Six or seven sentences on Dune.

Well… six or seven long, detailed sentences. I can probably hold myself to that.

That’s what I’ve been telling myself. Maybe if I force myself to sum up, in just a few lines, my first impressions of Denis Villeneuve’s long-anticipated science fiction epic, I can spare everyone the mess of my contradictions, my enthusiasm, my defensiveness, my doubts, and my disillusionment. Maybe that way my readers can avoid falling into the deep wells of memory that this adaptation opens up.

Like a giant tick feeding on a body, a spice harvester fracks up the Arrakis desert. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

I’ll give it a try.

Here we go: my elevator speech on this, the latest attempt to make a Dune movie worthy of the claim “Based on the novel science fiction classic by Frank Herbert.”

Like a fever-dream, director Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One — which is the second attempt by a major studio to properly represent Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel on the big screen — is immersive and relentlessly intense.

Unlike David Lynch’s famously distorted 1984 adaptation (one badly botched by studio meddling), Villeneuve’s version is strikingly faithful to the book’s basic plot points, the look and feel of its worlds and technologies, and the personalities of central characters.

The vastness of its vivid imagery, the innovative design of its world-building, the “shock-and-awe” wartime violence, the groundbreaking subtleties of its naturalistic special effects, and the overbearing solemnity of its tone (underlined by Hans Zimmer’s sonorous score) are all likely to feel just right to devotees of Herbert’s fiction, and I suspect the film will keep almost everyone rapt and dazzled for the full 155-minute running time.

And I cannot fault the commitment of this magnificent cast, particularly the two leads: Timothée Chalamet appropriately subverts familiar hero archetypes as Paul Atreides, Herbert’s introverted, reluctant, and (initially) non-violent messiah; and Rebecca Ferguson inspires our empathy as Lady Jessica, a conscientious “witch” whose loyalties are divided between her regal lover, her troubled son, and her membership in a strict and scheming religious order.

But all of this is compromised in a cut that, despite the duration, seems severely edited, perhaps  to fit theatrical programming schedules. The result is likely to leave Dune newbies distracted by unexplained story elements, and it’s left this longtime Dune enthusiast yearning for an Extended Edition that expands fleeting exchanges between characters into full, revealing conversations. Here’s hoping that Part Two slows down and provides more helpful navigation in this glorious wilderness.

That, in a nutshell, is my take on Dune: Part One at this point.

Rebecca Ferguson is Lady Jessica, a sorceress trapped between a rock (her lover Leto) and a hard place (the son she means to make into a Messiah). [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

But if I publish only  that, I won’t express just how much I’m struggling with my first two big-screen experiences of this film. Both my first and second viewing left me awestruck, deeply satisfied, ready to turn around and attend the very next screening. (I’ve already pre-ordered the blu-ray/DVD/digital package.) And yet, in both cases, the balloon of my enthusiasm has come drifting right back down to earth within 24 hours, disillusioned by lingering questions and frustrations. I’m left boggled by my own mixed feelings.

Also, if I stop with that short summary, I’ll ignore the thing that Dune: Part One has made me think about most, and that is this: Our individual relationships with movies are dramatically influenced by how different we are. Our impressions of young Paul Atreides will vary based on what kind of heroes we looked up to as children, whether or not that has changed as we’ve matured. Our emotional engagement with the film will also be powerfully influenced by what our own childhoods were like, and whether we’ve been supported or betrayed (or both) by families, teachers, and institutions like churches and governments.

Thus, if I’m to let you in on the storm of struggle that Dune has inspired — or, in some cases, rekindled — within me, I’m going to have to transcribe some of the argument I’m having with myself.

A Dune I Recognize

As Part One of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune thundered and roared into the Dolby Digital cinema at the AMC Alderwood 16, it took only few minutes before I knew that my worries were unnecessary. The story I’ve loved for forty years was clearly in the capable hands of a filmmaker who reveres these worlds, these characters, these thrilling events as much as I do.

Over five decades of loving the arts and living within imaginary worlds, I’ve watched almost all of the novels I’ve loved manifested into big-screen adaptations. More often than not, I’ve wished filmmakers would focus more intently on new, image-focused storytelling rather than merely illustrating their favorite texts. As a result, few adaptations have seemed worthy of their inspirations; so many of them have left me feeling disappointed, proving for me the supremacy of the original text and the singular value of what happens when someone reads and imagines for themselves.

But then again, I can relate to what must be a common impulse for those gifted in image-making: I want to see with my eyes and hear with my ears the sights and sounds I have imagined while reading.

I’ve always admired the way that author Frank Herbert gives us just enough tantalizing details to tease our imaginations into a frenzy of visions.

Oscar Issac (center) is Duke Leto, whose goodness might be his downfall. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

In the book, we get just enough of the House Atreides, a royal family moving from their ocean planet home to govern a desert planet, to fall in love with the volatile marriage of the noble Duke and his passionate partner Jessica, the conscientious Bene Gesserit witch.

We get just enough of House Harkonnen, with its corpulent Baron and his heartless slaves and warlords, to suffer nightmares about their campaigns of cruelty.

We learn just enough about the fearful and arrogant Emperor and the army of terrorists called Sardukar, the Guild and their mysterious ability to “fold space,” just enough about the super-intellects of the Mentats, just enough of the desert survivalists called Fremen, for our minds to spin all kinds of “fan fiction” to fill in the gaps along the way as Herbert strides aggressively forward, each step of storytelling as sturdy as any of Shakespeare’s, the epic seeming to be ages-old and merely discovered or recorded by its teller.

Our first glimpse of Baron Harkonnen proves he’s a fan of the wrong character in Apocalypse Now. In his cruelty and lust for destructive power, I suspect he’s become a role model for Steve Bannon. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

And so, I’ve gone running toward, instead of away from, any attempt to illustrate this adventure. I’ve wanted to see Dune “done right.” That is, just as my childhood love for certain scenes in The Lord of the Rings made me rejoice when I saw Peter Jackson’s realization of them in The Fellowship of the Ring, so I’ve wanted to savor a sensory feast of scenes from Dune on a massive canvas. We’re made in the image of a Creator God, we are told. We are hard-wired to want to see words made flesh. We don’t want a religion that engages only the mind; we want to see what seems true to us become embodied in the world. The same goes for storytelling.

And if my sudden turn to religious vocabulary seems like overreach, consider Lauren Wilford’s outstanding reflections on the art of adaptation, and the intense responses that adaptations good and bad inspire:

There’s a reason that fandoms use terms like “the powers that be,” “word of God,” and “canon” when talking about their beloved fiction properties. When a story moves us deeply, it can provoke a quasi-religious response. We evangelize, hoping to share the experience with others; we become invested in the legacy of the story, the preservation of its essence. This is especially true of the stories we came to love in childhood, the stories that shaped the way we see the world. A bad adaptation feels like someone telling the story wrong. It feels like betrayal — like blasphemy.

I can’t deny that. I love Martin Rosen’s Watership Down precisely because it captures the spirit of the novel and celebrates it with such exquisite artistry. I would like to smash every single analog copy of the 2008 film The Tale of Despereaux for how it spoils a beautiful story. And Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair? I suspect Graham Greene will someday claw his way out of the grave to strangle the filmmaker for making a movie designed in condemnation of the very God that the novel reveres.

I’ve made my peace with David Lynch’s extravagant and perverse 1984 adaptation of Dune, so severely and tragically abridged by the studios. I’ve seen it many times in order to savor a few memorable moments that really feel like Dune; Lynch seems to understand the fundamental strangeness of Herbert’s vision. But despite his admirable ambitions, I always end up frustrated with what is left out, with what is rushed through, and with the unacceptable “happy ending” tacked onto that film’s conclusion. By contrast, I can’t even remember the Dune television series; it seemed promising, but it proved so bland that I quickly gave up on it.

So, how does Denis Villeneuve’s epic endeavor fare?

Javier Bardem is Stilgar, a leader among the desert-dwelling Fremen. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

After the fleeting and awkward prologue of Villeneuve’s film, narrated by Chani (Zendaya), when as I watched the Bene Gesserit witch (Charlotte Rampling) force young Paul (Timothée Chalamet) to stuff his hand in a black box, and then hold a poisoned needle — a gom jabbar — to his throat, threatening to kill him if he withdraws his hand from the box… well, when I saw that, my doubts dissolved and my fears evaporated. I feel a wave of relief and a surge of anticipation.

This is Dune. This is the world I lived in and loved in my most formative years. I recognize this.

Young Paul and the Spice of Sympathy

Why, I’ve been asking myself, do I feel such exhilaration as this movie unfolds?

I could praise the cast: Consider Timothée Chalamet makes choices that will be unjustly maligned by audiences who need charismatic, muscular, dramatic heroes. He gives us a Paul with an Edward Scissorhands vibe — he’s awkward, quiet, curious, and not at all interested in attention or action. Consider Oscar Isaac manages, in very little screen time, to convince me of Duke Leto’s love for Jessica, his deep affection and respect for his son Paul, his sense that he is in over his head as his family is manipulated by the Emperor, his fear for the future of House Atreides. Consider how Rebecca Ferguson makes us feel the danger that Jessica has risked with her controversial partnership and her controversial pregnancy; she gives Paul’s mother a fierce intelligence, a believable agility in combat, and a powerful personal anguish. As Gurney Halleck, Josh Brolin makes me fear the wicked Harkonnens more with one line delivery than the Harkonnens can live up to with their run-of-the-mill violence for the rest of the film. As Baron Harkonnnen and his nephew Beast Rabban, Stellan Skarsgård and Dave Bautista are manifestations of ego and brutality, their appetites for power having consumed any fragments of conscience.

I could write about the design and the special effects: These worlds feel like they have real history. These spaceships look designed for practical purposes rather than for merchandising or video game cool-factors. There’s a simple genius of the lamps that glide dutifully alongside people as they move from shadowy space to shadowy space. The famous shields that protect individuals in combat, and that yield to “the slow blade,” are beautifully manifested here in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself. Most big-screen battles in space or on land are filmed so that audiences can easily track the action and admire the innovations in animation or in the art design of vehicles and armor and artillery; here, by contrast, we often feel we’re watching footage of actual events, where dust or shadows might obscure or complicate our views. Every moment serves the story and characterization; there are no gratuitous thrills. That makes me feel as if I have really gone somewhere and witnessed some kind of history. I don’t feel, as the movie plays, like anyone is trying to sell me anything.

From the ‘thopters to the spice harvesters, the many vehicles — airborne and dunebound — are uniquely convincing and thrilling to watch. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

But what moves me most is how the film’s faithfulness to Herbert’s vision reawakens the compelling chemistry of awe, dread, and curiosity that I experienced when I first read the book. And that enthrallment is never disrupted. Unlike Peter Jackson — or most major directors working in this mode today — Denis Villeneuve doesn’t ever make a movie that takes me out of the movie and gets me thinking about his decision-making. It feels like exemplary, unselfish filmmaking in a time when too many directors are in it to make their mark with signature style. As the film plays, I’m not thinking about the director; I thinking only of Dune.

As a result, I am free to focus fully on this familiar story. And I am able to appreciate, thirty years since I last read Dune, why it cast such a spell over my adolescence.

I’ve loved Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel since, when I was 12 and eager to read books from the Grownups’ Aisles of the public library, the story of Paul “Muad’dib” Atreides permanently broke my trust in formulaic hero journeys. This story rang true to me. It follows someone I could relate to: a boy slowly awakening to the fact that the’s been born into a world of corruption and contention, and of impossible expectations from family, community, religious institutions, and political powers. I understood that burden of unbearable pressure, the idea that any misstep could bring calamity on myself, and, potentially, everyone I love. I admired and learned from Paul’s struggles, particularly his rejection of conventional power, and his choice to not merely lead the poor but to become one of them, vulnerable and humble.

There’s something a little Scissorhands-y about Chalamet’s Paul and his alienation. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

Roger Ebert famously called movies “empathy machines,” but Dune has never really been an experience of empathy for me. The bond I have felt with its characters has not come from trying to imagine their hardships. No, it’s been more like sympathy. I have always felt like this is territory I already know, these choices as heavy and as complicated as my own.

Thus, as I watch Chalamet’s Paul suffer the test of the Bene Gesserit witch Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), and willfully endure excruciating pain, even though he thinks his hand might be burning to ash inside the box, I feel a thrill that I have not felt since I first read that scene. Despite my parents’ best efforts to shield me from scary realities, I’d read frightening things before: Tolkien’s Middle-earth is full of nightmare fuel, and Watership Down depicts some bloody truths about nature’s cruel indifference. I’d read both of those already, and more than once. This, though — Dune felt more adult in its concerns and in its severity. There was something vaguely transgressive about reading this when I was so young.

And, as Paul, his hand burning in the box, suffered pain unlike anything I’d ever imagined, my hand gripped the paperback willfully, stubbornly. I was tempted to close it. I did not. Like Paul, I endured. I endured because I did not want to be defeated by this Book for Adults, this text that rang true. And somehow I knew that it was too late to give up now. If I closed the book, that pain would continue, and Paul would be stuck there, suffering for eternity. The only way to escape the hell of the trap that the witches had laid for Paul was to go through it rather than around it. I kept reading. And went back again and again.

Stellan Skarsgård plays Baron Harkonnen, the power-mad destroyer who may have inspired a variety of franchise villains — particularly, Jabba the Hutt. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

So much about Paul’s paradigm rings true to me. Sure, I was caught up in the cool stuff: the energy-field body shield Paul wears in combat; the sorcerous voice powers he wields (just like the Jedi he inspires); the quick reflexes and spidey-sense vigilance that save him from assassination attempts; the eventual lessons in riding massive sand worms.

But it was the sociopolitical and religious stuff of Paul’s context that fascinated my teenage self the most — the way he found himself, for better and for worse, part of some larger design not of his own making. The Bene Gesserit witches and their slavish devotion to breeding a superman was like a wildly exaggerated version of the pressures I felt living inside what Wilford calls “the American evangelical apologetics machine”: at home, in Sunday school, in Church, and in my private Christian school, I strove to “get everything right” when it came to being a good, moral, Christian teenager.

Growing up, I had a loving father who, like Duke Leto, was always striving to do the right thing, even when the world refused to reward that. And he was, as Leto was for Paul, invested in my success so I would have advantages in the future. I had a loving mother who, like Lady Jessica, was committed to protecting me from evil influences, and she had strong opinions about who could and who couldn’t be trusted. Both of them were intent on raising me in ways that would keep me from any wrong turns. I am grateful, convinced that their convictions saved me from so many forms of destruction, so many consequences I still see others I grew up with suffering.

Paul’s home of Caladan is green and lush, and nothing like the world his family is sent to govern. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

In time, though I would also come to recognize the ill effects of living in such a programmed, controlled religious bubble. I can see now how, within the smallness of my childhood sphere, I was learning to be suspicious of, and afraid of, difference. I believed and trusted so blindly that it would be many years before I started realizing how I had absorbed the fear, the judgmental spirit, and the deeply embedded “-isms” in our church and private-school communities: the sexism, the racism, the not-so-Christian nationalism, etc. But those are stories for another time. Like Paul, who does not at first perceive the way his family is being manipulated for political purposes, I felt I was on “the right side” and thus was content to suffer the pressures of sky-high expectations from so many around me. If I came home with an A-minus in a class, the question I’d learned to ask was “Why did I fall short of getting an ‘A’?”

So, yes — I related to Paul as much or more than I ever related to Frodo on his torturous path, or any of the Narnia kids with their destinies as kings and queens. In some ways he was like Luke Skywalker, whose story was unfolding onscreen just as I was tracking Paul’s on the page. Skywalker was finding his way out of a small, sheltered existence, facing fearsome dangers, and learning that the lessons he’d been taught about the world were distortions. Where he would make a hero’s journey, taking up his sword in support of a military rebellion against an evil empire, Paul would, to the contrary, come to realize that there were evil empires everywhere and there was no escape — he was tangled up in corruption, and to answer the call of becoming a militant messiah would be a life of heavy burdens, a path as much a part of problems as solutions. I wanted to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi; it seemed glamorous. But Paul’s struggle felt worryingly true in a way that Skywalker’s never did.

And there was something else: Paul’s visions. At eleven years old, I had an imagination that made me happiest in my own company. Undistracted, I would lose myself in stories that came to me faster than I could type them. I would often find myself staring at a typewriter, with piles of pages stacked up alongside it that I did not remember writing. It all felt important. Those stories meant something to me, and they held some mysterious key to my future. As Paul begins testifying about his glimpses of the future, and as those around him blink in bewilderment and alarm, as if he is speaking a language they don’t understand, I recognize how his “blessing” is also a cause of alienation. I remember having a sense that people around me were worried about me, and that “it isn’t normal” for a teenager to become so preoccupied with bringing visions to life in solitude. And they cautioned me that such compulsions could lead to loneliness — and worse. They were not wrong. But, like it or not, I knew I had to answer that call.

Jason Momoa plays Duncan, House Atreides’ most reliable representative and fighter. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

I admired Paul for the authenticity of his struggle to fulfill his calling. I admired him for loving his parents even though he was often angry at what they put him through. He struck me as a young man of conscience. And that was who I wanted to be. Instead of rising as yet another power-mad tyrant, he instead chose a path that would bring him alongside the poor, the vulnerable, and the persecuted. Yes, he would compromise. (Don’t we all, in one way or another, in our attempts to do the right thing?) And yet, despite his failings, Paul always seems to be answering a call of love instead of power, a call of service instead of selfishness.

Now, I’m seeing the boy I believed in onscreen for the first time, and recognizing things about myself in the process.

A Dune that is flawed, nevertheless…

So yes, it’s hard for me to be objective about Dune. And that makes the criticism I keep reading difficult to manage.

Much of it doesn’t impress me.

Yes, Villeneuve’s film is ponderous and almost humorless. That doesn’t bother me much because it feels like the book I remember. It’s part of the reason I found Dune so compelling as a young reader: The world I was living in often seemed burdensomely serious. I was conditioned to see existence as binary: a cosmos of us versus them, where I had a responsibility to live by a strict code and be on my guard at all times … or else calamity would shake time and space. I lived within a bubble of religious fervor and anxiety. A film that lacked an overbearing solemnity would not be Herbert’s Dune.

Yes, this Dune seems derivative, as we’ve seen so many sci-fi epics about rebellions versus empires over the last five decades. But while so many are complaining that this movie owes too many of its ideas to Star Wars, the truth is that there is no Star Wars or its generational variations without Dune. They were built on this foundation — not the other way around.

Intergalactic warfare on a massive scale — this movie really needs a big, big screen. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

Some of the criticism makes a lot of sense to me. I agree, in particular, with some of Sarah Welch-Larson’s complaints, eloquently expressed in her brilliant Bright Wall Dark Room essay. She writes,

[Villeneuve’s] adaptation trades the intimacy of interpersonal relationships and internal dialogue for overwhelming visual scale: massive ships overshadowed by even larger ones, clustered above the curve of a planet’s atmosphere; immense armies arrayed in the hulking shadows of space cruisers; the fury of dust kicked up by a sandworm half a kilometer long as it cruises through the desert. 

Later, she adds that the movie

does not care much about the individual hearts of its characters, with the exception of Paul and perhaps his mother, Jessica. Everyone else remains a cipher, a cog in the wheel of history, a tool to push Paul further and further toward his end. People are repeatedly dwarfed by machinery, and by the gigantic buildings and rock outcroppings that spring from the dusty desert floor. Villeneuve’s Dune is interested in the 10,000-foot view of the machinery that drives history, and in the drivers’ decisions to preserve their toeholds on power, but not in the fates of those who dwell in the shadows of greatness.

I, too, would love to see a film or series that captures the complexity of Herbert’s tapestry. It would be an unmatched experience in cinematic science fiction, something closer to Game of Thrones in scale and scope. As I said in my “capsule review” at the top — I’d love to see an “extended edition,” one like Peter Jackson’s deluxe versions of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers that helps us get to know more of the characters. Very few scenes here allos characters to cultivate anything I would describe as a conversation. It’s the film’s biggest weakness. I wish Villeneuve was more interested in trusting his actors to act than he is in cutting to the next action sequence.

Behold, the behemoth: Part One gives us only fleeting encounters with the monsters that will dominate Part Two. [Image from the Warner Brothers Pictures trailer.]

But the enormity of Dune‘s architecture and machinery — it works for me as a way of aesthetically expressing not only “the machinery that drives history” but the unfathomable pressures Paul must feel when he hears crowds chanting the name of a long-awaited savior and realizes that they are looking at him. In his visions, which foretell of great wars waged in his name, he senses the impossibility of being worthy. Paul’s story — the devastating weight of all the madness he will witness and inspire, the hardship he will know in trying to respect and wrestle with religion’s controlling influence — is the story I’m most interested in. And these moving pictures make me feel as if I’ve had an unexpected occasion to participate in his story in a new way, to understand better. Moreover, they provide a visual vocabulary for what I feel is at stake in the real world when people justify any kind of violence as “holy,” or when the “faithful” forge contracts with liars, warlords, and tyrants.

As Wilford writes,

I don’t mean to say that the book is never better than the movie — it is, often, maybe even most of the time. But to champion adaptation is to champion the idea that stories are adaptable; that they can withstand the weight of interpretation, of translation, of imagination, of embodiment. A good adaptation opens up the possibilities for what a story can mean.

This Dune movie adapts only half of the first book. And I’m going to keep hoping for the surprise of a four-hour cut of Part One, so that we can hear more from the characters, learn more about what Mentats are, observe how space travel is achieved, and get a glimpse of this Emperor everyone is talking about. I doubt that will happen. Still, like Paul, I’m inclined to dream.

But so far, Villeneuve’s version makes me grateful that I’ve lived to see it, and that I didn’t have to settle for the wreckage that producers and financiers made of Lynch’s endeavor. This version is already moving at less than half of the speed of that one, giving me a chance to feel, like Paul, that I’m actually zigzagging across Dune‘s dunes and seeing the glimmer of spice in the air, instead of just getting glimpses of it as Paul does first from a “filmbook.”

And the more time I spend there, the more Villeneuve’s aesthetics speak to me in a vocabulary that make sense of my own experience in poetic and powerful ways. I realize now how much I learned from this story about what the Scriptures describe as a war “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” In many ways, Dune marked for me the beginning of two journeys — making sense of the world, and making sense of myself. And after so much exploration since then, “we arrive,” as Master Eliot wrote, “where we started / And know the place for the first time.” Within contexts of politics and religion, Herbert and Villeneuve give me new perspective on who I have been, who I am, and who I am meant to become. I hope it speaks to you, too. We are living in times when evils are being endorsed and enacted right out in the open in ways we never imagined possible. Some days we look up and its seems the forces of darkness are too awesome to dream of overcoming.And the betrayals, the intimidation, the physical and emotional abuse, and the calamity looks likely to increase.

And still, the truth is out there, “heard, half-heard” — Eliot again — “in the stillness / Between two waves of the sea.” Or, in this case, beyond a dune.

We sleepers must awaken, indeed, before it’s too late.

Bring on Part Two!