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The dark side of Dune

Light in Denis Villeneuve’s film

Published: 13 10月 2021
“There is no dark side in the moon, really. Matter of fact, it's all dark. The only thing that makes it look light is the sun”. These are some of the words that have made Eclipse, the final song of The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd’s masterpiece from 1973, legendary. It’s no accident that the composer Hans Zimmer has covered Pink Floyd’s Eclipse for the trailer of Dune, the film based on Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel of the same name.
Denis Villeneuve’s film, presented at the 78th Venice International Film Festival, is not the first adaption of Herbert’s book. There was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to make the film, David Lynch’s panned version from 1984 and the miniseries written and directed by John Harrison, which was shown on the Sci-Fi Channel towards the end of 2000. The story is centred on Arrakis, a planet source of the most valuable substance in the Empire, the spice, which extends human life and allows its users to travel through the universe. The House of Atreides, originally of the planet Caladan, is assigned as the fief ruler of Arrakis, which had been previously administered by the Harkonnen. Leto Atreides and his house are put in charge of spice extraction in one of the most inhospitable and dangerous places in the universe. This marks the start of the conspiracies, political games and fighting between foreign invaders and local population: the Harkonnen are not prepared to hand over Arrakis and its riches to House of Atreides without a fight.
Dune’s appeal, apart from Hans Zimmer’s at once epic and mystic soundtrack, lies in the cinematography, by Greig Fraser, which enhances the contrasts between light and darkness. When the Atreides land on Arrakis, they are hit by a dazzling light: they are blinded and stunned by the sun of the spice planet, a merciless sun that creates a stifling, oneiric and mystical atmosphere. Whilst on Caladan, the family’s home planet, the humid and welcoming landscape is lit by a cold light, on Arrakis, on the other hand, there are no shadows. The colours are so saturated as to take your breath away and the light of the sun becomes a sentence for man’s capitulation in the face of a natural environment that crushes him.

Life on Arrakis is safe, or seems to be safe, only inside the buildings. In these constructions, that recall Soviet brutalism transferred to the desert, the windows are reduced to small openings, to limit the amount of light allowed in. Because this light doesn’t bring life, like the traditional symbolism of western culture, but death. From these small openings ruthless rays of sunlight cut through the dark interiors of the palace, adding unease to the suspicious atmosphere amongst the Atreides, who find themselves on a hostile and dangerous planet (due to the resistance of the local Fremen population and the enormous worms that travel under the sand) and fear the conspiracies plotted by the Harkonnen.
Dune’s appeal, apart from Hans Zimmer’s at once epic and mystic soundtrack, lies in the cinematography, by Greig Fraser, which enhances the contrasts between light and darkness.
The combination of Villeneuve’s directing choices, Fraser’s cinematography and the music composed by Zimmer creates an atypical science fiction film. What we have is a great epic, sophisticated and mysterious story set in a fully-fledged world that envelops the audience. In this world light is the prismatic matrix of the universe, just like the eclipse that Pink Floyd sang about.