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'Dune: Part Two' takes the first film's stunning visuals to a new level


If you've had enough of Congress, try this - a desert planet, warring civilizations, spice and sandworms. That was the recipe for the epic sci-fi film "Dune." And three years ago, it drew pandemic-weary crowds back to theaters, even though the film was simultaneously available on streaming. Well, now comes "Dune: Part Two," exclusively in cinemas, and critic Bob Mondello says it will more than fill the largest possible screen.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: As grand as the world building was in the original "Dune," with desert vistas that rivaled "Lawrence Of Arabia" and dragonfly helicopters caught in mile-high sandstorms, you quickly realize in "Part Two" that filmmaker Denis Villeneuve was still holding something back visually.


TIMOTHEE CHALAMET: (As Paul Atreides) It's breathtaking.

MONDELLO: At the end of 2 1/2 hours of intergalactic politics and spirituality, he'd given us just a quick glimpse of the monsters that make life on the desert planet Arrakis so precarious - giant sandworms with open maws that can swallow a house.


MONDELLO: This time they're central. And Paul Atreides, an interloper from the stars who disappeared when assassins destroyed his family, has been training for his first encounter with one. He cast his lot with the planet's indigenous nomads, known as Fremen, and they've shown him how to mount a worm as if he's leaping aboard a carnivorous freight train. If he fails, says Javier Bardem's Stilgar, he dies.


JAVIER BARDEM: (As Stilgar) Be simple. Be direct. Nothing fancy.

CHALAMET: (As Paul Atreides) Nothing fancy.

BARDEM: (As Stilgar) Hey, I'm serious. Nothing fancy, or you will shame my teaching.

CHALAMET: (As Paul Atreides) I won't shame you. I understand.

MONDELLO: He goes out alone on the sands, planting a mechanical thumper whose vibrations will call a worm. And soon, on the horizon, a faraway sand dune explodes into powder, and what sounds like an underground thunderstorm approaches.


BARDEM: (As Stilgar, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: Not that big, mutters Stilgar, as Timothee Chalamet's Paul runs across the top of the dune with grappling hooks and leaps. For long minutes, with wind and sand lashing him and bone-rattling Dolby thudding against us, he'll struggle to right himself. And whatever doubts you had going in about the wisdom of trying to tame Frank Herbert's massive sci-fi novel for the screen will evaporate. It was always a gamble. The pandemic almost squelched the first film, and there was serious doubt whether Villeneuve would get to finish the novel's story.


FLORENCE PUGH: (As Princess Irulan) What if Paul Atreides were still alive?

MONDELLO: He'd left nearly all the plot for "Part Two" - an emperor's miscalculations, the romance between Paul and his Fremen protector...


CHALAMET: (As Paul Atreides) I will love you as long as I breathe.

MONDELLO: ...Played by Zendaya...


ZENDAYA: (As Chani) You will never lose me as long as you stay who you are.

MONDELLO: ...The struggle between colonizers, a crafty Atreides clan, a brutal Harkonnen one, and the nomads in robes and turbans...


CHALAMET: (As Paul Atreides) You've been fighting the Harkonnens for decades. My family's been fighting them for centuries.

MONDELLO: ...Who want to keep outsiders from mining the sand dunes for the spice that powers the galaxy. The parallels to Middle East oil are intended, and the filmmaker also leans hard into the novel's religious themes. Has an ancient sisterhood spent centuries pushing a messiah myth so that Paul would be greeted by the Fremen as their Muad’Dib?


REBECCA FERGUSON: (As Lady Jessica) We gave them something to hope for.

CHALAMET: (As Paul Atreides, shouting) That's not hope.

MONDELLO: Or has Paul simply hooked into the chosen one narrative on his own? He has a sort of second sight.


CHALAMET: (As Paul Atreides) I see possible futures all at once. And in so many futures, our enemies prevail. But I do see a way. There is a narrow way through.

MONDELLO: He also sees fundamentalism and holy wars, genocide, colonialist nuclear weapons, all of it linked by the filmmaker to battles on a "Lord Of The Rings" scale. Tens of thousands of onlookers in a massive, fascist arena watching a hairless, chalk-white psychotic prince played by Austin Butler...


MONDELLO: ...Slash at a Atreides warriors, and swarming fighters cheering as their reluctant leader assumes the mantle he's been resisting.


CHALAMET: (As Paul Atreides) I am Paul Muad'Dib Atreides, duke of Arrakis.

MONDELLO: Frank Herbert wrote six novels set in the "Dune" universe. Given the nuanced, complicated and richly cinematic way "Dune: Part Two" handles the conclusion of this first one, it would be hard not to hope Villeneuve gets a crack at least a couple more.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SALAAM REMI'S "SHILA'S PLAYGROUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.