Film studies, science fiction

History and Dispossession in Dune (2021)

Dystopia and Dispossession in the Hollywood Science Fiction Film, 1979-2017 by Harry Warwick explores the central role of dispossession in Hollywood’s science fiction cinema since the 1980s.

To celebrate the publication of this new book, Harry Warwick revisits its arguments in the light of Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 Dune adaptation, which falls outside the book’s historical scope.

In his pathbreaking essay of 1982, ‘Progress vs. Utopia’, Fredric Jameson offered us a new way of understanding science fiction, which was no longer to be read as an effort to ‘predict’ the real future of our social world or, alternatively, as a means of accustoming its readers (and viewers) to modernity’s rapid social and technological change. Rather, Jameson proposed, science fiction’s ‘multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our present into the determinate past of something yet to come’. The point was never to forecast a future of hovercars, time travel, or alien invasion, but rather to dramatise, through such fantastic projections, the reader’s existence as a subject of history, a grain in the desert of time.

The publication of Jameson’s essay coincided, roughly, with the beginning of a new wave of Hollywood science-fiction cinema. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner appeared in American cinemas in June 1982, three years since his fledgling Xenomorph had burst (quite literally) onto the silver screen. Starting with Alien (1979) and working its way through to Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017), my book Dystopia and Dispossession in the Hollywood Science-Fiction Film considers the extent to which the films of this third wave serve the estranging, historicising, relativising function ascribed to them by Jameson. Is the kind of deep time evoked memorably in the penultimate chapter of The Time Machine (1985), written by H. G. Wells at the end of the nineteenth century, for instance, available to the ‘postmodern’ or ‘neoliberal’ subject living the ‘perpetual present’ at the end of the twentieth?

Seeking an answer to this question, Dystopia and Dispossession finds that the trajectory of the third wave of Hollywood science fiction turns on its relationship to the ‘new enclosures’, the new dispossessions and privatisations sweeping across the United States (and elsewhere) since the 1970s. From Alien to The Truman Show (1998), the book argues, such films offer critiques of these processes: one need think only of RoboCop’s (1987) satire of privatisation (‘There ain’t no better way of stealing than free enterprise!’ one character jokes) or Total Recall’s (1990) visions of commodified air. From the new millennium onward, however, that critique begins to disappear, perhaps most obviously in the remakes of those films, in which overpopulation (in Len Wiseman’s 2012 Total Recall) and corruption (in José Padilha’s 2014 RoboCop) displace privatisation as the governing trope. Private property is naturalised in the process, capitalism made eternal.

Dystopia and Dispossession makes its argument through close readings of a range of Hollywood science-fiction films released between Alien and Blade Runner 2049, but its thesis might also be illustrated by the opposite means: by comparing such texts with those that fall outside the argument’s historical scope. The 2021 release of Villeneuve’s Dune adaptation gives us occasion to explore, in this blog post, that film’s relation not only to Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve’s prior science-fiction release, but also to its source material, Frank Herbert’s Dune, published in 1965, and David Lynch’s own Dune adaptation, released in 1984. Do Herbert’s and Villeneuve’s texts conform to the historical trend sketched out in Dystopia and Dispossession? Does Lynch’s work corroborate or contradict it?

We might begin by observing that there are in fact two kinds of history at play in Herbert’s ur-text. First, the Dune narrative charts the fulfilment of a personal destiny, as Paul becomes the ‘Kwisatz Haderach’ and ascends to the Emperor’s throne. Second, and forming the background of this linear ‘great man’ history, is an almost hallucinogenic profusion of historical classes, technologies, and costumes. Herbert places the commodity-producing CHOAM Company (profiting from spice extraction) alongside the Spacing Guild (which monopolises space travel and charges extortionate rents), and the Guild alongside the Bene Gesserit, whose eugenics programme wears the garb of an ancient religious order. Thus the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam can curse ‘the feudal trade culture which turns its back on most science’, while Duke Leto, leader of the House of Atreides, claims, as though he were in fact a member of the bourgeoisie, that ‘business makes progress’. This transhistorical historicism of Herbert’s Dune manifests itself in the (brief) treatment of property relations, too: while Leto rules over Arrakis in ‘fief-complete’, Leto’s mentat, Thufir Hawat, indicates that the departing Harkonnens had an ‘entrepreneur class’ that held private property. It is as if the synchronising effects of the spice itself, which allows Paul to be ‘many places at once’—to see past, present, and future together—are immanent already in the objective construction of the Imperium, in which capitalist and feudal signifiers interpenetrate in Herbert’s own supra-historical ‘melange’.

Released almost twenty years later, Lynch’s Dune adaptation accentuates these subjectivising aspects of Herbert’s novel. The film seeks to cover the entirety of the original plot, from the Atreides’ preparations to land on Arrakis to Paul’s defeat of the Emperor. Such is the compressive quality of Lynch’s version—which fits all of this into two and a quarter hours—however, that Herbert’s epic, unravelling across hundreds of pages, turns into a kind of dream-sequence, in which the logical connections between the individual episodes become obscure, if not incomprehensible. Consider Lynch’s elliptical portrayal of the Fremen, whose customs he hardly explains, and who therefore appear as a mystical cult rather than astute survivalists, their ‘rituals’ (for instance, reclaiming water from dead bodies) in fact arising, quite logically, from the rigours of life on a desert planet. On being accepted by the Fremen, Paul remarks to himself that ‘a dream unfolds’—and so it is more broadly in Lynch’s Dune, whose expressionistic style treats the whole narrative as though it were a projection of Paul’s unconscious.

Figure 1: Dune, dir. by Denis Villeneuve (Warner Bros., 2021)

Property ownership is accordingly no greater a concern in Lynch’s film than it was in Herbert’s novel. This absence, however, becomes strangely present in Villeneuve’s version at the moment when the Atreides take flight over the endless rolling dunes, the source of the spice and their (anticipated) future wealth. The Atreides ornithopter crossing the desert, Villeneuve shows us the dunes from above (Figure 1). The desert suddenly appears as a kind of creased map, eluding that demarcation, that spatial legibility on which specifically capitalist private property depends. Compare this moment to Villeneuve’s establishing shot at the beginning of Blade Runner 2049 (now captured from the vantage point of K’s Spinner), in which the protein farms are clearly delimited parcels of space (Figure 2), a futuristic extrapolation of the English enclosures that Marx took as his chief example of ‘so-called primitive accumulation’ at the end of the first volume of Capital. Land has a different significance in Dune, Villeneuve indicates: no longer subject, passively, to capitalist rationalisation, it resists efforts to commodify it, a defiance embodied in those anthropic instantiations of ‘desert power’, the Fremen, and the Shai-Hulud, the great sandworms that the Fremen revere.

Figure 2: Blade Runner 2049, dir. by Denis Villeneuve (Warner Bros., 2017)

It would appear, then, that the trajectory of these Dune narratives runs counter to the one I describe in Dystopia and Dispossession, since Lynch’s adaptation, produced at the height of the new enclosures, shows no more interest in questions of property or dispossession than Herbert’s novel or Villeneuve’s film. If anything, it retreats deeper into the recesses of Paul’s mind. Yet might not the appeal of Lynch’s dreamlike rendition (the appeal, that is, of the idea of a Dune adaptation, rather than of Lynch’s actual film, widely derided by critics) lie in its very difference to the overtly political science-fiction films, such as Blade Runner, The Terminator, and RoboCop, that dominated Hollywood’s speculative output in the 1980s? If it indeed pulls Herbert’s Dune towards the pole of fantasy, away from science fiction, might Lynch’s film do so, not just because it seeks to emulate the successes of the first three Star Wars films (released in 1977, 1980, and 1983), but also because it wishes to distinguish itself from the new, increasingly engaged and politically committed wave of science-fiction cinema emerging at that moment? To what extent can Lynch’s Dune be read as an effort to escape from the same socio-political situation that Scott’s and Verhoeven’s films of the 1980s confront head-on?

Harry Warwick is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick.

Find out more about Dystopia and Dispossession in the Hollywood Science Fiction Film, 1979-2017 on the Liverpool University Press website.


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