May 2024


Perilous Worlds

Dune: Part Two, Poor Things

Miles David Moore


Two renowned recent films, each in its way an extravagant fantasy, offer protagonists who must forge paths through worlds that present daunting perils.  Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet), lead character of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two, already has suffered much in the vicious interplanetary society he inhabits; his further exploits set him up to become the leader of it. Conversely, Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), heroine of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things, enters Victorian England as a tabula rasa, but her innocence confounds the human predators who surround her, and she learns quickly how to rout them.

Adapted from Frank Herbert’s novel by Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts, Dune: Part Two picks up where the first part left off, with House Atreides destroyed, Paul and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) stranded on the desert planet of Arrakis, and House Harkonnen in total control of Arrakis’ priceless spice fields.  (Spice, part rocket fuel and part psychotropic drug, is the most valuable commodity in the Dune universe, and might reasonably be described as the story’s McGuffin.)  Paul and Lady Jessica must shelter with the Fremen rebels in the farthest reaches of the desert, where they must quickly learn the Fremen language and customs on pain of death. 

Complicating matters is that Stilgar (Javier Bardem), leader of the Fremen, is convinced that Paul is the messiah foretold in the Fremen religion.  (When Paul denies being the messiah, Stilgar exults that he’s too humble to admit it.)  Chani (Zendaya), a young Fremen warrior, isn’t buying any of it.  “If you want to control people, tell them a messiah’s coming,” she says.  “And they’ll wait.  And wait.”  Paul and Chani eventually fall in love, but that does not make her any less skeptical.


Meanwhile, the evil Harkonnens are reveling in their control of Arrakis and their new favor with the scheming Emperor Shaddam (Christopher
Walken).  Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgard) finds his nephew Rabban (Dave Bautista) a disappointment, so instead he selects his other nephew Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), who makes Caligula look like Mister Rogers, as his successor.  Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), leader of the powerful Bene Gesserit sisterhood, thinks Feyd-Rautha can rid the empire of Paul Atreides for good.  Lady Jessica, herself a Bene Gesserit, seeks to use her powers to protect her son and salvage what’s left of House Atreides.

This is the barest sketch of Dune: Part Two. a film whose story can fairly be described as Byzantine.  Fans of the books already know the story; those who have not read them should know as few details as possible going in, all the better to preserve the engrossing intricacies of the plot.  Freed from the necessary exposition in the first installment, Villeneuve and Spaihts concentrate on establishing the characters and presenting the convoluted rules that govern and shape them.  As fantastic as those rules seem, they make the Dune saga fundamentally more serious than Star Wars, Star Trek or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, posing religious, political and environmental questions that resonate uncomfortably in our own world. 

Dune: Part Two is as visually resplendent as its predecessor, portraying the bleak beauty of Arrakis’ sand dunes like an otherworldly Lawrence of Arabia.  The battle and fight scenes are even more thrilling than in Part One, because we have a firmer grasp of who these people are and what this society is.  The entire technical crew deserves to take a bow, including cinematographer Greig Fraser, editor Joe Walker, production designer Patrice Vermette, composer Hans Zimmer and the usual multiple truckloads of special effects wizards.


Dune: Part Two is not the sort of film that gains much attention for its acting, but all the members of the stellar cast perform impeccably.  Chalamet gives a rousing, rally-the-troops speech toward the end; it reminds me that he once played Henry V in a bastardized version of Shakespeare, and it makes me wish he could do the part as the Bard wrote it, including the St. Crispin’s Day speech.  Butler is sublimely creepy as Feyd-Rautha, his pretty features twisted into a sneer beneath a shaven head.  Zendaya’s Chani is the most touching character, torn between her ideals and a love she can never have.

As of this writing, Villeneuve has tentative plans for a third Dune movie.  I understand from Dune aficionados that the next part of the story concentrates less on battle and more on political intrigue.  The ending of Dune: Part Two certainly sets up the potential for a sequel, and I’m sure I’m not alone in being interested in what comes next.

Unlike Dune: Part Two, Poor Things ostensibly takes place on Earth, roughly 130 years ago.  Visually, there is very little in the film that anyone would recognize as being of our world.  But Lanthimos and screenwriter Tony McNamara, adapting Alasdair Gray’s novel, create a film that resonates in the real world--part horror dramedy, part philosophical treatise and part feminist anthem.

Poor Things begins with the startling image of a young woman in an electric blue gown jumping from Tower Bridge. The next scene is in black and white, in the home of surgeon Godwin “God” Baxter (Willem Dafoe)—a place that, like its owner, reminds us of both Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Frankenstein. 


Dr. Baxter—a monstrous apparition who looks as if he were stitched together from spare parts in the morgue—shares his house with a young woman named Bella (Emma Stone) and the most alarming mutant animals since Phil Kaufman’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  All the animals are the products of Dr. Baxter’s laboratory, and so, indeed, is Bella—she is the woman who leapt from the bridge, reanimated with the brain of her unborn child.

Bella is to all appearances a grown woman, but her motor and social skills are infantile, as is her moral sense.  She moves with the jerkiness of a toddler; she demands the slaughter of pets; in Dr. Baxter’s laboratory, she fondles the private parts of corpses prepared for dissection, then stabs out their eyes.  She slaps new acquaintances, such as Dr. Baxter’s assistant Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), just for the hell of it.

As Bella matures mentally, Dr. Baxter feels she needs protection from exploitation.  McCandles has fallen in love with Bella, so Dr. Baxter sees marrying her to McCandles as the solution.  However, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), the lawyer hired to draw up the marriage contract, is a dastardly roue who looks at Bella and smacks his lips.  When Wedderburn offers to take Bella to Lisbon, she accepts.  She wants to gain experience of the world, as well as more of the “furious jumping” (i.e. hot sex) to which Wedderburn has introduced her.

Bella and Wedderburn’s tryst turns into a voyage of discovery—generally pleasant for Bella, not so much for Wedderburn.  To Wedderburn’s
chagrin, Bella simply will not conform to his (and his society’s) image of a proper, demure young lady who eagerly accepts instruction from a man.  Chance companions and acquaintances such as philosophical traveler Martha von Kurtzroc (Hanna Schygulla), her cynical friend Harry Astley (Jerrod Carmichael), and Parisian bordello proprietor Mme. Swiney (Kathryn Hunter) open Bella’s eyes to life’s possibilities while leaving Wedderburn wanting to open a vein. 

Through such previous films as The Lobster, The Favourite and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos has earned a reputation as a cinematic provocateur, and Poor Things is his most outrageous film of all.   As my description of the plot should suggest, Poor Things is so discomfiting that it can’t be recommended to all moviegoers. But for adventurous audiences, it is invigorating, insightful, and often roll-in-the-aisles funny.  Bella’s adventures have a distinctly feminist tone, but even more they raise questions of what it means to be human, and how much free agency we have as humans.


Poor Things has received and deserves nothing but praise for its technical accomplishments. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan, production designers Shona Heath and James Price, and costume designer Holly Waddington provide Lanthimos with the means to create a gleaming, forbidding fantasy world, veering between stark black-and-white and plummy colors that would make Michael Powell and Jack Cardiff envious.  Special honors go to makeup artists Nadia Stacey, Mark Coulier and Josh Weston, who create for Willem Dafoe a ravaged, nightmarish visage as Dr. Baxter.  Himself the victim of multiple transformational operations by his surgeon father, Dr. Baxter is anguished both physically and spiritually, but feels trapped in a macabre world that allows him no recourse except to craft variations of himself.

Dafoe’s is only one of many superb performances in Poor Things.  Ruffalo is hilariously over the top as Wedderburn. Youssef, Schygulla, Carmichael and Hunter are excellent, as is Christopher Abbott as Gen. Alfie
Blessington, whose significance in the story is best left a surprise.  The revelation, however, is Stone, whose performance has no real parallel except perhaps with some of the great silent actors.  Flinging herself about with the abandon of a four-year-old, Stone captures perfectly the perplexity and wonderment of a person discovering the world, as well as the resolve of someone determined to make the world work for her.  Her performance as Bella demonstrates that acting can be playful, physical, and transcendent all at once.


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Miles David Moore is a retired Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4’s Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2024 Miles David Moore
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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