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'Dune 2' review: Timothee Chalamet sci-fi epic gets it right the second time around

Timothée Chalamet didn’t seem like much of a sci-fi movie savior in the first “Dune.” The sequel, though? Well, consider us believers.

Director Denis Villeneuve's “Dune: Part Two” (★★★½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters now) bests his first 2021 epic, based on the classic Frank Herbert novels, in every significant way. Even though it snagged six Oscars (and a best picture nomination), the previous “Dune” was a mixed bag with lackluster storytelling – even David Lynch’s crazypants 1984 adaptation was a more entertaining exercise. But “Part Two” rights the cosmic battleship with plenty of staggering visuals, all the gigantic sandworms you’d ever want, plus a deeper thematic exploration of power, colonialism and religion.

“Part One” introduced a sprawling fantasy landscape that centered on the desert planet Arrakis, where the precious resource of spice is mined. The family of House Atreides – including young Paul (Chalamet), heir apparent to the throne – is put in charge of operations but come under a massive attack by the villainous Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) and House Harkonnen.

Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and Chani (Zendaya) grow closer as larger threats emerge in the sci-fi fantasy sequel "Dune: Part Two."
Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and Chani (Zendaya) grow closer as larger threats emerge in the sci-fi fantasy sequel "Dune: Part Two."

Paul and his mom, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the witchy sisterhood Bene Gesserit, are seemingly the only survivors. Left to fend for themselves in the desert, they meet a tribe of the Indigenous Fremen – including Chani (Zendaya), a mystery woman whom Paul sees in his possibly prophetic visions.

Here's the thing: Paul might be a messiah foretold in an ancient prophecy, and that’s the primary gist of “Part Two." With the help of Fremen leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and Chani, Paul learns the ways of being one of them, from living in hazardous desert conditions to riding sandworms. But there’s a divide among the Fremen about if he’s really the one said to deliver them to paradise.

Paul also becomes of one the Freman’s fiercest fighters against the Harkonnen threat, so much so that the Baron installs his psychotic nephew Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler) as the governor of Arrakis. He and Paul factor in a much larger game afoot, about who is and who should be in charge of ruling the universe.

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There's more sci-fi battles and way more giant sandworms in Denis Villeneuve's "Dune" sequel.
There's more sci-fi battles and way more giant sandworms in Denis Villeneuve's "Dune" sequel.

While the political dealings of the expansive “Dune” mythology were touched on in the first film, they’re one of the more fascinating aspects of the sequel as Villeneuve leans into them and weaves in debuting personalities. Christopher Walken plays the aging Emperor, Florence Pugh is his daughter Princess Irulan – who begins to worry about how unsteady the galaxy is becoming – and Lea Seydoux co-stars as Lady Margot, an ambitious member of the Bene Gesserit.

Villeneuve doubles down on the sci-fi action, too, with more space battles, more vicious blade fights and more insect-y helicopters (which are honestly really cool). But they mean more this time around because there's actually some character development. Chalamet fleshes Paul out as a complex dude torn between loved ones and fretting over his fate, and a strong chemistry with Zendaya fuels the movie's core relationship. Ferguson’s Lady Jessica rises to become a gripping “Dune” persona, who goes from being extremely dry in the first film to an intriguingly determined figure in “Part Two.”

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Austin Butler debuts as the psychotic and villainous Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen in "Dune: Part Two."
Austin Butler debuts as the psychotic and villainous Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen in "Dune: Part Two."

The pasty-faced bald baddies of House Harkonnen, dangerous in the first film, now loom as a dastardly existential threat for our heroes. Skarsgård is super-creepy as the Baron, Dave Bautista gets more to do as his brutishly insecure oldest nephew Rabban, and for those who want to wipe Butler’s Elvis from their memory, watch him lick knives and chew scenery as the venomous yet magnetic Feyd-Rautha. And he doesn’t even show up till well into the movie: At two hours and 46 minutes, the latest “Dune” still feels long but packs in a bunch of mythology before the all-hands finale.

Villeneuve leaves you wanting in his "Empire Strikes Back"-like second chapter, but at least it’s not an anticlimactic cliffhanger like last time. That “Dune” ended with no real temptation to hurry back to Arrakis. When this “Dune” finishes, you’re not only ready for a third one but likely digging into the Herbert books with one hand while your other’s in a sandworm popcorn bucket.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Dune 2' review: Timothée Chalamet rides sandworms to sci-fi triumph