Film reviews: Dune: Part Two | Spaceman

Although it’s awash with spectacularly imagined battle sequences, giant sand worms and trippy imagery, Dune: Part Two still manages to get a little lost in the minutiae of protagonist Paul Atreides’ journey towards fulfilling his “chosen one” destiny, writes Alistair Harkness

Dune: Part Two (12A) ***

Spaceman (15) **

“This is only the beginning”, said Zendaya’s rebel warrior Chani minutes after being introduced during the abrupt conclusion of Dune: Part One. “This isn’t over yet,” she announces towards the end of Dune: Part Two, confirming that what was supposed to be the concluding part of this cleaved-in-two adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi door-stopper is nothing of the sort. It may pick up directly where the first film ended, but almost from the off it starts seeding a third instalment – something that will likely delight Dune diehards and dismay Dune agnostics.

That Herbert’s gargantuan space saga has plenty of material to draw from is in little doubt (he wrote five sequels, after all). Still, it remains a little disheartening that for all director Denis Villeneuve’s technical mastery and startling compositions, the man behind modern classics Sicario, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 seems to have been infected by the hedge-your-bets, never-ending-movie approach of Marvel and latter-day Star Wars movies. Why have one comprehensive film when you can defer audience gratification indefinitely by setting up several more?

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Despite all the world-building of Part One, then, Part Two – awash though it is with spectacularly imagined battle sequences, giant sand worms and trippy imagery – still manages to get a little lost in the minutiae of protagonist Paul Atreides’ perilous journey towards fulfilling his “chosen one” destiny. The result is a film that feels simultaneously too long and weirdly rushed as it navigates all the political treachery, Machiavellian sorcery and religious zealotry involved in taming the spice planet of Arrakis while Paul (once again played by Timothée Chalamet) wrestles with the messiah complex forced upon him. But is he really the messiah or, as Monty Python might put it, just a very naughty boy? That’s the question driving the film and, though it’s harder than you might think to forget The Life of Brian while watching the big scenes directly debating Paul’s messianic bona fides, the film does deserve some credit for at least attempting to challenge its own white saviour narrative.

The problem is that it doesn’t replace it with anything more interesting. Despite being built around Chalamet’s character, his arc feels oddly truncated – all the time spent setting him up as a noble ally and romantic partner for Zendaya’s mistrustful Freman soldier is, in the end, too easily reversed for the darker path he ultimately seems to be on to have the dramatic impact it should. The thrill of seeing Florence Pugh introduced in the film’s opening minutes, meanwhile, is promptly diminished by her disappearance from the action until well into the second hour – by which point her character’s centrality to Paul’s journey is relegated to a couple of underpowered scenes that hint at bigger stuff to come. Ditto a subplot involving a sentient foetus that later takes the brief, distracting shape of Anya Taylor-Joy at the very point things should be hurtling towards a proper reckoning with Paul. A-list stars are like wallpaper in this movie.

There are highlights too, of course. A hairless Austin Butler, playing a psychotic member of the already grotesque Harkonnens, enlivens proceedings as the new nemesis cherry-picked for Paul by a coven of clairvoyant priestesses intent on fine-tuning their own hallucinatory prophecy. It’s easy, too, to get sucked into some of the amped-up spectacle of Villeneuve’s action sequences, especially the way he uses light and shadow to stage enormous battle scenes under the unforgiving glare of the desert sun. Yet more than five hours into this saga, and with no real end in sight, all that super-sized spectacle ends up like footprints in a sandstorm: barely leaving an impression beyond the end credits.

Dune: Part TwoDune: Part Two
Dune: Part Two

Nevertheless, Villeneuve’s baggy epic is preferable to Spaceman, an existential sci-fi vehicle for Adam Sandler that quickly devolves into a specious tale of self-pitying male neurosis. Directed by prestige TV veteran Johan Renck, the film revolves around an astronaut (Sandler) in the final stages of a solo mission to Jupiter to investigate a cloud of space dust responsible for turning the sky purple back on Earth. We join Sandler’s Jakub just as the isolation is starting to take a severe mental toll, one exacerbated by his precarious marriage to Lenka (Carey Mulligan), now heavily pregnant and newly resigned to leaving him.

The latter is information to which he’s not yet privy thanks to Isabella Rossellini’s head of mission control suppressing the Dear John video message Lenka has already sent him. Still, he knows something’s not right – a fact made boringly literal by the giant talking spider he discovers on board his ship soon after contact with Lenka is severed. Voiced by Paul Dano, said arachnid informs Jakub that he’s studying his memories to better understand humanity, which is really just a conveniently cutesy way for the film to force its protagonist to reflect on his relationship and his own self-involved part in its demise.

Full of therapy-speak platitudes that repeatedly restate the not-terribly-deep themes, the script thoroughly undercuts itself by reducing Mulligan’s character to little more than a catalyst for the banal journey of self-discovery Sandler’s character goes on, which in turn diminishes Sandler’s performance, ensuring it comes off as a morose, shallow riff on the more complex roles he’s played in the likes of Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories. The film, meanwhile, jettisons the deadpan humour implicit in the concept in pursuit of some pseudo-profound yet heavily sentimentalised update of Solaris. It doesn’t work at all.

Dune: Part Two is in cinemas from 1 March; Spaceman is on selected release now and streams on Netflix from 1 March.