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Galactic empires still relate to earthly architecture

Will Wiles

Will Wiles takes another foray into the world of fantasy in his quest to understand its contrasts and parallels with reality

Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure ‘Dune: Part Two’, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure ‘Dune: Part Two’, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Credit: 2024 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

In the mid-1970s, French-Chilean film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky made a doomed attempt to bring Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction novel Dune to the big screen. This effort has become something of a legend in its own right, contributing to the book’s reputation for being ‘unfilmable’. The reason an unmade film has acquired cult lustre is largely thanks to the extraordinary concept art that Jodorowsky commissioned from some of the most brilliant sci-fi artists working at the time, including Chris Foss, Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud and HR Giger. 

This astonishing trove of art includes much fantastical architecture, but the design that really sticks in the memory is the castle designed for the villains, the sadistic Harkonnens, by Giger, the Swiss master of the macabre. Several drawings exist of this structure, which takes the form of a monstrously bloated sitting figure, essentially portraying the corpulent Baron Vladimir Harkonnen himself. This nightmare dome is covered in weapons and belches pollution; the landscape all around is a labyrinth of tormented flesh. Subtlety really wasn’t Jodorowsky’s aim. 

One of the pleasures of director Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune is its nods to previous efforts. Released in March, Dune: Part Two pays fleeting homage to Giger’s castle with a shot of the Baron, played by Stellan Skarsgård. The human monster becomes monstrous architecture; the architecture is then reflected in the human. Tyranny of the total, insane kind is a little like living inside the tyrant. Villeneuve’s depiction of the Harkonnen home planet, by production designer Patrice Vermette, is less grotesque than Giger’s but no less nightmarish. It’s a stark monochrome world of inky megastructures, like something Antonio Sant’Elia might have glimpsed during a particularly bad migraine. 

Villeneuve’s Dune films are remarkably convincing and solid for a fable about galactic empires, mind-bending drugs, giant worms and impossibly gifted boy messiahs. He doesn’t go in for slippery, weightless CGI effects. Objects and devices have worn edges, buttons look like they’ve been pressed, there’s a sheen of dust. This solidity includes the buildings. Unlike Jodorowsky, Villeneuve and Vermette don’t give the emperor (played by Christopher Walken) a golden palace. He hardly has a palace at all, but a much more refined complex of pavilions in a sun-dappled garden, with a faint atmosphere of East Asian refinement: possibly the work of a far-future descendant of Tadao Ando. The home of noble house Atreides, on the damp world of Caladan, has a marvellous lichen-spattered ancestral feel, all rugs and touch-polished wood. The floorboards look right. We don’t actually hear Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) grumble about the upkeep costs, but it’s implied. 

Sadly we see very little of these places, as most of the action in the films takes place in the desert. The stronghold of the colonial government convinces as a place built to cope with extreme heat, with deeply recessed and shaded openings and walls of massive masonry and bush-hammered concrete. Meanwhile the hidden desert ‘sietches’ of the native Fremen are more delicately carved and decorated, with a number of possible influences, including Indian step-wells. 

With the possible exception of the Harkonnen lair, it all feels as if it has plausibly emerged from actual cultures and climates. Jodorowsky and Villeneuve’s visions show they excelled in different directions. It’s hard to make something genuinely fantastical; and it might be even more difficult to make the fantastical feel real. 

Will Wiles is an author