'Dune: Part Two' review: Sequel improves on first film's grand formula

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Feb. 21—When your first movie is a hit, the studio tends to give you more cash to spend on the sequel.

And when your film adapts what essentially is the second half of a book, it tends to be more exciting than the installment that came before it.

Not surprisingly, then, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve's excellent "Dune: Part Two" — in theaters March 1, after being pushed into 2024 as a result of last year's Hollywood strikes — is greater in scale and more frequently riveting than its strong predecessor, 2021's six-time Academy Award-winning "Dune."

Villeneuve's adaptation of adored sci-fi work 'Dune' looks to entrance you, not thrill you — Movie review

This second "Dune," costing a reported $190 million, isn't a giant leap forward, the science-fiction epic matching the first ($165 million) precisely in terms of look and tone. And it picks up where "Dune" left off, with possible future messiah Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother, mystical Bene Gesserit Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, "Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning"), living among the Fremen, the native people of the remote desert planet Arrakis.

In case you need a refresher, "Dune" and "Dune: Part Two" are based on Frank Herbert's influential 1965 novel "Dune," a work interested in ecological themes, among others.

In Herbert's world — set thousands of years in the future and following humanity winning a war against artificial intelligence — computers are outlawed in the universe. Instead, to traverse space, folks depend on spice, the mind-altering substance that grows in the sands of Arrakis. As a result, control of the otherwise desolate planet is important — so important that it cost Paul his father and saw the great House Atreides fall to the merciless types of House Harkonnen.

Now, the prescient Paul desires to express his distinct displeasure with what has happened to that house's leader, the grotesque Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård, "Andor"), and the man pulling the strings from above him, the Emperor (Christopher Walken, "The Deer Hunter"), seen in "Part Two" for the first time.

"Your father didn't believe in revenge," Jessica reminds her son.

"Well I do," Paul responds.

Paul wishes to learn the ways of the Fremen, who exist in the harsh lands of Arrakis despite the ever-present threat of the giant sandworms and do not appreciate outsiders coming to take the planet's valuable resource. Fortunately for Paul, a key Fremen, Stilgar (Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"), believes him to be the prophesied off-worlder who will lead the Fremen to a better existence. Paul isn't so sure about that, and neither are others, among them Chani (Zendaya "Spider-Man: No Way Home") — literally the woman of his spice-fueled dreams and to whom, of course, he grows closer in this film.

As the story progresses, Paul works to pass tests administered by Stilgar to prove his worth; encounters an old friend and mentor in Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin, "Avengers: End Game"); and faces a new and possibly more dangerous enemy in Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), the psychopathic nephew of the baron, who rises to power as his brother, Beast Rabbanas (Dave Bautista, "Guardians of the Galaxy"), struggles to defeat the constantly attacking Fremen.

Most importantly, Paul wants to avoid the potentially catastrophic results of choosing the path he takes in his visions. However, other forces, including his mother — traveling her own rise to power in this chapter — may pull him there nonetheless.

Visually, at least, "Dune: Part Two" is a masterpiece. With contributions from returning contributors including director of photography Greig Fraser, production designer Patrice Vermette, editor Joe Walker, visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert and costume designer Jacqueline, the film is regularly wondrous while also presenting a very gritty and lived-in world. It is a sight to behold, for example, every time Fremen warriors rise from the sand and charge at the Harkonnen spice-harvesting operation. Ultimately, we seldom get world-building as stunning as what Villeneuve has offered with these two films.

Like the 2021 release, "Part Two" is a little slow at times, not a shock given its two-and-a-half-hour-plus runtime. Even still, this is yet more topnotch filmmaking from Villeneuve, whose previous directorial efforts include the outstanding films "Sicario" and "Blade Runner 2049." He knows how to pull you into a story and keep you invested, even a narrative as strange and sprawling as that of "Dune."

Villeneuve co-wrote the screenplay with another returning collaborator Jon Spaihts ("Doctor Strange"), the tandem continuing to show tremendous work in the realm of adaptation, bringing to the screen only what we need for a compelling tale.

Within the frame, Chalamet ("Wonka," "Call Me by Your Name"), as he was in the first film, is merely a semi-engaging hero — that is until a rousing late-affair scene where the actor goes big and truly impresses. It's a performance that's needed to sell what's to follow, and sell it he does.

The cast is too large to do much more singling out, but know that Butler, following impressive performances in projects including "Elvis" and "Masters of the Air," is rather terrifying as the especially horrendous Harkonnen. Feyd-Rautha is one-dimensional and a disappointingly underdeveloped character, but Butler is terrifying as the villain all the same.

The huge ensemble of "Dune: Part Two" also includes notable newcomers in Florence Pugh ("Black Widow"), as Princess Irulan, daughter of the Emperor, and Léa Seydoux ("No Time to Die"), as Lady Fenring, an enigmatic Bene Gesserit who pays a visit to Feyd-Rautha. Both actors get relatively little screen time, but one imagines they could get significantly more in a third "Dune."

As you'd expect given that Herbert penned sequels to "Dune," there is room for this story to continue. And as likely as a "Dune: Part Three" is to be green-lit, there are reasons to suspect it won't arrive as quickly as this film has.

Regardless of when it arrives, with the gift Villeneuve so far has illustrated for spice-navigating us through space, we'll follow him back to Arrakis as beyond.

'Dune: Part Two'

Where: Theaters.

When: March 1.

Rated: PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some suggestive material and brief strong language.

Runtime: Two hours, 46 minutes.

Stars (of four): 3.5.