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Guns, Worms & Steel: Dune 2 Review

Updated: Apr 3


Danielle Mitalipov (MBA ’25) reviews the latest film adaptation of the beloved sci-fi franchise.


Frank Herbert’s sweeping 1965 novel Dune has long been considered unfilmable, despite its remarkable influence on visual media ranging from the Jedi mind tricks in Star Wars to the Alaskan Bull Worm in SpongeBob. The barriers to a successful Dune adaptation are formidable. First, there’s the issue of the novel’s pacing, which is glacial in the first half as Herbert sets the scene for the story’s heady ecological and religious themes, then speeds up exponentially and culminates in an explosive climax (if this sounds rather suggestive, that’s because it is – Herbert famously said the plot had a “coital rhythm.” Strange choice, but lest we forget, it was written in the 1960s). Another challenge lies in the peculiarities of the genre – science fiction is chock-full of dense lore and technobabble, a worldbuilding indulgence that a book can accommodate but the more succinct medium of film cannot. Dune is no exception, with enough proper nouns to fill an intimidating glossary and millennia of complex and at times inscrutable intergalactic politics to digest.

 

Paradoxically, though, Dune is frustrating to adapt to cinema because there is a strange absence of science in the fiction. To dive briefly into the lore of Dune, artificial intelligence has long since been abolished, and in its place the human mind has had to develop over generations to achieve near-computational levels of acumen. Long stretches of the novel detail the thought processes of its characters, who deduce the thoughts and motives of their enemies from nearly imperceptible signals. It is fascinating on the page but just about impossible to portray on the screen, where audiences are denied access to protagonists’ inner machinations. Ultimately, there is quite a bit of surreal mysticism, rather than robot power, at the heart of Dune. For instance, a critical enabler for that uncanny brainpower, and even for the possibility of space travel, is a spice mined on the planet Arrakis, which possesses a psychoactive property that gives humans the ability to foresee and optimize the potential paths before them. Or put another way: they are all tripping on space ayahuasca to predict the future (again, it was the 1960s). For the story to work, audiences need to fully buy into its bizarre underpinnings. It is no surprise then that David Lynch seemed like a natural choice to direct the 1984 adaptation – if ever a project called for Lynchian dream logic, it would be Dune. And yet Lynch’s Dune was a complete disaster, his signature uncanny style veering the movie firmly into “comically bad” territory. For even the most committed fans, this was the final death knell: Dune was officially unfilmable.

 

And yet, Denis Villeneuve managed not only to film Dune, but to bring it to life with his latest installation, Dune 2 (2024). Villeneuve, who noted in an interview that he has wanted to film Dune since childhood, employs several narrative tricks to avoid the pitfalls of his predecessors while maintaining the heart of the material. For example, the film’s pacing is tightened by doing away with a two-year time jump and choosing to delay the introduction of protagonist Paul’s sister, Alia, who has an impressive kill count in the novel despite being a toddler. Again, a prophetic three-year-old scrapping with alien soldiers is great on the page, but absurd on the screen – a lesson Lynch learned the hard way. Most crucial, though, is the way Villeneuve portrays Paul Atreides’ torment about sparking a religious war. The two sides of his agonizing internal debate become embodied in the characters of his mother Jessica (who sinisterly urges him on) and love interest Chani (who recognizes the prophecy as a new form of oppression for the Fremen, the native people of Arrakis). This serves not only to clarify the terrible stakes of Paul’s choices, but also gives some much needed characterization to both women, particularly Chani, who is mostly an obedient admirer in the novel.

 

But narrative choices are not what make Dune 2 crackle – as Villeneuve said, the power of film is in image, and the image of Dune 2 is stunning. Villeneuve’s stylistic inclination towards brutal, minimalist realism, complimented by Greig Fraser’s arresting cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s sweeping score, meshes remarkably well with Dune. Perhaps that should not come as a surprise – Dune is fantastical, yes, but Herbert never treats it as such, instead using stark prose to give his world gravitas. In fact, Villeneuve’s restraint makes the film’s carefully chosen stylistic flourishes – the inky black fireworks on the Harkonnen home planet, the glimmering chainmail mask worn by Florence Pugh’s Princess Irulan – pop in contrast. The scene where Paul rides a worm on Arrakis is particularly excellent, a heart-stopping depiction of a critical moment in the book that Herbert leaves up to the reader’s imagination. The film’s battle sequences are similarly epic, particularly the tightly choreographed final fight between Paul and the Harkonnen heir Feyd-Rautha. The scene is made particularly intense by lingering shots and the lack of score, which force the audience to focus breathlessly on the melee – a welcome departure from the rapid cuts, deafening soundtracks, and hollow CGI that make Marvel fight scenes a frenetic, distracting mess.

 

Dune 2’s performances are fantastic as well. Austin Butler is mesmerizingly weird and terrifying as Feyd-Rautha, and Zendaya makes Chani the film’s emotional center by powerfully portraying her feelings of dread and betrayal as Paul assumes his dictatorial role. Rebecca Ferguson and Javier Bardem are similarly excellent as Lady Jessica and tribe leader Stilgar, respectively. If there is a weak link in the star-studded cast, it is Timothée Chalamet’s performance as Paul Atreides. He is in his element when Paul is brooding and confused, but does not quite sell the transition to godlike messiah – his shouting never quite seems to reach his eyes. Another gripe is his lack of chemistry with Zendaya – according to Villeneuve, Paul and Chani’s love story is the heart of Dune, yet Butler and Lea Seydoux are a more compelling romance despite having only a fraction of the screen time.

 

Yet even with these flaws, Dune 2 is a triumph that effectively conveys the novel’s esoteric world, nuanced characters and, most importantly, its condemnation of religious fanaticism and colonization – all while being fun to watch. When Paul Atreides commands silence in the film’s penultimate scene, his enemy is successfully rendered speechless. So, too, are the naysayers who called Dune unfilmable.


Danielle Mitalipov (MBA ‘25) is an RC interested in scaling climate technology and renewable energy generation. She is a Student Sustainability Associate (SSA), and helped organize the HBS Climate Symposium. Prior to HBS, she studied philosophy at Stanford University, and led merchandising for a global brand at adidas. Outside of school, she is usually writing or watching the latest release at the Coolidge Corner Theater.

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