legions of zealots in Paul’s name, Paul trains to become a Fremen, taking the name Muad’Dib and falling in love with a Fremen woman named Chani (Zendaya, “Euphoria”). However, after the Fremen disrupt spice harvesting, the Harkonnens send Feyd-Rautha, played by a creepy, vaguely Elvis-sounding Austin Butler, to regain control of the planet. And slowly, all the threads Villeneuve has been weaving begin to come together. 

The film’s main strength is in the spectacle of it all. Its first scene opens on a Harkonnen patrol, with the soldiers unsettlingly floating to the top of a cliff set against Arrakis’ opaque orange sky — a strange, beautifully psychedelic image in a movie full of them. Not only is “Dune: Part Two” the most gorgeous sci-fi film since Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049,” its visuals brilliantly set the tone for the rest of the movie — unnerving, yet dazzlingly compelling. 

And it’s been a long time since there’s been a blockbuster film as compelling as this one. 

Villeneuve has been clear that “Dune: Part Two” is much more of an action film than the first one, but what he didn’t say was that these sequences are the most well-executed action scenes in years. Every single battle scene, whether it’s an all-out war or merely a skirmish, is a showcase of Villeneuve’s craftsmanship. His use of sound makes these scenes feel punchy and brutal, and his cinematography makes them frantic without ever distorting what is happening on screen. This is far better than cheap, shaky-cam action and bombastic CGI battles. Villeneuve is a true artist, and he brought an artistic sensibility to “Dune” that big-budget movies lack. During a gladiatorial duel between Feyd-Rautha and an Atreides prisoner, Villeneuve could have gotten away with the easy blandness of obviously soundstage-shot fights. Instead, he shoots the battle with IMAX infrared cameras to make the whole scene — and especially Feyd-Rautha — a nightmarish pitch black and pale white. What would be a throwaway action sequence from most other directors becomes the most hauntingly memorable of the whole film. 

But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was the knife fight shot against the Arrakis sun, or Paul’s disorienting sandworm ride or a guerilla strike during a sandstorm. Every scene feels better than the last. Villeneuve can conjure suspense like no other, with each action sequence ready to blow with tension. It is not a revelation that the director of “Sicario” can shoot a thrilling scene, but it is surprising he pulls it off perfectly so many times in one movie. Without a doubt, “Dune: Part Two” is one of the best action films of the last decade. 

Paul Atreides’ journey is nearly as absorbing as the action. Each character seems to have their own vision for who Paul should be — messiah, warrior, lover, leader. Villeneuve captures with surprising clarity the many different directions Paul is being pulled, fueling an inner turmoil that registers most tangibly on Chalamet’s face. Villeneuve is quite comfortable letting his actors tell the story themselves, telling The Times of London, “Frankly, I hate dialogue.” In the solemn quiet of Arrakis, though, visual storytelling as opposed to copious conversation works well. 

Paul changes quickly by the end of the film, but Chalamet makes his descent feel believable. As Paul takes leadership of the Fremen, the line between savior and tyrant blurs. Villeneuve and Chalamet deftly play with the distinction, using Chalamet’s inherent likability against the audience. It makes Paul always the most interesting thing on the screen. 

“Dune: Part Two” is dark, strange and ridiculously entertaining. Villeneuve has created a masterful sci-fi epic and a fantastic action film — the new standard bearer for well-made blockbusters.

“Long live the fighters!”