Dune 2: Landscape as protagonist

Can land be that anchoring, propulsive presence through which the art makes itself known?

Published : Mar 21, 2024 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

Timothee Chalamet in a scene from Dune: Part Two.

Timothee Chalamet in a scene from Dune: Part Two. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

When shifting through the Sundarbans, collecting notes for what would sediment slowly and become his novel The Hungry Tide, the writer Amitav Ghosh looking at the mangrove-rich lands, at the dynamic, dextrous, and resilient landscape, made a note in his diary: “I do believe it to be true that the land here is demonstrably alive; that it does not exist solely, or even incidentally, as a stage for the enactment of human history; that it is [itself] a protagonist. … Here, even a child will begin a story about his grandmother with the words: ‘in those days the river wasn’t here, and the village was not where it is…’” 

What does it mean for a landscape, a land, to be a protagonist, the protagonist? The protagonist is that which, when acted upon, is arced into action through a work of art; whose journey becomes that agent through which the spectator enters the work of art, through whom the art makes itself known. Can land be that anchoring, propulsive presence? Can land have agency? I do not mean anthropomorphising it and doing with it the same narrative violence we exert on characters, bestowing on it the rickety three-act journey. 

Also Read | When spectatorship becomes devotion

I suppose, today, we lack that imagination. We do not know how to tell stories of worlds, but only of people, through whom we can feel the edges of the world they inhabit. A world is what contains a protagonist, a protagonist is. How do we creatively and intellectually labour to flip this?


We do, however, have road map shreds available to us, in say, Tamil Tinai poetry, in what contemporary scholars call its “eco-aesthetics”, where it is the landscapes that produce affect, the interiority of the people through their landscape—kurinji or hills that allow for fresh love, mullai or forests that house patient waiting, palai or arid lands that evoke ruptures or parting, marutam or wetlands where settled love can be complicated by infidelity, and neytal or shores, which become a site of longing, waiting for a lover to return; all of this inflected by seasons. What this does is to create a world that applies pressure on the characters that people it, their being formed in the shadow of the world itself. Think of what a gloomy winter does to our bones, of seasonal sadness and our annual rhythms that are tied to the rains. The world we live in, and the time in which we inhabit it, wreak a psychological shift in us. Do our stories understand this? 

“We do not know how to tell stories of worlds but only of people, through whom we can feel the edges of the world they inhabit. How do we creatively and intellectually labour to flip this?”

Emerging, stunned and unsteady from the IMAX cavern of Dune: Part Two, the relevance of the question regarding nature’s foregrounding took an almost prescient, urgent colour. Having escaped the slaughter of the House Atreides in Dune Part 1, Duke Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), attach themselves to the indigenous Fremen of Arrakis, including the female warrior Chani (Zendaya), who also serves as Paul’s conscience. The film unfolds through scenes that pulp one’s sense of cinematic possibility—that this is possible, to create images of such shattering devastation, fire and brimstone, gunfire and gravity. It is part of the growing studio fixation with big budget films, which perform their excess on visual effects that unmoor our sense of the world as real. The thing about visual effects excess and the awe it is tied to is that it can only be exercised by showing destruction. So, naturally, the stories that are coming out of the studios, the big, bloated stories, are about this destruction. 

Fundamentally, the film, based on Frank Herbert’s best-selling eco-saga, is about a world at the edge of collapse. But it is uninterested in the world except to create a sense of wonder—at it existing, at its imminent extinction. The writing trails so closely to Paul’s interiority—Paul, the protagonist—that the world is enacted as a stage against which the film unfetters. 

Existential dread missing

At no point in the film’s emphatic gestures does the world feel on the verge of death. It is not given an existential dread. To be fair, at no point in the film’s emphatic features does the protagonist either feel on the verge of death, such is the languorous language of this hero-centric film. The point I am making here is that we do not even have a cinematic grammar to express the existential tension of earthly destruction, even as our films peddle its possibility constantly. 

Also Read | The grotesque fetish for realism in cinema

There is a worm that snakes through the desert, producing the spice for which wars are fought over the land. What the film does, by creating these spaces of fabulation that it evokes through this worm and through this desert, is to distance the world from us, to keep it apart as a relic, an exotic showpiece that need not be explained, merely observed, recreating an exercise in awe. As Professor Timothy Morton frames it, “Putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman.” That is, it allows the idea of spectatorship to easily become that of exhibitionism.

Aerial shots have gained a sinister significance in our modern day image-making to aid this gaze. In films like Baahubali and Salaar, they become indolent inserts, efforts at “worldbuilding”; the matchbox city of the former; the sprawling international, sometimes-Venice-sometimes-Washington D.C. strains of the latter. Of essence in worldbuilding is the ing-ness of the world itself, a constant, continuous effort to weave it, build it, break it. It cannot be fractured into being by an image, less so an image from the top, a view that has been evolutionarily denied to us humans. To read movies like this is to be confronted by the inability of cinema as a form to secrete worlds, restrained only to people. When will we begin to tell new stories? Or find newer ways to tell the same old stories?

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.

More stories from this issue

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment