Long Live the Fighters

Dune 2 Proves the Movie Star is Not Dead

The sci-fi epic marks an important post-superhero wave turning point in Hollywood.

Timothée Chalamet and Austin Butler in 'Dune: Part Two'
Warner Bros. Pictures
Dune: Part Two

For the majority of the 2010s, it seemed, for a time, like the days of fresh-faced movie stars taking over the industry and becoming their own box office draws had been left behind. Instead, Hollywood was overtaken by an era of superheroes and pre-existing characters whose popularity will forever dwarf those of the actors hired to play them. Those who felt driven to panic online about that trend weren't wrong to do so, either, as the early years of this very decade have suffered from a drought of new movie stars.

Fortunately, it looks like that period may be over. That is, at least, just one of the thoughts destined to cross your mind while you watch director Denis Villeneuve's latest sci-fi epic, Dune: Part Two.

Timothée Chalamet gives his greatest movie star performance to date in Dune: Part Two.

Warner Bros. Pictures

The cast of Dune: Part Two is full of heavy hitters, but as incredible and memorable as several of its veteran actors are (namely, Javier Bardem and Rebecca Ferguson), it's hard to watch the film and not be swept away by the star power of its younger leads.

For his part, Timothée Chalamet is asked to give one of the most difficult performances of his career as Paul Atreides, who is initially haunted by the power at his disposal but who eventually decides to unleash it anyway. Chalamet is commanding throughout the entire film, but it's his post-Water of Life performance as Paul that leaves the biggest mark. He perfectly communicates the unholy fury and terrifying conviction necessary to make you feel the full impact of Paul's downward spiral into selfish, mercenary villainy.

Opposite him, Zendaya is asked to carry much of Dune: Part Two's emotional weight on her shoulders. Her character, Chani, is the film's heart, soul, and true hero, and Villeneuve visually hinges many of its most emotionally revelatory moments on close-ups of her face. Zendaya is, thankfully, more than up to the task. In Dune: Part Two, she is simultaneously fierce and soulful, loving and skeptical, and watching her and Chalamet create a swoony, old-Hollywood romance together in the middle of a film like Dune: Part Two is an impressive feat.

The world has known for a long time that Zendaya is a star, but Dune: Part Two feels like the first film to prove just how well she can occupy something as intimidatingly massive as an IMAX screen all on her own.

Dune: Part Two gives every one of its principal cast members a chance to shine — no matter how small their role may be.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Chalamet and Zendaya aren't the only young performers who make a mark in the movie. There's also Austin Butler, who is utterly unrecognizable thanks to the prosthetics that cover his face and head and the vocal modulations he does to make his character, Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, actually sound like his Baron uncle (Stellan Skarsgård). There's not a trace of Butler's iconic Elvis performance to be found in his Feyd-Rautha, and yet there is the same charisma, which is not so much dimmed here as it is twisted to become purely menacing. (If his performance as Feyd isn't charismatic enough to convince some skeptics of his star power — just wait until they see him in Jeff Nichols' The Bikeriders.)

Rounding out the film's young Hollywood ensemble is, of course, Florence Pugh. Relegated to a fairly small supporting role as Princess Irulan, the daughter of Christopher Walken's Emperor Shaddam IV, Pugh doesn't get a lot to do in Dune: Part Two. She is a spectator and an archivist, and it isn't until Chalamet's Paul abruptly demands her hand in marriage at the end of the film that her importance becomes heartbreakingly clear. Despite all of that, Pugh commands your attention whenever she appears. Some, including this writer, would argue that there's almost no better test of an actor's movie star capabilities than asking them to just be onscreen. Pugh does that in Dune: Part Two, and she is just as spell-binding to watch in it as she's always been.

What's truly noteworthy about that is it proves Pugh is an actor who can, like any great movie star, shine in a film no matter how developed or blank her character may be. The same is true of her aforementioned co-stars. None of them are overwhelmed by their characters the same way so many superhero actors have been over the past decade. It is, in fact, Zendaya, Chalamet, Butler, and Pugh's individual star presences that make their characters stand out so much.

Florence Pugh doesn’t have much to do in Dune: Part Two, but her presence alone carries considerable weight.

Warner Bros. Pictures

For years, industry analysts and casual moviegoers alike have wondered what the future of Hollywood might look like and, specifically, whether or not the age of the movie star had already ended. Part of the joy of watching Dune: Part Two comes not only from seeing how thoroughly it pushes back against those concerns but also how resoundingly it confirms that an entire wave of charismatic, watchable young stars has, indeed, finally arrived.

Dune: Part Two is now playing in theaters.

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