Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Movie Musings: The Kwisatz Haderach of the Wind

Man is about to meet worm.
I haven’t watched David Lynch’s take on the space saga Dune in quite a few years Now I say David Lynch’s take because from a visual standpoint the movie is very much a David Lynch film. Lynch’s style permeates everything including his shot selection, editing and the acting styles. Even elements of the visually stunning design (sets, costumes and creatures) seem to come right out of Lynch’s subconscious. Is it just a coincidence that the Third Stage Guild Navigator looks like a huge version of the Baby from Eraserhead?

Paul is the stranger in a strange land.
I know most hardcore science fiction fans dislike the 1984 version of Dune. While you can see some key portions of the novel on the big screen, most of it was edited, compressed and reimagined. You could also argue that it impacts the entertainment value of the film (but that is for a full blown review of the movie). This version of Dune focuses on the story of the messiah coming to save the oppressed people.  That very same year another science fiction epic arrived in theaters with many similarities to the Lynch film. It was all about  a messiah saving her people from oppression. And both featured giant worms!

This princess shows no fear.
Nauiscaa of theValley of the Wind is like a bizarre mirror of Dune. This struck me in my most recent viewing of Lynch’s film. I was contemplating the character of Paul Atredies (Kyle Maclachlan) and realizing that the guy is rarely wrong about anything. Most of his choices (in the film version) are the right ones and when he tests himself he always comes out on top. It is that perfect hero paradox. We can admire this kind of hero, but we can’t identify with them.

I realized I felt the same way about Nausicaa. When I was writing the review of that film I struggled with the fact that we are told about her destiny at the start of the film and she makes all the right choices to achieve that prophesy. Dune starts the same way, with Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) telling us about the Fremen prophecy about their messiah.

"War does not make one great." Nausicaa learns this
hard lesson.
What is perhaps more interesting are the differences between these two characters. Obviously you have a male messiah in Dune and a female messiah in Nausicaa. This actually reflects directly into the tropes for sexes. Paul becomes a holy warrior, literally unleashing a jihad against the forces of the Emperor. Nausicaa is a skilled warrior and shows her prowess a number of times. But she is more of protector and in the end a unifier.

The emperor of the known galaxy faces his destiny.
Both characters commit self-sacrifice during their story. Paul drinks the Water of Life in order to obtain great knowledge of his enemies. It turns out to be a potent weapon and one he uses to his advantage. Nausicaa places herself directly in the path of the rampaging mass of Ohmu. They proceed to trample her and there is no way anyone could survive that. Her sacrifice  moves both the humans and the Ohmu. Hostilities cease around her dead body.

Like Paul, she rises again from certain death, now imbued with an inner power. But for Nausicaa this power is one that brings peace. She defeats her enemies, but most of them end up alive at the end of the film. When Paul defeats his enemies most of them are very dead.

Nausicaa shows that humans can live with nature and
not fight it.
Also interesting is their relationship to the giant insects of the film. Paul and Nausicaa see the insects as part of the natural world, but she also realize that there is some secret around the creatures that may lead to a greater revelation. Paul discovers that the worms and the spice are linked – the spice is actually the worm’s eggs, and that is why they attack the spice mining (something explained in deleted scenes or in the extended cut). Nausicaa discovers that the insects of the toxic jungle are spreading the jungle over the world, but not to destroy it, they want to cleanse it.

Paul harnesses the power of the worms and uses them as giant weapons against the Emperor and his minions. Nausicaa tries to calm the Ohmu, the most sentient of the giant insect life, and create understanding between humans and nature. She never fights the insects or tries to use them, her approach is almost like a diplomat/bug whisperer.

"Long live the fighters!"
But the main difference between the two is their origins. Paul is basically the prince from a foreign land who meets the natives, becomes enamored with their society and culture and then turns into their leader against the oppressive powers that he was once a part of. This is a trope based in ancient mythology, and one that Hollywood has used time and again. Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai and Avatar all have the same basic plot: the outsider has to come in and lead the oppressed (native) people to rise up against oppression. An interesting trope, but one that feels a bit overused these days. It had been used two years before in Tron, with a bit of a twist.

Nausicaa is not the outsider, but essentially the chosen one within her own tribe. Again this comes directly from mythology. In this case the oppressive outsider comes to a new land and is ignorant of ways of the natives. They outsiders cause havoc while the hero attempts to guide them to see the error of their ways. Time and again they fall into conflict. It takes the sacrifice of the hero to get everyone to see the error of their ways.

Nausicaa at the birth of a new world - one she
helped bring about.
What does this all mean? Well it means that both stories take slightly different views of the messiah mythology, but still follow the overall arc of that story. Of the two, I think Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is more interesting. Nausicaa attempts to reach understanding and not all out war to achieve a goal that benefits everyone.  After all, war is what got the world into the mess it is currently in. Nausicaa’s journey is more challenging in my mind. Not to sell Dune short, I think it works well as the story of a warlike Messiah. But when you boil it all down, I think that Miyazaki crafted a better film than David Lynch.  But I’ll still watch either one of them any time you want to.

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  1. I'd probably favor Dune a bit for overall weirdness, and maybe the ending may be more realistic. Nausicaa has a more wishful ending I guess. Plus Dune is the first part of three/four? books detailing the overall tale. That said Miyazaki is hard to beat at times. I've not watched any bonus features, but wondered the impetus/influence for his story. I know like Dune, it's an ecological tale.

    1. Anything with Lynch at the helm has a heaping helping of weirdness. But all of his weirdness has a method to it. That is one of the reasons I love his films (even if I don't follow all of them).

      Nausicaa is very much a positive view point film. It comes from a young director who thinks that if we can all just get along, everything will turn out all right. Jump forward ten years and "Princess Mononoke" tells a very similar story but is much more cynical. In that version, you can't trust anyone and living in harmony with nature is not an option - wars are meant to be won, not matter the cost.

      But I think that is why I admire Nausicaa more than Paul. Her path is the harder one. War is the easy solution and usually no one really wins. But unification can bring about benefits. The ending of Nausicaa is very mythic and a tad unbelievable. But I appreciate the positive outlook these days, especially with so many post apocalyptic story ending on a down and dower note.

  2. I think the Greeks had a better handle on heroes. They all had issues. Odysseus was a liar, Hercules had bouts of insanity, Theseus believes the lies of his son’s stepmother and kills him in a moment of jealousy, Achilles pouts in his tent thereby inadvertently causing the death of his friend, etc. Their flaws make them more relatable.

    I like the Lynch film, too.

    1. Yes, both of these characters are too perfect. But since they are Messiahs I guess that can be expected. But look at Flynn from "Tron" and "Tron: Legacy". He is essentially a god walking among the programs he creates. But he makes mistakes, tends to treat the whole thing as a game at first (who can blame him) and is motivated by vengeance. He's a flawed guy, and in Legacy even abandons his true son to create a virtual one. I connect more with this god-like figure than either Paul or Nausicaa.

      Lynch was cooking up a sequel to "Dune" and said it was much more interesting to him than the first film. But since the first film did poorly all that planning was never fleshed out. A shame, I would have loved to see what he had going in a sequel.