The three-year gap between Denis Villeneuve’s two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune has clearly been well spent. Dune: Part Two turns up the visual spectacle, layers its characters, and peers more closely at the intersection between prophecy, politics and individual will.

The sci-fi fantasy films are set in the distant future. Various feudal houses have pledged their allegiance to the Padishah Emperor. A precious commodity called spice makes interstellar travel possible. Spice is found only on the remote planet Arrakis, and is guarded by giant sandworms and the guerilla Fremen tribe.

At the end of Dune, Paul Atreidis (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) were among the few survivors of an attack on Arrakis. Dispatched to Arrakis to mine the spice, the Atreidis clan found itself to be the target of an assassination plot hatched by rival Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard).

Paul and Jessica took shelter with the Fremen. The events were partly foreseen by Paul in his dreams and partly manipulated by Jessica, a member of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood that has been influencing events from the shadows for centuries.

In Dune: Part Two, written by Villeneuve and Joe Spaihts, Paul goes native. He pursues his attraction for Fremen warrior Chani (Zendaya) and earns the trust of Fremen leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem). Paul also learns to handle the sandworms.

Meanwhile, Jessica channels her Bene Gesserit skills to present Paul as the promised messiah who will bring peace and prosperity to Arrakis. Stilgar firmly believes in the prophecy, while the secular-minded Chani has her doubts.

Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya in Dune: Part Two (2024). Courtesy Legendary Pictures/Villeneuve Films/Warner Bros.

The debate between mystical beliefs and optics – is Paul indeed the long-awaited saviour or merely the product of Bene Gesserit stage management? – takes place alongside the efforts of new players to address the fall of House Atreidis. These include Irulan (Florence Pugh), the daughter of the Padishah Emperor (Christopher Walken), the Baron’s nephew Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), and Margot (Lea Seydoux), a Bene Gesserit member in the Emperor’s court.

Villeneuve pulls off a complicated dance between occult practices and hard realpolitik with panache. Except for a slightly rushed extended climax, Dune: Part Two is smoother than its predecessor, even as it is denser.

Ideas that were deliberately left hanging in the first movie come sharply into view. Paul’s journey isn’t as clear-cut as he thought it would be. Ambiguous family ties, hidden motives and manipulation of Fremen loyalty add to the levels of intrigue.

The 166-minute sequel has been released in regular and IMAX formats. The stunning compositions range from maximalist widescreen frames to intense close-ups. Reuniting with cinematographer Greig Fraiser, production designer Patrice Vermette and music composer Hans Zimmer, Villeneuve pays as much attention to the action set pieces as to the intimate encounters. The sense of immersion in a make-believe world is never stronger than in the scenes involving the sandworms – the exhilarating Fremen version of a bullet train.

Especially on an IMAX screen, Dune: Part Two’s improved images appear cleaner than the previous movie, as though someone rubbed the sand stuck to the camera lens. The contrast with the forbiddingly monochrome Harkonnen realm is stark.

But the movie doesn’t present a good-and-evil binary. Dune novelist Herbert Frank was heavily influenced by Middle Eastern cultures. Tucked into Dune: Part Two’s grandiose staging is a cautionary tale of imperialist tendencies, the hidden impulses behind war, and the perils of following a single, messianic voice.

“Power is power,” said a wise woman in the fantasy series Game of Thrones. Dune: Part Two has several prominent female characters who aid or hinder events.

Zendaya’s Chani comes into her own, emerging as Paul’s equal as well as his conscience keeper. Along with Rebecca Ferguson’s Jessica and Florence Pugh’s Irulin, Chani looks set to play a key role in the proposed Dune: Part 3.

Timothée Chalamet too grows into his role as a reluctant rebel. The sequel makes room for humour. Stilgar’s fervent appeals to Paul to embrace his inner messiah gives Javier Bardem some fine moments and a brooding, stately narrative a much-needed touch of levity.

Dune: Part Two (2024).