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Learning the ways of the desert … Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Dune: Part Two

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

In cinemas from 1 March

So here’s where we’re at, in the concluding half of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Cast into the wilderness of arid planet Arrakis by the invading force of House Harkonnen, young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) learns the ways of the desert, embraces his genetic and political destiny, and becomes, in one swoop, a focus for fanaticism and (with an eye to a third film – an adaptation of author Frank Herbert’s sequel, Dune Messiah) the scourge of the universe.

From Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mid-1970s effort, which never came to fruition (but at least gave Swiss artist H.R. Giger of Alien fame his entrée into movie design), to David Lynch’s 4-hour-plus farrago, savagely edited prior to its 1984 release into something closer to 2 hours that approached (but only approached) coherence, the industry assumption has been that Dune is an epic too vast to be easily filmed. However, throw enough resources at it, goes the logic, and it will eventually crumble.

That this is precisely the wrong lesson to draw was perfectly demonstrated by John Harrison’s 2000 mini-series version for the Sci Fi Channel and its sequel, Children of Dune – both absurdly under-resourced, both satisfying stories that the fans paid attention to, even if the critics didn’t.

Now we have Villeneuve’s effort. Like his Blade Runner 2049 (which, by the way, is by far the better movie), it uses visual stimulation to hide the gaping holes in its plot. Yes, the story of Dune is epic. But it is also, in the full meaning of the word, weird.

It is about a human empire that has achieved cosmic scale, and all without the help of computers, thinking machines and conscious robots, which were overthrown long ago in some shadowy phase of the Dune universe known as the “Butlerian Jihad”.

In its rise, humanity has bred, drugged and otherwise warped individuals into becoming something very like gods; in conquering space, it teeters on the brink of attaining power over time. The drug-like “spice” mined on planet Arrakis isn’t just a rare resource over which great rivals fight, but the spiritual gateway that makes humanity, in this far future, viable in the first place.

Leave any one of these elements undeveloped (or, as here, entirely ignored) and you’re left with an awful lot of desert to fill with battles, sword play, explosions, crowd scenes and giant sandworms – and here an as-yet-unwritten rule of special effects cinematography comes into play, because I swear that the more those wrigglers cost, the sillier they get. Your ears will ring, your heart will thunder, and by morning the entire experience will have evaporated, like a long (2-hour-and-46-minute) fever dream.

As Beast Rabban, Dave Bautista outperforms the rest of the cast to a degree that is embarrassing. The Beast is a Harkonnen, an alpha predator in this grim universe, and yet Bautista is the only actor here capable of portraying fear. Javier Bardem’s desert leader Stilgar is played for laughs (but let’s face it, in the entire history of cinema, name one desert leader that hasn’t been). Chalamet stands still in front of the camera; his love interest, played by Zendaya, scowls and growls like Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.

Dune: Part Two is an expensive ($190 million) film that has had the decency to put much of its budget in front of the camera. This makes it watchable, enjoyable and even, at times, thrilling. Making a good Dune movie requires a certain eccentricity, though. Villeneuve is, on the contrary, that deadening thing, “a safe pair of hands”.

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