Partly what’s brilliant about Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is in how it takes human cultural artifacts and practises and bends them outwards to a space where their location as futural becomes entirely believable.
What the film also has in its favour is that it has a fascinating clarity and purity in telling story in the most committed manner possible. Its spaces are complete and believable, its social architecture realistic and partly again this is achieved through grounding the alien in the resonant. So the poor and downtrodden of the city that they arrive at on the Dune world of Arrakis become the sand people of Earth’s middle east, under westernised colonial rule and the ruthless extraction of resources.
One thing that this version of Dune does incredibly well in removing the slight sense of stageyness around the neutered 1984 Lynch version, is to ground the sense of the messianic in essence. Humans have had a yearning-machine up and running for a messiah for a long time, and its a co-option that has been structured through orthodox religion. Most specifically this came through among the colonial and capitalising euro-typics (or at least they were most swift and effective to expansion in the context of the formation of states as maintained territorial-power modes.) This co-option where divinity comes in removes the leadership from entirely human terms and reneges on the fundamental notion of a human leadership of humans. It could be argued that nowhere has messianism taken such hold originally as in the ‘West’ as nowhere has there also been a culture more in dire need of being saved from itself (a symptom perhaps of its own constant abdication).
In this respect Dune at least brings a warrior-saviour (although is there any other kind in the techno-mythic corporatism of Marvel and co?) but what is more interesting again is that in this instance the creation of this messiah is apparently being navigated through bloodline shepherding from the state-inveigled house of witches The Bene Gesserit. Having something as mutant as the notion of a lineage of witches bending the species towards the birth of a superpowered leader-being cuts through the notion of the state in state-religiosity, particularly when we realise it is doing so against the apparernt interests of the state’s leaders and their own lineages (while simultaneously using them). Though it remains questionable that this figure can seemingly only be male and again that the Bene Gesserit are a religious order intermeshed with state power structures. In Herbert’s creation, the state aristocratic mode has co-opted the witch’s lineage as a mutant functionality, the question of the true autonomy of their intent and direction, another question of resistance or not (in whatever form) and freedom about those same tendencies of the state-as-control, with the potential apparently there to at some stage, tip the assemblage itself over.
I also come to realise, as Paul’s mother explains they are waiting for this leader with a mind powerful enough to ‘bridge space and time, past and future’, that this is a capacity that while it brings people and places together – is not always that which is helpful and not also that sometimes, distance in being its own intensity – has its full extent and realisation in meaning of living. Yet it is striking that even here we have the repeated conceptualisation, the transformative of any abject materiality, mirrored in the capacity that the giant spice worms of the desert have to transform the solidity of the sand, the desert itself via vibration, into something they can move through like water.
The Matrix’s great power and revelation was to understand the resonance in the development of their idea that everyone is experiencing the sense that we are caught in the trap of an illusory existence whose parameters and rules do not meld with the deepest or most alive moments of our existence and understanding, when possibilty crosses over from the other side of what’s ‘real’. It is also something that comes through from our contact with moments of heightened consciousness or altered awareness and Dune’s connection with mind altering psilocybin mushrooms is also well attributed. The story hints at its connection with a wider dimension to ecology, as when Paul meets with the tender of the date palm trees out in a sun decimated courtyard. The trees drink the equivalent water to five men per day and when Paul asks if they should be removed to save water he is told by the caretaker that each tree is sacred before his final utterance on the matter as the scene changes. ‘All dream’.
We are not accustomed to seeing or thinking of trees and plants dreaming, but then again, here is a story born partly through the effect of mushrooms on human perception.
It feels like US cinema has woken up to bass sound as a phenomena in the last twenty years or so. Christopher Nolan’s partnership with Hans Zimmer has been instrumental to this. Particularly the huge bass swells and booms of the Inception soundtrack. But Dune carves itself out as being the first film that I would contend takes bass into a pre-eminent position as an expressive part of the story. We hear it throughout the soundtrack, the vast booming sub-bass salutes of the Atriedes ships and their cavernous horns. Through the deep, eastern-tinged orchestral movements into the moment of the Saudukar soldiers’ ritual of departure (above) with its eerie edges and whistles that take it out of the Mongolian space of its inception and harness it in this instance to something malign in its scope. Overall, it is like the futuralisation of bass has been born into this conception of a futural universe and its worlds and stories and has become an entirely expressive element of how the story is told and received.
If anything I would say it’s Villeneuve’s Dune (rather than his actual sequel Bladerunner 2049) that is a true inheritor of the original Bladerunner in its brilliant realisation of a future space. Its clarity of presentation, matched by Villeneuve’s habitually wonderous cinematography (Greig Fraser) presents these vast ships and edifi of futurity as on the eerily sublime side of the visible. So huge they become as mountains, the scenes themselves so empty as to be deserted. So honed as with Tarkovsky’s Stalker (from which other dunic motifs are borrowed). It has an essential spareness alongside this sublime-tinged vastness that is at one with its semi-disguised move of elevating nature. From the Dragonfly ornithopter vehicles that glide over Arrakis on perfectly beating bass hum wings, to the insectoid hunter-seeker drones, to Paul’s meeting with a rodent in the desert. This film comes out of nature, despite being a film of extraordinary human architectures, both in transport and clothing as well as constructions. The earthly is bent into the unearthly, but with no artifice or sense of force. This universe has the authenticity of the arrival of a dream. A thought which chimes with the statement made at the film’s outset and before its credits ‘Dreams are messages from the deep’.
The film’s connection with nature regardless of how prismatised through the story of industrialised space era colonialists and aristo-messianism comes further into focus in the context of the core territory of the story. The desert planet. The desert ‘thy shall suck at the abundance of the seas, and the treasure hid in the sand’ (as quotes Gurney Halleck at one stage) becomes the emptiness that is also wealth, the allegory on this span for the oil fields of the middle east, and yet which yields the greater purpose of the simplicity, tenacity and resiliency of its people. The Fremen who have lived underground, never yielding, fighting guerilla style (as in the film’s exceptional opening sequence) and whose principle of existence (apart from living on virtually nothing) is the ultimate in recycling and a warrior ethos of living. This quiet radicality extends to gender, where the Judge of the Change character Kynes is described as being a man and yet is played by actor Sharon Duncan-Brewster.
Its underlying theme is sublimation to the flow of existence, as the vast becomes porous, transient and trans-liminal. Much like the Sand worms travel through the liquified particulate of the desert, so too as Paul surrenders to the storm and becomes it within the ornithopter, tossed like another particle until they can safely navigate once more. While this theme is one of letting go to the flow, the direction of the stream or its multiplicity is left out somewhat and yet as the Dao helpfully reminds when saying water is ‘…nearly Way’.
In story terms, it leads out into something else which the Matrix helped tease out, the desert of the real. Mark Fisher wrote about Baudrillard, the stripping out of meaning and authenticity from the simulacrum, yet it is also apparent that as much as anything else, it is also the desert of the human levels. The clearing out and clearing off of the tableau of human attributes as contributors to an immanently necessary understanding of as Ursula le Guin put it (and I have mentioned before) ‘realists of a larger reality’.