My biggest concern, going into Dune, was that Frank Herbert’s novel seemed too attuned to Denis Villeneuve’s directorial style. Dune was always waiting for Villeneuve to film it, which made me wonder whether he already had filmed it – whether everything he could have said in the film had already been exhausted by Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 and his collaborations with Roger Deakins. Instead, Dune felt like the apotheosis of Villeneuve’s career, not only brimming with the confidence of a new sci-fi epic, but suggesting a way out of the Marvel impasse with a return to genuine marvel – and a taste for big-screen cinematic astonishment.
In particular, Dune feels like a riposte to Marvel world-building, which tends to be economically rationalist in spirit, meaning that most big Marvel films are like watching a corporation acquire assets in real time. In the wake of Avengers: Endgame, the MCU has tried to complicate this approach by turning the franchise timeline, and the process of world-building itself, into a form of experimental play – whether through the period pastiche of WandaVision, the Time Variance Authority of Loki, or the alternative timelines of What If? Yet even these exceptions prove the rule, reminding us that the MCU is slave to a corporate portfolio that has increasingly become the subject of the films themselves, producing the distinct Marvel stance: perkily knowing about the fact of being nothing but commodity, but utterly humourless at the same time. Perky and yet humourless – that’s the MCU in a nutshell.
By contrast, Dune replaces world-building with world-becoming, starting with the opening mantra that “dreams are messages from the deep.” If you don’t know Herbert’s novel, the plot is anything but predictable, proceeding through mystical half-formed sequences to evoke an emergent universe, rather than establishing everything from the outset. Even if you do know the novel, Villeneuve’s treatment is hardly economical, apart from the central plot points. In a future universe, ruled by a decadent Empire, everything depends upon the spice harvested from the planet of Arrakis. This spice enhances vitality, expands consciousness and is critical for interstellar travel, meaning the Emperor is very particular about which planet-state (or house) he assigns to control Arrakis and wage war with the Fremen, the indigenous custodians. When House Atreides, headed by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) are assigned the job, their son Paul (Timothee Chalamet) discovers his destiny as the “one” or the “voice” – a figure prophesied to usher in a new age for the Empire.
Of course, there are many more plot points here, but they emerge gradually and obliquely, leaving Villeneuve time to paint this extraordinary universe with broad and epic strokes. By 2021, it’s hard to make space evocative in science-fiction, but Villeneuve employs several cascading strategies here – the same strategies he has used throughout his body of work, making Dune feel like the apotheosis of every film he has ever directed. First, Villeneuve invests Herbert’s world with a mystical potency, to the point where space itself feels magical. He does this by largely eliding outer space and focusing instead on the topographies and societies of individual planets – especially Caladan, the home of House Atreides, and Arrakis. Since Caladan is an ocean planet, and Arrakis is a desert planet, Villeneuve hones in on the primal elements that comprise planets, which Duke Leto encapsulates in his reasons for accepting the call to Arrakis: “We have air power and sea power – we need desert power.”
More specifically, Villeneuve, like Herbert, invests these different planetary societies with a profoundly mystical and pagan quality. At times, both planets feel like medieval societies that just happen to be connected by space travel – especially Caladan, and House Atreides, which is full of rings, runes, stones and inscriptions, and which maintains a sharp distinction between church and state. Leto, Paul’s father, is the political ruler, while Jessica, Paul’s mother, belongs to the Bene Gesserit, a psychic sisterhood that subtends the state in the same way as the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. In one of the most evocative early scenes, Paul stands on the rugged cliffs of Caladan, watching spaceships rise from the waves and depart from Arrakis, with the same pose that a medieval monk might have adopted to watch ships leave for foreign shores that were as alien, at this time, as the most distant planets are today.
In other words, the distance between planets in Dune is like the distance between different nations in the medieval era. Before the globe was mapped, travelling to another continent was like visiting a new planet. In its fixation with individual enclaves over actual space travel, Dune recaptures the planetary scale of the Earth, and of human life, along with the violence and strangeness of colonial encounters (it’s notable that the Fremen don’t possess space technology, which is presumably what entitles the Emperor to colonise and harvest their resources). For those of us who live in colonised countries, this kind of alien encounter is perhaps the best way to understand our ongoing presence, especially since the film proceeds by following Paul as he shifts from a member of the colonising force to a colonised subject himself. In a diversified and globalised world, Dune reminds us of the profound otherness of different cultures, along with the way that alien invasions are naturalised by the colonial gaze.
Having suffused the film’s spaces with pagan mysticism, Villeneuve turns to a second strategy to make his spaces resonate – focusing on absence as a spectacle in and of itself. Throughout his career, Villeneuve has gravitated towards evocative voids, abstract fields that are smooth and highly granulated at the same time. These fields absorb the granularity of analog cinema into a new digital smoothness, while making an argument for cinema as a tactile as well as visual experience. As Villeneuve shifts between smooth and particulate textures, he evokes a kinaesthetic immersion, a compulsion to reach out and touch the screen, that lends itself to two particular types of spectatorship – the big-screen multiplex experience, where all these textures intensify a hundredfold, but also the use of portable devices, where we can literally touch and cradle the console in our hands. Villeneuve has thus found an aesthetic commensurate to an era where movies are mainly watched on big screens and portable devices, with less recourse to televisions, videos or DVDs as intermediary spectator platforms.
Since Arrakis, in particular, is already the apotheosis of this spatial scheme, Villeneuve’s treatment of it feels truly cosmic – the culmination of years of testing and refining this particular signature. As a desert planet, Arrakis is one giant smooth surface. When you get in close, however, Arrakis is also comprised of two granular textures – sand and spice. It thus offers Villeneuve a perfect vehicle to shift between smooth and particulate visions, which in turn produces a film that is fixated on the very big and the very small, as I will discuss in a moment. I think that the water planet in Interstellar was Christopher Nolan’s way of gesturing towards this new tactile-visual field – and House Atreides itself comes from a water planet. Yet Villeneuve exceeds Nolan, just as Arrakis surpasses Caldan, by providing us with a smooth-granular field that is even more liquidly tactile than water, since we can see every single grain.
In that sense, Arrakis is the culmination of Villeneuve’s visual-tactile solution to the multiplex-portable device bind, meaning that it ramifies as a vibration as much as a stable visual field. Most generally, as a desert planet, it’s a constantly undulating surface, devoid of any consistent topography apart from the rare “islands” of rocks that emerge from the sand. However, the entire ecosystem is also driven by enormous subterranean sandworms that produce spice but also imperil anyone who tries to harvest it. These worms are the sublime quilting-point between the film’s visual and tactile registers, since they produce enormous disruptions to the visual field, at both a macro- and micro-level, without every quite being visible themselves. In other words, they ramify as sublime vibrations, as endless reticulations of texture, even or especially when they emerge into “view” to reveal further reticulations of teeth. To live beside them, the Fremen have to treat the surface of the desert with the most deferential tactility. Over time, they’ve evolved a “sandwalk” to avoid detection – a lilting, arabesque movement that encapsulates the film’s own exquisitely tactile dexterity as well.
This relationship between the Fremen and the sandworms also encapsulates Villeneuve’s third strategy for marvelling at space – ecology. Since the film is mainly interested in the interactions between different human societies and their environments, it plays more as a work of ecology than cosmology – and Herbert was inspired to write the novel by a freelance article he was writing about the United States Department of Agriculture’s efforts to stabilise the Oregon Dunes. Combined with the shifts between smooth distances and granular particulates, this results in an ecological sense of scale – a kind of dynamic sublime in which we continually move between different components of the Arrakis ecosystem to evoke the vast interlinked complexities of the whole. Some of these connections are articulated by the “imperial ecologist,” the only consistent fixture in the Empire’s different regimes on Arrakis, but Villeneuve also embodies it in his direction, which continually cuts to much larger (sandworms) or smaller (beetles, hopping-mice) organisms as they negotiate the desert floor.
This ecological focus also produces a heightened awareness of the body itself as an ecosystem – specifically, as a repository and conduit for precious water as it flows through the desert. With no natural bodies of water, and only a few springs, the human body is such a critical part of the water cycle on Arrakis that the Fremen consider killing Paul and his mother when they first encounter them simply so that they can harvest the water lurking inside their organs. On Arrakis, the body is liquid, and this strange fact drives the combat scenes in a wonderful direction as well. Whenever the members of House Atreides fight, they cloak themselves with a virtual shield that places them in a strange liquid space between embodiment and disembodiment. However, the members of the Fremen only fight when they absolutely have to, since combat is an unnecessary waste of water, a loss to the desert no matter how it ends.
As a result, there is almost no regular combat in Dune, and no climactic combat, which makes it the polar opposite of the MCU, where even the most experimental offerings (such as WandaVision) must end, as if by decree, with the most banal and boring fight scenes. Villeneuve isn’t interested in that kind of catharsis and closure, instead structuring most of his key moments on the tactile-visual quilting points of his cinematic vision. House Atreides’ arrival on Arrakis is marked by our first sandworm, while the betrayal of House Atreides culminates with our first sandstorm, which splits the difference between smooth and particulate textures even more dramatically. Even the main sandworm scene is curiously intimate, devoid of combat, and quite different to how the trailers and posters depict it. They frame it as a standoff during the day, but it actually occurs at night, and is driven by a kind of mutual curiosity, as Paul and the sandworm inspect each others’ roles in this vast ecosystem.
All of Villeneuve’s spatial strategies, and indeed his entire directorial signature, converge on this central decision – to drive the key plot points through and within his trademark approach to space, rather than by reverting to the generic combat sequences that have become de rigeur in the wake of the MCU. There’s something revelatory and exhilarating about that combination, as Villeneuve and Herbert’s worlds feed into each other, producing an emergent wonder that’s bigger than both. Both artists seem to have pre-empted each other, or to be working in tandem, as if Herbert’s world never quite existed until Villeneuve filmed it, but Villeneuve’s directorial signature could never be completed without Herbert’s vision either. Whereas the MCU is obsessed with the rationalist regulation of space and time (never more so than in the temporal revisionism of WandaVision, Loki and What If?), Villeneuve and Herbert seem to be reaching out for each other across space and time here, to produce a world whose own spatiotemporal coordinates are as emergent as its tactile-visual conflations.
That’s the perfect venue for Paul’s quest, which is first articulated by Gaius Helen Mohiam, a Reverend of the Bene Gesserit, played by Charlotte Rampling. Gaius reveals to Paul that he may be the way, the voice and the one – the mind that can finally bridge space and time, past and future, and therefore preclude the need for spice. To adopt the voice, Paul learns, he has to train himself to speak with just the right vibration, turning him into an embodiment of all the vibrations in the film that converge visual and tactile experience into a new cinematic totality. Paul destiny’s, as Villeneuve frames it, is to embody his own directorial style, and the cinematic ecology that it reflects – an ecology of multiplexes and portable devices. And that’s the ultimate ecological vision of Dune, which feels poised between present and future cinema, much as Paul’s dawning ability to collapse time and space undercuts the linear trajectory that takes him to it. Rather than orchestrate time and space around a micro-managed destination, as occurs in the MCU, Dune displaces and transforms its destination as we move towards it, suspending us in “the flow of the process” of Paul’s dawning spice-mind.