The cinematic excellence of Dune: Part Two

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Heralded by legions of TikTok edits, Dune: Part Two (2024) is a bona fide cultural phenomenon. But the prospect of Frank Herbert’s notoriously inaccessible 1965 sci-fi novel receiving a competent adaptation, let alone becoming a billion-dollar franchise, has eluded fans and studios alike for half a century. Three major attempts have been made to bring Dune to life: first as an ultimately abandoned 14-hour epic starring Salvador Dali and Mick Jagger, then in the David Lynch film Dune (1984) – which was reviled enough that the Oscar-nominated director asked for his name to be removed from home video releases, and finally as a 2000 miniseries on the SYFY channel. Only now, nearly 60 years after the novel’s publication, has Frank Herbert’s vision been successfully brought to the silver screen with the release of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021) and the subsequent Dune: Part Two this March. With the combined gross of the two films approaching one billion dollars, it seems fair to say that Villeneuve has succeeded in filming the supposedly unfilmable, making a Dune adaptation that has won over both critics and audiences – but what is it about his version that has made it triumph where others have failed?

It’s taken a whole team of technical masters both in front of and behind the camera to bring Dune to life

There are a few obvious factors in Dune’s mammoth success. Reading off the cast of the latest film, the multitude of A-listers is almost overwhelming. From new talents like Timothée Chalamet, Austin Butler and Zendaya to veterans like Charlotte Rampling and Christopher Walken, the wealth of talent Dune has managed to secure in front of the camera is unparalleled. But it’s not just star power that’s made these films the cultural behemoth that they are; it’s taken a whole team of technical masters both in front of and behind the camera to bring Dune to life. Perhaps the most beneficial decision these adaptations have made in contrast to previous attempts is the simple move of splitting the story into two films. Hollywood is no stranger to over-saturating a property – Peter Jackson’s misguided attempt to turn The Hobbit into three two-and-a-half hour films remains one of the most baffling errors of judgement in recent cinematic history – but here it is a move that makes perfect sense. Herbert’s 600-page novel is a remarkably dense piece of science fiction that cares as much about ecology as it does about crafting compelling characters. Giving the text two films’ worth of space to breathe allowed Villeneuve and co. to pay its worlds and characters the slow, exacting attention they need.

This brings us to another, central, point regarding Dune’s appeal: Grieg Fraser’s Oscar-winning cinematography. Together with director Villeneuve, Fraser’s cinematography achieves a powerful balance between the grandiose and the immediate, finding its greatest strengths in juxtaposing the huge scale of Dune’s more ambitious set-pieces with minute details that make these worlds feel lived-in. Alongside the endless deserts of Arrakis, the camera will focus on Timothée Chalamet’s Paul sifting sand through his hand; within the huge Harkonnen arena, attention is still paid to the sweat falling off the brow of Austin Butler’s Feyd-Rautha. In a cinematic landscape that has grown accustomed to weightless, CGI-dependent visuals, Dune represents a welcome change. In his direction, Villeneuve is concerned with a kind of image-making that has become something of a lost art in contemporary blockbuster filmmaking. Instantly iconic images render Dune: Part Two (as well as its predecessor) a film which lingers in the imagination long after its end. There are few more striking sights in recent cinema than that of the ghoulish Baron Harkonnen floating uncannily over his troops, or the silhouetted figures of Paul and Feyd-Rautha preparing for their climactic duel backlit by the garish orange light of Arrakis.

Fraser’s cinematography achieves a powerful balance between the grandiose and the immediate

Beyond its visuals, the sound of Dune: Part Two is a key factor in its singular power. Hans Zimmer, who won his second Oscar for the first Dune, returns to score this sequel, and the scope of his sonic world-building remains unrivalled. Forgoing traditional orchestration in favour of synthesisers, guttural vocals and a range of far-reaching global instrumentation, including the Armenian duduk, Zimmer crafts a singularly evocative sound for the singularly evocative world of Dune. There is an easy interplay between new motifs, such as the duduk-performed love theme for Paul and Chani, and the familiar notes of returning tracks like ‘Paul’s Dream’. This musical synergy bridges the distance between the two films whilst instilling a sense of progression and expansion in the sequel.

It may have taken over half a century, but the supposedly impossible task of taking Dune to the big screen has finally been accomplished. The question, now, remains how far this new wave of Dune-mania will go. With a prequel television show supposedly in the works for streaming and rumours abounding about a potential adaptation of Dune Messiah, it seems we won’t be waving goodbye to Arrakis any time soon.

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