Arts and Entertainment

In Search of the Spice (and a New Genre?)

In Dune II, Villeneuve creates a spectacle film adapting an action-packed but sometimes difficult-to-interpret novel.

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By Reya Miller

Dune: Part 2 (2024) was released on a Friday in March to eager audiences, and it grossed close to $500 million in just over two weeks. Dune (2021) had been a commercial and critical success, having been the ninth-highest-grossing movie of 2021 and winning ten Oscars. Director Denis Villeneuve, famous for Arrival (2016), had successfully adapted Frank Herbert’s beloved 1965 sci-fi novel by the same name, a technical challenge at which other directors had previously failed. Among these failures were Alejandro Jodorowsky, who attempted a large-scale sci-fi epic before the technology needed was available, and David Lynch, who ended up with a truly bizarre movie comparable in quality and cult following to The NeverEnding Story (1984). However, by splitting Herbert’s epic into two parts, Villeneuve has been able to establish reasonable pacing and chronological consistency, elements difficult to establish from such dense source material. While Herbert put immense and effective efforts into the worldbuilding of his novel, he was not an especially strong writer—his flowery prose tended to convolutedly loop and sprawl around itself—and Dune, the book, reads as tedious and plot-heavy, like a very tired person trying to explain some niche subplot of a Star Wars movie. Essentially, Dune is both an excellent and horrible book to adapt. 

Nevertheless, Villeneuve succeeded—and in no small part due to the star-studded cast. Timothée Chalamet reprises his role as Paul Atreides, and he is blunt yet melancholic in his performance. Zendaya plays Chani, the fierce Fremen and wife of Paul. Both actors transform their characters throughout the film, with Chalamet exhibiting his prowess at dramatic line delivery and Zendaya proving once and for all that beginning one’s career as a Disney Channel actor does not doom you to a lifetime of bland facial expressions.

Along with his highly capable cast, Villeneuve delivers his most striking scenes while depicting the antagonistic House of the Harkonnens, a stark coalescence of bald-headed goths, through the usage of harsh black and white color grading. Contrastingly, the aesthetic of the sympathetic Fremen tribe contrasts with the warm colors of the desert bathed in red, orange, and brown light. Paul is initially shown in this light, but as he begins to lose sight of his morals, his coloring gradually shades to blacks and whites.

Paul’s gradual moral decay is what gives emotional resonance to the film. He is believed by many Fremen (though not Chani) to be the Lisan al-Gaib, a foreign messiah. It’s unclear to the viewer whether or not Paul actually is the Lisan al-Gaib or simply a pawn for diplomatic influence, but ultimately, whether or not he is a genuine religious figure is not important; instead, Villeneuve uses this plot point to critique and pick apart the white savior trope. In this respect, Dune 2 is a commentary on imperialism and its corrupting influence set against an alien backdrop; this is made even more obvious through the politically important houses being white and the Fremen being a clearly Arab-inspired tribe. Dune 2 is just as much about the sanctity of a landscape in balance with its people as it is about the tragedy that ensues when a foreign power arrives to upset that balance.

Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack accentuates this theme as it reverberates throughout the movie—literally. In many ways, Dune 2 is a movie made for the theater, not least of which is its fantastic sound design. The score includes a meld of Middle Eastern motifs, such as minor tones and complex rhythms, with the metronomic mechanical clank of imperialism. 

Dune 2 reflects a much broader development in Western film: the revival of the spectacle film. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Hollywood trended towards big-budget epics with elaborate sets and massive, celebrity-filled casts. This is the context in which movies such as Cleopatra (1963), Ben-Hur (1959), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) were made. The biggest appeal to audiences was the spectacle of it all, given that incredibly large sets and detailed visuals were both becoming easier to do with modern technology, but not yet replicable by machines. But recently, with the advent of computer-generated imagery and visual effects, the concept of movies with engrossing visual styles has become less and less profound. Recent films such as Oppenheimer (2023) and Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) have been successful instances of these. But especially in Dune 2, Villeneuve deliberately reincorporates the spectacle style and puts extra focus on setting the scene. In wide shots clearly influenced by Lawrence of Arabia, Villeneuve deliberately sweeps across the desert landscape to demonstrate the majesty of, well, the dunes.