Echoes of Arrakis: unravelling the sonic splendour of ‘Dune: Part Two’

In ‘Dune: Part Two’, the shifting sands murmur sinister secrets, echoing familiar melodies that render sound an almost tangible presence, and proving that on Arrakis, silence may be as scant as water itself

Published - March 22, 2024 02:28 pm IST

A scene from Dune: Part Two

A scene from Dune: Part Two | Photo Credit: NIKO TAVERNISE

Did your friendly-neighbourhood cinephile drag you to the nearest IMAX screen exalting the cinematic prowess of their French-Canadian messiah to ensure the most ‘complete’ cinematic experience? Though IMAX screens in India don’t have quite as much of the ‘oomph’ factor as their original American counterparts, purists take great pride in relishing the most premium movie-watching experience that money can offer. Especially when it comes to the likes of the film in question.

Beyond visual spectacle

Few films possess the power to transport audiences to realms beyond imagination quite like Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to 2021’s Dune. What most of us tend to forget, however, is that the “IMAX experience” in question has more to offer than Greg Frasier’s jaw-dropping wide shots, sprawled from ceiling to floor. As the curtain rises on Arrakis once again, it’s not just the awe-inspiring visuals that captivate; it’s the audacious aural landscape that beckons the audience into this notoriously unforgiving world, where the scorching sands whisper under the light of the eclipsed Arrakeen sun.

The philosophy of sound design

In a departure from conventional approaches to sci-fi sound design, Villeneuve and his team opted for documentary-style realism, eschewing flashy effects to make way for authenticity and immersion. From the subtle rustle of spice-saturated sands beneath Fremen feet to the ominous buzz of the Ornithopters, nothing is superfluous; every sound serves to deepen our understanding of the world.

Principal to the ethos of Dune’s sound design was the concept of “distant familiarity.” In crafting the sonic landscape of Arrakis, the filmmakers sought to strike a delicate balance between the alien and the familiar — imbuing the world with a sense of otherworldly mystique while tethering it to recognisable elements that resonate with audiences on a primal level.

This approach gave the film a sense of verisimilitude (previously employed by the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson while crafting his haunting score for Villeneuve’s 2016 sci-fi, Arrival) allowing us to escape the confines of our theatres and escape for three odd hours to a world far, far away, while fully retaining a visceral connection to our own experiences and emotions.

Sandworms and the power of myth

Central to this sonic tapestry are the ‘Shai-Hulud’ themselves — towering colossi that stalk the desert with an almost godlike aura. Instead of portraying them as mere monsters, Villeneuve wanted to evoke a sense of reverence, a feeling of awe and wonder, that he has even likened to the iconic (and now Oscar-winning) kaiju, Godzilla. The result is a subtle yet powerful symphony of sounds, from the low, guttural groans of the sandworms to the chilling ophidian hissing as they approach. The venerated beasts are even summoned through the ritualistic (and oddly satisfying) ‘gunking’ of the Fremen thumpers. It’s a testament to the power of sound to evoke emotion, turning these creatures into something mythical and truly unforgettable.

But it’s not just the natural wonders of Arrakis that captivate; it’s the power of the Voice, wielded by the formidable Bene Gesserit. The distinct (and often terrifying) resonance when characters use the Voice, with a marked explosion of bass, becomes a tangible force, rattling the very theatre itself. This sonic manipulation, which Villeneuve admits to have drawn inspiration from the techniques used by dub reggae legend, Lee Scratch Perry, imbues the spiritual journey with tactile sensations, drawing viewers deeper into the mysteries of the Benne Gesserit sisterhood.

Evolution of musical ideas

Of course, none of this would be possible without the visionary work of a certain veteran German composer. From the outset, it’s clear that Hans Zimmer and Villeneuve share a deep-seated reverence for Frank Herbert’s seminal novel. Having already won his second Oscar for its predecessor, Zimmer’s gorgeous original score for its sequel feels like a living, breathing entity, pulsating with raw emotion and energy. His score is the sonic embodiment of Villeneuve’s vision, a testament to the power of collaboration and creative synergy. Together, they have crafted a film that doesn’t just sound good; it sounds like nothing else before it: the perfect confluence of sound and vision.

What sets Zimmer’s work apart is his refusal to adhere to the tired tropes of traditional science fiction scores. Instead of defaulting to European orchestral sounds or romantic period tonality (à la Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey), Zimmer’s experimentation draws from Arabic scales, incorporates the unorthodox instrumentation of industrial scraping and sand falling over metal, and renounces traditional harmonies in favour of a hard-hitting minimalism.

For the second Dune film, Zimmer’s musical progression delves into a deeper, more intimate exploration of the themes established in the first instalment. Embracing a back-to-basics approach, Zimmer re-examines his previously released musical sketchbook from the first film, weaving together echoes of Loire Cotler’s gravelly timbre of vocals to establish a more intimate bond with the characters, as heard in the track, “Only I Will Remain”.

In the same vein, “A Time of Quiet Between the Storms” serves as a fitting example of how Zimmer strips Paul and Chani’s motifs established in the first film bare, intertwining their themes throughout the story, only to strike the devastating blow of betrayal and heartbreak as the credits roll.

In the end, the aural landscape of Dune: Part Two is an excellent reminder that film is not just a visual medium, but a sensory experience that taps into more primitive instincts. And as the sands of Arrakis continue to shift and swirl, one thing becomes abundantly clear: in the world of the Lisan al-Gaib, sound is not just heard; it’s felt, it’s feared, and it’s fiercely unforgettable.

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