BBC 2024-02-22 04:31:38


Major Alabama hospital pauses IVF after court rules frozen embryos are children

A ruling from the Alabama Supreme Court that frozen embryos are considered children, and that a person could be held liable for accidentally destroying them, has opened up a new front in the US battle over reproductive medicine.

The southern US state’s largest hospital has paused its in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) services in the wake of the decision, over fears it could expose them to criminal prosecution.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham health system said it would continue retrieving eggs from women’s ovaries. But it said it would halt the next step in the IVF process, in which the eggs are fertilised with sperm before being implanted into the uterus.

“We are saddened that this will impact our patients’ attempt to have a baby through IVF,” the leading state medical provider said in a statement.

“But we must evaluate the potential that our patients and our physicians could be prosecuted criminally or face punitive damages for following the standard of care for IVF treatments.”

Medical experts and reproductive advocacy groups warned the ruling could have negative consequences for fertility treatments in Alabama and beyond.

Conservative groups welcomed the ruling, arguing that even the tiniest embryo deserved legal protection.

Why did this lawsuit occur and what did the court rule?

The case stems from a wrongful death lawsuit brought by three couples whose embryos were lost at a fertility clinic in 2020.

A patient had wandered into the place where the embryos were stored, handled them, and accidentally dropped them. As a result, the embryos were destroyed.

The couples sought to sue the Center for Reproductive Medicine and the Mobile Infirmary Association under the state’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act. That law covers foetuses, but did not specifically cover embryos resulting from IVF.

A lower court had ruled that the embryos did not qualify as a person or child, and that a wrongful death lawsuit could not move forward.

But in its ruling, the Alabama Supreme Court sided with the couples, and ruled that frozen embryos were considered “children”.

The wrongful death law applied to “all unborn children, regardless of their location”, the decision said.

Concurring with the majority opinion, Chief Justice Tom Parker wrote: “Even before birth, all human beings have the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory.”

What are the implications for Alabama fertility patients?

The ruling does not ban or restrict IVF and in fact, the couples who brought the case actively sought out the procedure.

But the decision may cause confusion about whether some aspects of IVF are legal under Alabama law, experts say. If an embryo is considered a person, it could raise questions about how clinics are allowed to use and store them.

Elisabeth Smith, director of state policy at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told the BBC in a statement: “Not all [IVF] embryos are used, nor can they be.

“To enact legislation granting legal personhood to embryos could have disastrous consequences for the use of IVF – a science many people rely on to build their families.”

Ambiguity over the law could also extend to patients themselves, who may worry about whether the procedure remains available or legal.

The Medical Association of the State of Alabama said in a statement: “The significance of this decision impacts all Alabamians and will likely lead to fewer babies – children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins – as fertility options become limited for those who want to have a family.”

How does this tie in with the US abortion debate?

When the US Supreme Court struck down a nationwide right to abortion in 2022, it opened the door for states to make their own laws on the issue.

Since the decision, Democratic-controlled states have expanded access while Republican-controlled states have restricted it.

Alabama already has a total ban on abortion, at all stages of pregnancy.

The White House called the Alabama ruling “exactly the type of chaos that we expected when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade and paved the way for politicians to dictate some of the most personal decisions families can make”.

Abortion opponents are also watching this ruling closely. The question of when an embryo or a foetus is legally considered a person is a factor in many state abortion restrictions.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group, described the Alabama ruling as a “tremendous victory for life”.

“No matter the circumstances, all human life is valuable from the moment of conception,” spokeswoman Denise Burke said in a statement to the BBC. “We are grateful the Court correctly found that Alabama law recognises this fundamental truth.”

Other anti-abortion activists said IVF was not as clear-cut an ethical issue in their eyes, compared to terminating a pregnancy.

Eric Johnston, a lawyer who helped draft Alabama’s constitutional language on abortion in 2018, told the BBC: “By and large the pro-life community would say that fertilised eggs are in need of protection.”

But he acknowledged there were couples with anti-abortion views who had used IVF to have children, and said he would never condemn them.

“It’s a dilemma, and a dilemma is something where you don’t have a satisfactory answer,” he added.

What could happen in other states?

US states often tend to replicate each other’s legislation, and the US has seen this pattern play out with abortion. Often, states will take cues from each other about what laws or policies have successfully passed legislatures or withstood legal challenges.

Though the Alabama ruling only applies within the state, experts said other states could see legislative attempts or lawsuits aimed at advancing the concept that frozen embryos should legally be considered children or people.

But they said it appeared unlikely this particular case would end up at the US Supreme Court, as the issue of abortion did, because the Alabama ruling originated in state court and concerns an interpretation of state, not federal, law.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 97,128 babies were born in the US as a result of IVF treatments in 2021.

How could this ruling affect US politics?

The right to abortion has been a winning issue for Democrats since the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, which guaranteed the constitutional right to abortion up to the point of foetal viability, about 23-25 weeks.

In the wake of the Alabama ruling, Democratic candidates could run on a platform of protecting access to fertility treatment across the United States.

Republican politicians, meanwhile, often side with religious conservatives who want abortion banned or limited in the US.

Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley, the only significant contender remaining in the race against Donald Trump for the party’s nomination, endorsed the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision on Thursday.

“Embryos to me, are babies,” she said. “When you talk about an embryo, you are talking about, to me, that’s life and so I do see where that’s coming from when they talk about that.”

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Dozens of Russian troops ‘die in Ukraine air strike’

At least 60 Russian troops have been killed after a training area in occupied eastern Ukraine was hit by two missiles, reports say.

Sources familiar with the situation told the BBC that troops had gathered at the site in Donetsk region for the arrival of a senior commander.

Video footage of the incident appeared to show large numbers of dead.

A Russian official confirmed that a strike took place but described the reports as “grossly exaggerated”.

The attack reportedly came hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin met his Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

At the meeting, Mr Shoigu claimed Russian successes in several areas of the front line and spoke of the recent capture of the town of Avdiivka, but made no mention of the Donetsk region incident.

Reports say members of the 36th motorised rifle brigade, normally based in the Transbaikal region of Siberia, were waiting for the arrival of Maj-Gen Oleg Moiseyev, commander of the 29th Army of the Eastern military region, at a training area near the village of Trudovske.

A soldier who survived the incident said during a video recording of the aftermath that the brigade’s commanders had made them stand in an open field.

They were reportedly hit by two missiles fired from the US-made HIMARS launch system.

This and other videos and stills show dozens of soldiers apparently lying dead in a field. Estimates, including by those who survived, suggest at least 60 have died.

The BBC is working to verify the footage.

Transbaikal governor Alexander Osipov indirectly confirmed the strike in his Telegram channel, but said that the reports about it were “inaccurate and grossly exaggerated”.

Without giving casualty figures, he said full and accurate information would be provided to the families of all the soldiers involved.

“No-one will be left without help or support,” he added.

There has been no word about the strike as yet from the Ukrainian authorities.

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In a separate development, several pro-Russian sources have reported that the military blogger Andrey Morozov, known as Murz, has killed himself.

Morozov, whose Telegram channel has some 100,000 subscribers, wrote in a series of apparently final posts that he had been forced by the military to take down a report about Russian losses in recent battles, including Avdiivka.

He had said about 16,000 troops had been killed or seriously injured in the campaign and 300 pieces of armour destroyed.

The blogger wrote that he had been shut down by propagandists from state TV, but that they were too cowardly to come and kill him.

“Well I’ll do it myself then,” he adds. “I’ll shoot myself if no-one dares to take on this trifling matter.”

The BBC is unable to verify reports of the blogger’s death or how he might have died.

Russia’s military rarely reports casualties, but some pro-Russian military bloggers have regularly done so. Ukraine has also spoken of thousands of Russian troops killed in recent battles.

And BBC Russian, in a joint project with the Mediazona website, recently updated its figures for confirmed deaths in the Russian military based on open sources in the two years since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine.

Altogether, 45,123 are confirmed dead, including 6,614 since October last year. Since that date, there has been a sharp increase in average weekly deaths compared with previous months.

Additional reporting by Ilya Barabanov

Historical sites in Afghanistan ‘bulldozed for looting’

Dozens of archaeological sites in Afghanistan have been bulldozed to allow systematic looting, according to researchers at the University of Chicago.

They say their analysis of satellite photos provides the first definitive photographic evidence that looting patterns that began under the previous government have continued since the Taliban returned to power in 2021.

Ancient settlements dating back to the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age – some earlier than 1000BC – are among those they say have been damaged.

Most of the sites identified are in northern Afghanistan’s Balkh region, which more than two millennia ago was the heartland of Bactria.

It was one of the richest and most populous regions of ancient Afghanistan under the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th Century BC.

By 327BC, Alexander the Great had conquered the region and married a Bactrian woman named Roxana, after defeating the Achaemenid ruler.

Located on a major east-west Silk Route, the region’s central city Bactra – later called Balkh – has been a centre of both the Zoroastrian faith and Buddhist learning. It later became an important Islamic city.

The researchers from the University of Chicago’s Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation have identified more than 29,000 archaeological sites across Afghanistan, helped by satellite imagery and other tools.

But they spotted a new pattern in the Balkh region from 2018 onwards.

They say they have identified specks on the images that they are confident are bulldozers because of the way they appear and disappear over time, and the tracks they leave in their wake.

These freshly bulldozed areas then appear in later images, covered with pits dug by looters, Prof Gil Stein, the centre’s director explained.

“Basically, the people were clearing out vast areas to make it easier to loot the site systematically,” he told me.

His team say 162 ancient settlements were “devastated at an astonishing rate of one a week” between 2018 and 2021, and the practice continued at 37 sites after that, under the Taliban.

The researchers are not publishing the exact locations to avoid giving information to potential looters.

Work documenting many of the sites is in its early stages.

This means researchers simply don’t know what is buried in the sites, which are mainly mounds, fortresses, early roadside inns known as caravanserais and canal systems.

But only 97km (60 miles) away lies Tela Tepe, where a hoard of 2,000-year-old Bactrian gold was discovered in 1978.

The “Hill of Gold” contained 20,000 rare items including gold jewellery, an intricate crown and coins, dubbed the Lost Treasures of Afghanistan.

“You can unearth layers of a civilisation in each mound,” says Said Reza Huseini, a research fellow at Cambridge University.

Born in Balkh, he spent time in his 20s as a volunteer surveying archaeological sites in northern Afghanistan, including some of those the researchers say have been bulldozed. He was shocked to see the images from the University of Chicago.

“When I hear about it, I feel as if my soul is dying,” he said.

There are no clear answers about who is behind the apparent destruction.

Prof Stein says it is significant that the pattern began under the previous government – led by former President Ashraf Ghani – and continued under the Taliban.

Mr Ghani’s government was weak and did not have full control of some parts of the country.

Balkh, including northern Afghanistan’s largest city Mazar-i-Sharif, was among the first areas to fall to the Taliban before they captured the capital Kabul in August 2021.

Prof Stein believes the sites may be being looted by people who are wealthy and powerful enough to be able to buy or rent earth-moving equipment, and to move it to rural areas “with nobody interfering”.

Mr Huseini says some archaeological sites in the area were being looted before he left the country in 2009.

“No-one could do excavations and digging without the permission of local strongmen and militias,” he told me.

“For them, the historic value is not important, they dig and destroy to see what they can find. I’ve seen it with my own eyes – they even used a soil sieve to check for stuff.”

He says he was once part of efforts to secure archaeological access to an ancient site where a militia commander was planting opium.

Back in 2001, the Taliban caused shock around the world when they blew up the 1,500-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas, once the largest standing Buddha statues in the world, during their first stint in power.

But when they returned two decades later, they said they would respect the country’s ancient heritage.

The Taliban’s acting deputy minister for information and culture, Atiqullah Azizi, rejected the claims that looting is taking place, saying an 800-strong unit has been assigned to look after historic sites.

He told the BBC some organisations had sent images to the ministry regarding “bulldozer movements and people moving soil” but said that “we sent various teams to check the sites and I can reassure you that there hasn’t been a single incident in any of those sites”.

The Taliban’s defence ministry also said three people were arrested in September, accused of trying to smuggle a stash of antiquities worth about $27m (£21.4), including statues, mummies, a golden crown, a book and swords.

It says the items were handed over to the national museum and the investigation is continuing.

I shared Mr Azizi’s response with Prof Stein.

He said he couldn’t speculate as to why he denied the looting claims, but added: “We can show there was continuity even across two very different political regimes.”

Prof Stein believes looted artefacts are smuggled out of Afghanistan through Iran, Pakistan and other countries and then end up in Europe, North America, and east Asia.

There is a chance some could be showcased, undated and untitled, in auctions and museums around the world.

He points out it is hard to track them down if they have never been catalogued, but he believes it is important to try – and to protect the locations where many more could be found.

“The heritage of Afghanistan is really part of world heritage and something that honestly belongs to all of us,” Prof Stein says.

The ‘dry tripping’ trend for spring break travel

More Gen Zers are aiming for “dry tripping” this Spring Break. And no, it doesn’t involve psychedelics.
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Micah Dusseau goes to bars with his friends three nights in a row when he’s on holiday. “There’s no hangover, so we can stay out at the bars however late we want,” the 24-year-old who lives in Columbus, Ohio, said. Like many Gen Z travelers, he is alcohol-free when he travels, and even his friends who drink admire his choices. “They end up not drinking as much,” he told BBC Travel.

For decades, many people’s holidays revolved around indulgence and nightlife. Now, “dry tripping,” the concept of travelling without alcohol, is poised to skyrocket in popularity and shift the conversation.

“I’m not trying to get other people around me to stop drinking because I know that that’s not plausible,” 26-year-old Mary Honkus, a New York-based writer, told BBC Travel. “And everyone has a different relationship with alcohol. But it’s rewarding to me,” she added. “I can still have so much fun and enjoy myself while in a beautiful location without that alcohol.”

Capitalising on vacation

It’s clear that today’s younger generations aren’t as enamored by alcohol as their predecessors. In fact, more than half of American legal drinking-aged Gen Zers – approximately 54% – haven’t had alcohol in the past six months, according to International Wine and Spirit Research (IWSR).

So, when it comes to travel, Gen Zers and even Millennials can find dry tripping to be a natural and appealing decision. After all, you are likely to get more out of your vacation – physically, emotionally and financially – when you cut alcohol out of the equation: When you’re sober, you’re more likely to have a solid night of sleep, so waking up early might feel less daunting and participating in physical activities will likely feel more doable, and dining out is certainly more affordable.

“Alcohol-free travel allows for hangover-free travel, which I think we can all get behind,” Elizabeth Gascoigne, founder and CEO of Absence of Proof, a non-alcoholic events company and distributor, told BBC Travel.

According to International Wine and Spirit Research, more than half of American legal drinking-aged Gen Zers haven’t had alcohol in the past six months (Credit: Getty)

Travelling takes a toll on your body, “from long-distance drives to the dreaded jet lag,” Victoria Watters, co-founder of Dry Atlas, a media company that focuses on alcohol alternatives, told BBC Travel – and drinking can certainly add to that drain. If you remove alcohol from the equation, however, you’ll naturally feel better, Watters said. Plus, she noted that as health consciousness continues to rise and social norms evolve, dry tripping isn’t only changing how some people travel, but also how people date and attend social events such as weddings.

And, she explained, along with physical benefits, there are psychological benefits to cutting out alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant and without it, Watters said, people are more likely to enjoy their holiday. “The greater the amounts of alcohol consumed and the more regular the intake, the more likely a person will be to develop temporary anxiety and depressive symptoms,” according to the National Institute of Health.

In the same way that hotel gyms draw in people who want to live healthy lives – and exercise away from home – travellers are placing an importance on maintaining an alcohol-free lifestyle while experiencing a new destination, Hilary Sheinbaum, author of The Dry Challenge and founder of GoingDry.co, a non-alcoholic event and menu curation company, told BBC Travel.

This change challenges our association with the “five-o’clock-somewhere” attitude towards holidays, Watters pointed out, adding that “sober curiosity” and alcohol alternatives aren’t just fads. “They’re here to stay,” she said.

“With the help of social media, more people are talking about it and embracing it,” Honkus said, pointing to TikTok as a platform where people are “open and honest about their journeys.” The reinvention of self-care and mental health is also a contributing factor to the shift, she said. “I feel like people are starting to realize it’s doing a lot more harm than good,” she added, referring to drinking alcohol.

More hotels are offering mocktails, adaptogen drinks, teas and even serotonin sodas (Credit: Alamy)

Businesses are catching on

Airlines and hotels are adapting accordingly, offering non-alcoholic mocktail and beer options on their menus. And when businesses focus on offering non-alcoholic options, booze-free travel becomes more accessible. “Gen Z drinks less than the generations before them, so hotels, bars and restaurants are catering to their likes and requests,” Sheinbaum said.

Delta, JetBlue and Alaska Airlines all have non-alcoholic offerings, serving mocktails and non-alcoholic beer both in-flight and in lounges. Delta passengers can order mocktails like the “Citrus Fizz” or the “Pomegranate Lemon Cooler,” and Alaska Airlines offers Best Day Brewing, a craft non-alcoholic beer, on every flight. JetBlue also serves Athletic Brewing non-alcoholic beer on all of its domestic flights.

Watters said cruises aren’t far behind. Virgin Voyages, for example, revamped its mocktail menu, aiming to be “the best cruise line for non-drinkers.” The Disney Cruise Line is also focusing on mocktails, teaming up with non-alcoholic cocktail company Free Spirits.

Hotels are leaning in, too. “Hotels are rolling out delicious mocktails, adaptogen drinks, teas and serotonin sodas,” Melanie Fish, chief trend tracker for Expedia Brands, noted in an Expedia report.

Hilton offers mocktails that feature Lyre’s non-alcoholic spirits, and Marriott added non-alcoholic drink options to its lounges and bars, Watters pointed out. Sheinbaum said hotel beverage directors have a clear understanding of the shift. The Fairmont Kei Lani in Maui, for example, has non-alcoholic cocktails on both its bar and restaurant menus, and the hotel’s beverage director has been sober for more than two years.

The UK is ahead of the curve

When you pair Gen Z’s lack of interest in drinking with the generation’s preference for spending money on experiences rather than things, you have a strong consumer base for non-alcoholic options in the travel space, Watters said.

She pointed out that the UK is particularly focused on this shift, launching travel agencies – like We Love Lucid – that are dedicated to alcohol-free tourism.

Sheinbaum echoed the sentiment. “The US is definitely catching on, but the UK is where Dry January started and also where many nonalcoholic beverages have emerged,” she said.

“Cutting alcohol out of a vacation will make the journey more meaningful and fulfilling,” Dr. Subhash C. Pandey, director of the Alcohol Research Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told BBC Travel. He added that both preclinical and clinical studies suggest that alcohol does not have any beneficial effects on the body.

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Dune: Part Two is jaw-droppingly weird ★★★☆☆

Denis Villeneuve’s epic science-fiction sequel abandons logic and clarity – but ends up being one of the oddest pieces of art-house psychedelia ever to come from a major studio, light years away from the average Hollywood blockbuster.
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A remarkable proportion of Denis Villeneuve’s epic science-fiction sequel, Dune: Part Two, is about giant worms racing through the desert at breakneck speed. They do it so often, in so many key scenes, that you may eventually find yourself asking how it’s possible. What exactly is propelling these enormous legless, eyeless monsters? They don’t wiggle like snakes, and worms aren’t generally known for their swiftness, so how do creatures as big as bullet trains manage to move as fast as bullet trains, too?

The answer is that you just have to shrug your shoulders and go with it. And the same goes for almost everything else in Dune: Part Two. After about an hour, it becomes clear that the filmmakers have abandoned logic and clarity, but once you accept that it isn’t going to make much sense, you can stop worrying, and wallow in one of the most jaw-droppingly weird pieces of art-house psychedelia ever to come from a major studio.

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Adapted from the second half of Dune, Frank Herbert’s influential 1965 novel, the film begins where the last one left off back in 2021: in the desert. Timothée Chalamet returns as Paul Atreides, an interstellar aristocrat whose family has just been massacred by the evil Harkonnens: Stellan Skarsgård is the Marlon Brando-ish Baron, and Dave Bautista is the brutish enforcer who murders so many of his own employees that he makes Darth Vader seem like Santa Claus.

Paul and his mother (Rebecca Ferguson) are now hiding out with the Fremen, the native tribespeople of the planet Arrakis, including their doughty leader (Javier Bardem, providing some much-needed down-to-Earth jollity) and a young warrior, Chani (Zendaya, who does lots of frowning). There is a good chance that the Fremen will help Paul fight back against the Harkonnens, but first he has to win their trust. And that, as you may have guessed, entails learning how to ride on the back of a gargantuan worm, like an illegal train surfer.

The film has so many grand themes, and such a powerfully doom-laden atmosphere, that it more than justifies the price of a cinema ticket

One odd aspect of Dune: Part Two is that Paul’s desert sojourn is the film’s main plot, although there are plenty of subplots to make up for it. There is some cryptic chatter about the blue “water of life” which looks like toilet cleaner, there are some mystical visions and dream sequences, and there is some political and religious debate about whether Paul is the Messiah promised by the Fremen’s ancient prophecies. Meanwhile, on another planet, Christopher Walken and Florence Pugh have a few conversations as the galactic emperor and his daughter, with Léa Seydoux as their slinky sidekick. And on yet another planet (I think), Austin Butler turns up as a new Harkonnen baddie.

There’s certainly a lot going in Dune: Part Two, then, but Paul himself doesn’t do much except hang around with the Fremen, so viewers may soon come to understand why Luke Skywalker left Tatooine in the first hour of Star Wars: it turns out that there’s only so much sand that you want to look at. In a cast stacked with an absurd number of contemporary cinema’s finest actors, it’s Butler who steals the show as a vampiric sadist with some of the strutting rock’n’roll sexiness that the actor had in Elvis – and in many ways, he is more of a protagonist than Paul is.

Unfortunately, no one else makes much of an impression. That is, they make an impression, visually, because they’re so gorgeous and their costumes are so dazzlingly ornate – in the future, it seems, everyone will dress as if they’re Janelle Monáe at the Met Gala – but no one in Dune: Part Two is a distinctive or rounded individual.

The romance between Paul (Timothée Chalamet) and Chani (Zendaya) is key to the story (Credit: Warner Bros)

Villeneuve and his co-writer, Jon Spaihts, just don’t give any of the characters enough interesting things to say or do, despite the 166-minute running time at their disposal. The heart of the film is, supposedly, the romance between Paul and Chani, but it’s so underdeveloped that it’s impossible to care whether or not they will live happily ever after. And who knows if they do live happily ever after, anyway? Dune: Part Two takes us to the end of Herbert’s first Dune novel, but numerous plot strands are left hanging, presumably in the hope that they’ll be tied up in Dune: Part Three.

You might expect a big-budget space opera to exhilarate you and move you, and on those terms Villeneuve’s sprawling, pretentious folly has to count as an abject failure. But if you want to feel awestruck, that’s another matter. Proudly grave and portentous, the film has so many grand themes, and such a powerfully doom-laden atmosphere, that it more than justifies the price of a cinema ticket. The alien rituals and languages are so detailed, and the otherworldly design is so elaborate, that at times it really does feel as if you’re watching the product of a distant civilisation. Some viewers will be driven up the wall, and out of the cinema, but others will be spellbound. Everyone will agree that it’s light years away from the average Hollywood blockbuster.

In the 1970s, the visionary Alejandro Jodorowsky planned to make his own Dune film, and one of the people he employed was HR Giger, the Swiss artist who would go on to design Alien. Their project collapsed, but parts of Dune: Part 2 seem just as monumental, lavishly bizarre and downright disturbing as anything that Jodorowsky and Giger can have had in mind.

★★★☆☆

Dune: Part Two is released on 1 March.

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