Dune: Part Two, review – when was the last time a $190m blockbuster was this stately and sinister?

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides
Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides - Warner Bros. Pictures

“Any sufficiently advanced technology,” Arthur C Clarke wrote in 1962, “is indistinguishable from magic.” Perhaps the defining achievement of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune films is that they blur the line between the two so thoroughly that the equation collapses in on itself. The technology here is magic: something to be felt in your soul, not puzzled out in your head.

Early in this second instalment – perhaps the last, perhaps not – a squad of Harkonnen stormtroopers use their jet packs to scale a rocky butte in the deserts of Arrakis. But rather than the devices boosting the soldiers skywards, they cause them to drift up the outcrop’s wall like astronauts slingshotting their way through the arterial tunnels of a space station: fast, slippery and silent, up they shoot.

You recognise the movement immediately but the context is alien, and the dissonance makes your skin prick. Villeneuve pulls off something like this in almost every scene, and the effect refreshes as much as it unnerves. When was the last time a $190m blockbuster was this stately, this sinister – and this content to not explain a single aspect of itself, but instead simply allow the viewer to grab what they can and intuit the rest?

The answer may well be 2021, when Villeneuve’s first Dune film was released – and proved popular enough to secure this sequel, yet still felt a little under-appreciated. Part Two picks up exactly where its predecessor left off, immediately dunking the audience back in by the ankles. The Harkonnens, led by Stellan Skarsgård’s toadlike Baron, now preside over Arrakis’s spice trade, while Timothée Chalamet’s exiled Paul Atreides wages guerrilla warfare with Zendaya’s Chani and the native Fremen tribesfolk on the Harkonnens’ mining operations.

Paul’s attempt to wrest back control entails cashing in a centuries-long religious conspiracy, and it is this process – led by his mother, the Bene Gesserit priestess Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) – that consumes much of the film’s epic running time. That makes this second part feel even more single-minded than the first, which also had to introduce the mining process, as well as the mytho-hallucinatory properties of the spice itself.

Timothée Chalamet and Austin Butler in Dune: Part Two
Timothée Chalamet and Austin Butler in Dune: Part Two - Warners/AP
Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica in Dune: Part Two
Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica - Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc

Here, in place of that, we get a lot of Javier Bardem’s devout Fremen leader Stillgar getting worked up about prophecies, with a sunny intransigence that sometimes recalls Life of Brian’s “Yes! We’re all individuals!” scene. Breaks come in the form of occasional glimpses of the Emperor (Christopher Walken) and his daughter (Florence Pugh) mulling the unrest from afar, and a chunky sojourn to the Harkonnen home world, where Austin Butler’s psychotic heir to the dynasty, Feyd-Rautha, prepares to take charge.

Channeling a Skarsgårdian Nordic drawl that might finally get the Elvis accent out of his system, Butler is transfixing as this terrifying sadist, who slits throats as casually as you or I might flick at flies. (When an adversary presses a blade to his own, he drools with delight.) Butler is by far the busiest of the new batch of gorgeous weirdos Villeneuve has added to his ensemble: Pugh and Léa Seydoux are both strong presences, but have relatively little to do.

'The technology here is magic': a scene from Dune: Part Two
'The technology here is magic': a scene from Dune: Part Two - Warners/AP
Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya
Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya - Niko Tavernise

That could of course change in a further sequel – and judging by a single-scene cameo by Anya Taylor-Joy, Villeneuve certainly appears to want to make one. But Dune’s loose-endedness is one of its best qualities: finding out what happens is secondary to just seeing it unfold. You feel like Chalamet’s Paul when he first manages to ritually mount one of Arrakis’s giant sandworms: the beast thunderously ploughs up a monstrous sandbank, dragging him along with it, then crests its glittering ridge, and all you can feel is your stomach drop away beneath you.

12A cert, 166 min. In cinemas from Friday March 1