Timothee Chalamet in Dune: Part Two


Some of you may be wondering if it's necessary to have seen writer/director Denis Villeneuve's 2021 Dune to properly enjoy his new Dune: Part Two, and I think the answer to that is obvious: Yeah, it'd help. Otherwise you won't know who's in the body bag being hauled across the desert at the follow-up's start. (Part Two opens, like, seconds after Villenueve's predecessor ended.) Others who have seen Villeneuve's Dune Une but maybe haven't watched it since 2021 may be curious about whether it's necessary to re-watch the first film before giving this latest Frank Herbert adaptation a go. I'd say that depends on the strength of your memories. But I hadn't returned to its predecessor in two years before viewing the sequel, and had no problem getting completely caught up – even my momentary confusion was eradicated pretty quickly.

Yet the reasons that even Herbert virgins might want to consider showing up for Dune: Part Two lie less with the tale's specifics than the sorts of massive pleasures that only works of this magnitude provide. Truth be told, I never caught Villeneuve's Dune: Part One on the big screen. (As a notorious cheapskate, I enjoyed the film several times through Warner Bros.' now-ancient-history release strategy that found studio titles opening simultaneously in theaters and on Max – then HBO Max – back when COVID was still keeping people away from the cineplex.) I was more than happy, though, to shell out extra dough for an IMAX ticket for this thing, and my money was certainly well spent. The staggering visuals! The seat-shaking sound! The chance to properly fight over whether, in their gargantuan closeups, it's Timothée Chalamet or Zendaya who's the prettiest! (Tim's character clearly has more access to hair product.) Despite Villenueve's sequel, at Davenport's Cinemark venue, being preceded by trailers for seven (!) IMAX wannabe-blockbusters opening in 2024, it's hard to imagine another offering this year matching or bettering Dune II's levels of scale, scope, and bone-deep, only-in-the-movies satisfaction. Whether it ultimately matches or betters Dune I in terms of quality– and no, I'm not referring to the David Lynch version – is another matter entirely.

When last we saw Chalamet's Paul Atreides seconds or years ago, this exiled duke was on the desert planet Arrakis with his pregnant mother (Rebecca Ferguson), making plans to either fulfill his destiny or not alongside the indigenous Fremen people, among them determined warriors Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and Chani (Zendaya). Everyone in the universe wants control over the planet's reserves of Spice, the glowing mineral amidst the sand that's like a combination of petroleum and heroin, and that has caused innumerable territorial wars over the eons. (Some may be selfishly wanting Spice, as I would, for its magical ability to make otherwise blandly hued eyes the color of Paul Newman's.) But in addition to wanting the mineral, loads of opposing forces want Paul dead, because they, too, are aware of visions that have shown the young man leading an eventual revolt alongside the Fremen, and toppling the capitalistic interests of the entire galaxy. In no particular order, they include the previously unseen Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken), the appointed emperor of the universe; the previously seen Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), the corpulent head of House Harkonnen; and the baron's nephews Glossu Rabban (returning performer Dave Bautista) and Feyd-Rautha (new recruit Austin Butler), who have their own axes to grind.

Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, and Timothee Chalamet in Dune: Part Two

Villeneuve's continuation opens with a bang. A lot of bangs, actually. Before the storyline really gets humming (John Spaihts again serves as Villenueve's co-screenwriter), we're treated to an assault on Arrakis that finds the heavily armed and outfitted guards quickly laid to waste by the clever Fremen. And seriously, this initial battle has everything: unexpected sniper shots; the promise of sandworms; bodies falling from the sky suggesting just how heavy the Harkonnen-troop wardrobe must be. It's all delivered with thrilling immediacy and threat, and with such ravishing loudness that, thick as the cineplex walls may be, I immediately felt sympathy for viewers in the adjoining auditorium. It was a scenario frequently repeated in Dune: Part Two, because against some of our wishes, there's a lot of repetition in Dune: Part Two. It was a ticklish jolt when what looked like a stick poking out of the sand attracted the attention of an Arrakis mouse, and that stick turned out to be a breathing straw used by hidden Fremen armies. But Arrakis gets attacked over and over in this movie, and at no point is there any question on which faction will prevail. The violent skirmishes are gorgeously shot and aurally amazing (Hans Zimmer is again the composer), yet they don't amount to much; the entirely of the large-scale combat simply becomes a matter of watching nondescript red-shirts die in the most beautiful, noisy ways imaginable.

I don't want to imply that these sequences aren't exciting. Because they are, and the shock-and-awe reaches its high point when Paul learns to master the riding of a sandworm, which we learn is basically like the Arrakis-ian version of a coast-to-coast flight. A master at composition, Villeneuve stages Paul's lead-up to, and eventual harnessing of, the football-stadium-long creature with imagination and astounding verisimilitude, and I felt like applauding along with the Fremen after witnessing this act. (A massive grin and watery eyes would have to suffice.) But in terms of its action scenes, Dune: Part Two never improves on this spectacular set piece that lands roughly halfway through the movie. I think it was meant to be a kick when Paul discovered a cave-hidden stockpile of world-destroying weaponry that he thought had been lost forever. But I simply sighed at the promise of bigger and louder explosions when I was having such a great time enjoying the less-overt visual miracles: the carrier planes with blades like hummingbird wings; the IV transfusions that preserve water from the bodies of corpses that immediately constrict from the loss. While Villeneuve's sandworms are eternally stunning, and they're employed (smartly) only sporadically, a nagging sameness begins to infiltrate the second half of Part Two in ways that didn't happen at any point in part one.

There were a few additional issues that kept me from loving this Dune the way I'd anticipated and hoped. Followers of Herbert may disagree (I've never read him), but I thought Villeneauve's rendition got awfully sketchy on the geography in the movie's final third; I couldn't tell when Paul was in the northern portion of the planet or the southern, and that understanding proved to be intensely important. I also didn't buy the Baron's explanation for why his minions weren't looking for Fremen rebels in the southern half of Arrakis based on his rationale that “Nothing can live there!” (Ummm … so you don't want to check out the region, you know, just in case?) Rebecca Ferguson continues to be beguiling and intimidating, but her otherwise fearsome portrayal is unintentionally marred by the sorta-goofy basso prufundo growl that emanates whenever her newly appointed Reverend Mother demands obedience. (As Star Wars fans know, Lucas' franchise was definitely influenced by Herbert's Dune novels, yet the Jedi mind trick was a less distracting solution to the “You will believe me” problem.) And as strong as their individual performances are, and as solid as their chemistry is, Chalamet and Zendaya both tend to overdo it in their non-verbal closeups, which is more damaging for the latter than the former. For much of Part Two's final act, Zendaya is required to merely pout, and her pouting here is unfortunately less expressive than it was on Euphoria.

Austin Butler in Dune: Part Two

Zendaya, however, absolutely nails her comedic bit in which Chani voicelessly shuts down Paul's man-splaining of sand-walk practices, and her climactic closeup gives we Dune fans even more reason to await-slash-hope-for a Dune Trois. (Last we heard, Villeneuve was close to completing a script for his proposed series-ender, and still hasn't received the green light on it. Huzzah for filmmakers allowed to take their time and not be at the mercy of studio-cemented release dates!) Regardless of my quibbles, Dune: Part Two is a spectacular time. In a lovely veer from my opinion of the original, with its spectacular cast seeming to offer fundamentally functional portrayals, I also found a whole slew of performers worth celebrating. It's actually Bardem who emerges as best in show, mostly because in addition to being discreetly moving, he's the only one allowed to be genuinely hilarious. Stilgar's belief that Paul is the prophet of the Fremen's dreams keeps manifesting itself in ways both earnest and laugh-out-loud funny. (Over the course of his career, Bardem has rarely been more endearing than when stating that Paul's refusal to be the Messiah obviously makes him the Messiah.)

Yet returning castmates Bautista, Skarsgård, Josh Brolin, and Charlotte Rampling are equally formidable; newcomers Butler (joyously creepy and splendidly mimicking Stellan Skarsgård's accent), Florence Pugh, Léa Seydoux, Souhelia Yacoub, and Anya Taylor-Joy, in a cameo, make vivid impressions; and even the appearance of Christopher Walken, with his impenetrable eccentricity, makes a bizarre kind of sense, suggesting that this Herbert universe is so effed up that it requires an effed-up ruler to match. As for Chalamet, I was admittedly kind of knocked out by the character transformation he pulls off. Many years into his screen career, the actor remains eternally wispy. But there's thought and force behind his characterization; Chalamet seems committed to wiping the smirks off the faces of not just Paul's adversaries, but his audience. Dune: Part Two is incredible fun. Maybe by part three, Villeneuve's Herbert translation will finally be the masterpiece so many of us want this sci-fi spectacle to be.

Adam Sandler in Spaceman


Did you know that another science-fiction opus debuted on the same weekend as Dune: Part Two? And that it was a Netflix release titled Spaceman that stars Adam Sandler? And that it has at least a mild connection to the Denis Villeneuve sequel, as it co-stars the gigantic spider from the director's 2013 drama Enemy? Okay, that last part isn't entirely true. The creature that makes a surprise appearance at Enemy's climax is more accurately a tarantula, and unlike Sandler's fellow space traveler, it doesn't ask probing questions or feast on Nutella or speak with the voice of Paul Dano. Still … .

It may only be early March, but welcome, folks, to what might easily go down as the most breathtakingly nutty movie of 2024, and not just because of the insanely product-placed Nutella. Here's a film that casts Sandler as a Czech (!) cosmonaut whose only company is a roughly four-foot-tall, galaxy-hopping spider (!!) who may simply be a hallucination, and through the entirety of this streaming madness – wait for it … – we aren't invited to laugh. (!!!) Quite the contrary. We're asked to accept this hysterically ludicrous premise as the makings for a deep, soul-searching exploration of the human condition in which Sandler's Jakub Procházka is forced to confront his innate selfishness and gross failings as a husband and potential father through the benevolent guidance of an eight-legged therapist. For 105 minutes, I practically needed a forklift to pick up my dropped jaw.

Yet here was the biggest surprise of my home-viewing experience: Even though Spaceman gives you about a zillion reasons to, I never once laughed. That doesn't mean I ever took this almost inarguably terrible movie seriously. But it must be said that, for at least half its running length, Johan Renck (best known, and deservedly lauded, for HBO's limited series Chernobyl) directs the crap out of this thing; the visual effects and Jakob Ihre's cinematography boast a weirdly enveloping elegance; and no one could accuse Sandler of not fully committing to the lunacy of it all. One arched eyebrow or phoned-in reading and Renck's and screenwriter Colby Day's project would instantly crash and burn. It doesn't, though, so if Sandler is a big part of why the movie is so dumbfounding, he's an even bigger reason why you stick through it 'til the end. Professional fealty of this sort, even when wrongheadedly applied, is something to admire rather than mock. Despite only employing a vague Eastern European dialect when he appears to remember to, Spaceman's star is actually really good here – it's merely, or “merely,” his material making Sandler appear silly as hell.

"Paul Dano" in Spaceman

The nominal plot concerns a big purple cloud that's been hovering above Earth for years. Sandler's Procházka has been sent to space to check it out, leaving his very pregnant wife Lenka (Carey Mulligan) behind, and halfway through this year-long fact-finding mission, Dano's space-spider pops in for a visit and decides to stay, if only to determine why the astronaut's mind is so troubled. As you'd expect, Procházka initially freaks out and wisely disinfects the ship. But when his intergalactic equivalent of Raid doesn't kill the creature, our hero is forced to listen to the six-eyed being who speaks in mellifluous H.A.L. cadences and only refers to Procházka as “Skinny Human.” (This was, in itself, abjectly hilarious, because while 57-year-old Sandler has a perfectly presentable dad bod, in no conceivable universe would he be considered a skinny human.) What happens from there, after Skinny Human has christened his uninvited guest “Hanuš,” is probably best left unspoiled – which is perhaps, I guess, a recommendation to view it for yourselves. But you can expect a lot of Gravity, a little Ad Astra, some benign Alien, and even a dash of WALL·E, plus far too many scenes set on Earth, where Heavily Pregnant Carey Mulligan frets and cries and makes plans to leave her husband while hubby is stuck in space conversing with a four-foot spider.

Hey – I feel for Lenka. It seems like Jakub was an uncommunicative jerk. That still doesn't prevent the earthbound scenes from being formulaic and interminably dull, this despite the superior talents of current Oscar nominee Mulligan, Kunal Nayyar as Procházka's Czech liaison Peter, and icons Isabella Rossellini and Lena Olin in roles they clearly know aren't worthy of them. Despite Spaceman's thunderous stupidity, however, the space sequences are frequently a gas. As Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki did in Gravity, Renck and Ihre keep the camera cognizant of the zero-gravity atmosphere – the images never stop moving aboard Procházka's vessel – and our continual views of Hanuš often find him merely crawling around in the backgrounds of shots, sometimes even out of focus. Meanwhile, whenever Hanuš makes Procházka witness flashbacks from his past or even someone else's past – please, don't ask … – the warped visualizations are given a trippy, druggy quality that's kind of like what Ethan Coen attempted to pull off in Drive-Way Dolls, but with more success. Against all logic and reason, this comparatively experimental Netflix endeavor features some of the most offhandedly wondrous sci-fi effects the movies have treated us to since last fall's The Creator.

Make no mistake: Spaceman is lousy. It's self-indulgent, ridiculous, and not deserving of the obvious passion that some of its participants put into it. (It's also apparently based on a 2017 novel, Jaroslav Kalfař's Spaceman in Bohemia, that earned solid reviews and that I will henceforth steadfastly avoid.) But unlike last month's Madame Web, which deserves no future consideration, I can't say the same of Renck's noble attempt, which is a train wreck that I was at least glad to have considered once. Its minor merits notwithstanding, I'm still entering the next three-quarters of the movie year with a serious case of arachnophobia.

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