Dune: Part Two gives great actors insultingly little screen time – but maybe that’s the key to its success

One of Florence Pugh’s few short moments of limelight in ‘Dune: Part Two' (Warner Bros)
One of Florence Pugh’s few short moments of limelight in ‘Dune: Part Two' (Warner Bros)

Has there ever been a cast as stacked as Dune: Part Two? The new sci-fi sequel has got to be up there with the starriest line-ups ever. Timothée Chalamet! Zendaya! Rebecca Ferguson! Javier Bardem! Léa Seydoux! Austin Butler! Florence Pugh! Christopher Walken! Stellan Skarsgård! Josh Brolin! Dave Bautista! Charlotte Rampling! Anya Taylor-Joy! It’s a cast list so freakishly deep that James Cameron’s thinking of piloting a submersible into it.

Inevitably, when you have that many big-name actors sharing just one film – even a hefty three-hour odyssey such as Dune: Part Two – there’s only so much limelight to go around. Chalamet, playing wronged messiah Paul Atreides, is certainly given plenty to do, as are Zendaya, playing his lover and fellow freedom fighter Chani, and Ferguson, playing his mother, the witchy Lady Jessica. Beyond these three, however, it becomes a matter of doing more with less. In another film, the lack of screen time afforded to the rest of the cast would border on insulting. Here, though, it works perfectly.

A film like Dune: Part Two lives or dies with its sense of scale. It is an epic in the truest sense, a visual and narrative behemoth; in the story, the fates of whole planets and species are at stake. By filling pretty much every role with a top-tier, recognisable actor, it imbues even fleeting characters with immediate gravitas. Nowhere is this more clear than in the character of Emperor Shaddam IV, played by Christopher Walken. The Emperor is hardly in this film – I’d wager his line count doesn’t enter double digits. But within the world of Dune, the Emperor is, obviously, a character of great importance. What better way to express this, quickly and intuitively, than by casting a screen giant like Walken?

The same goes for most of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cast – Pugh’s canny Princess Irulan, Léa Seydoux’s conniving Margot, even Paul’s barely glimpsed unborn sister Alia, played by Anya Taylor-Joy – all are girded and enriched simply by the profile and star power of the actors playing them. The film feels big and significant because the people on screen are big and significant (within the world of movies at least).

By filling pretty much every role with a top-tier, recognisable actor, it imbues even fleeting characters with immediate gravitas

What helps, too, is the fact that several of the supporting cast deliver genuinely superb turns. Bardem, as the wide-eyed fanatic Stilgar, gives his best performance in years. Skarsgård, his face caked in grotesque alien makeup, is a perfect irredeemable villain. Butler, meanwhile, almost steals the entire film in just a handful of scenes. His character, the sadistic and completely hairless Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, is introduced in a colosseum battle sequence, filmed in stark black-and-white. It’s the sort of grand, striking set piece that would flatter any actor, but Butler – who narrowly missed out on an Oscar last year for his role in the Presley biopic Elvis – elevates it. He takes huge, captivating swings here, in everything from his voice (a kind of uncanny Skarsgård impression) to his weird, almost inhuman physicality.

There are, of course, less noble reasons why a film would try to pin down an all-star cast list. We have the obvious commercial factor. Indeed, this angle (“Look how many famous people we wrangled!”) was the sole selling point of the dismal comedy Movie 43, which crudely smashed together 14 storylines to accommodate its cumbersome cast. Marvel blockbusters Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame featured astonishingly starry casts, but only a handful of the actors actually had anything to do. Oppenheimer is one of the best recent examples of a big, showy cast being deployed savvily: Christopher Nolan was telling a story that involved a multitude of white men in business suits. Populating the film with so many recognisable faces made it easy for many audience members to quickly grasp and remember who was who.

To some extent, the cast for Dune simply testifies to the excitement around the project. In an era when blockbusters have grown pallid and shameful, Dune: Part Two is a rare popcorn flick with real artistic credibility. Agents would be queueing up to have their most illustrious clients associated with it. But, crucially, this is no vanity exercise, no victory lap. They’re there to do the work – and what work it is. Critics have been more or less unanimous in their adulation: The Independent’s Clarisse Loughrey gave the film five stars, branding it “a work of total sensory and imaginative immersion”, while The Guardian described it as a “staggering spectacle”.

The only unknown at this point is whether director Denis Villeneuve will get to make his proposed trilogy-capper, Dune Messiah. And if he does… will there be anyone left in Hollywood to cast?

‘Dune: Part Two’ is out in cinemas from 1 March