It takes an extraordinary exercise of imagination to create a whole world, the kind of place that feels as fully delineated and described as fictional treatments of our own—more so, in some ways, since descriptions of our world can rely on common experience between writer and reader to fill in the gap between terse description and complex reality. In contemporary cinema and what we used to call television, “world-building” is a key watchword, a highly desirable achievement. A compelling enough world will entice viewers literally to settle in, not merely to follow a narrative but to dwell. The best of these fictional worlds may do even more; like Borges’s legendary land of Tlön, they project their fantastic creations into our reality, colonizing our world and making it more like theirs. In literature I think of Dante and Milton, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, L. Frank Baum and J. K. Rowling as having all achieved that kind of world-creation, however unequal their literary achievements may be in other dimensions. On the screen, Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas stand head and shoulders above anyone else; even the Marvel universe has no real equivalent to “Trekkies,” nor have James Cameron’s Na’vi quite approached the “reality” of the Jedi for those who believe.

Frank Herbert’s Dune clearly belongs in this company. A sweeping science fiction epic with a compelling and suspenseful story, Dune also birthed a world that, for all that it is patched together from cultural tidbits drawn from Arabia and the Caucasus, the Catholic Church and the indigenous people of America’s Pacific Northwest, is thoroughly original and fully realized. The novel, widely rejected by publishers and ultimately brought out by a press better known for auto repair manuals than novels, went on to sell nearly twenty million copies in more than a score of languages and spawn five sequels written by the original author and twenty further volumes written or co-written by Herbert’s son, Brian. But the most important metric of its success is cultural, not financial. Major American pundits such as Matthew Yglesias or Ross Douthat can quote the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, or refer ominously to the Butlerian Jihad, and presume to be understood as surely as if they had quoted the Twenty-Third Psalm or warned of the coming of Gog and Magog.

Being recognized, however, is not the same thing as being fully understood. Dune is a world, but it also expresses a worldview—one that is very different from and much darker than that of Tolkien (who refused to review the novel because he disliked it so much) or Lucas (though Star Wars was profoundly influenced both by Herbert’s novel and by the surrealist director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s earlier failed attempt to film it, a subject ably covered by the enchanting 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune). Specifically, while Dune centers on a man, Paul Atreides, with a messianic destiny—like Luke Skywalker or Aragorn—his destiny is to bring terrible destruction rather than redemption, and not as punishment but as the embodiment of a kind of historical or even biological spirit of change. Paul struggles against this destiny, but its pull proves inexorable, to the point where it might more aptly be described as fate.

It would be hard to name a concept more foreign to the contemporary mind. Yet with the arrival of the second half of Denis Villeneuve’s film version—the first cinematic treatment that truly does the novel justice—Dune’s cultural reach now has the potential to expand substantially beyond its previous bounds. Who, though, in this translation of media, has colonized whom? Has Herbert’s dark worldview survived the translation? Or has Villeneuve transformed this idiosyncratic novel into a vehicle for far more conventional sentiments?

It is a testament to Villeneuve’s achievement as a filmmaker that the answer isn’t obvious. Before I can attempt to provide one, though, first I have to answer a more basic question: what is Dune about?

For readers who are not already familiar with the book, Dune is set in the far future, but a future that is distinctly pre-modern in its social system—and, in some ways, in its technology. There is interstellar space travel, but fighting is conducted with knives and swords because energy shields prevent projectile weapons or lasers from being effective. Instead of robots and computers (which have been banned for millennia— the “Butlerian Jihad” was conducted against intelligent machines), human beings are trained (with some pharmacological assistance) to perform extraordinary calculations in their own minds. The political system is explicitly feudal; the galaxy is ruled by an Emperor and checked by a Landsraad of Great Houses led by hereditary aristocrats who are formally vassals to the Emperor but have independent bases of power (and atomic weapons). Behind or alongside these are three other sources of power: CHOAM, a corporation with a monopoly on most of the galaxy’s manufacturing (and whose directors include representatives of the Great Houses); the Spacing Guild, responsible for conducting interstellar travel (and setting the prices thereof); and the Bene Gesserit, an interplanetary religious sisterhood that advises and manipulates the more overt (and male-dominated) feudal powers.

None of these are, in the novel, depicted as admirable institutions, but neither are they exactly an oppressive imposition on human beings. Individual actors within the system may be virtuous or monstrous, but the system as a whole is presented as a natural expression of objective differences and of the human desire for a defined place and a role in any social order. Take the Bene Gesserit. As their power suggests, the world of Dune isn’t exactly a patriarchy—but the division of sex roles is extremely rigid and explicitly rooted in biology. Women, in the novel, innately have certain capabilities that can be developed with training into powerful tools or even weapons, and men have different capabilities that require different training. There are no female “mentats” (human computers) in the novel, for example, nor are there any men with the powers of the Bene Gesserit to neutralize poisons, detect lies, or command obedience by tuning their voices to the unique frequency of a targeted individual.

Biological determinism plays an even deeper role in Dune, however. A significant part of the Bene Gesserit’s mission lies in its eugenic breeding program, preserving and advancing the most valuable human bloodlines, with the ultimate purpose of creating a “Kwisatz Haderach,” an individual who will “shorten the way” by combining male and female capacities and achieving reliable prescient knowledge of the future. Biology isn’t the whole of destiny, but Herbert’s vision for how nurture contributes to the package of human development is equally unforgiving, one part Tiger Mom to one part Nietzsche. To become a mentat or a Bene Gesserit requires intense formal training begun at a very young age (Paul is being trained in both systems), a regimen of constant practice that lasts a lifetime. The best tutor, though, is a brutal and dangerous physical environment; that is why the Emperor’s legions, the Sardaukar, are recruited from the hell-world of his prison planet, Salusa Secundus. What did not kill them made them strong.

This is a world, in other words, built on assumptions about human nature in which liberalism plays no part whatsoever. Indeed, one could go further and say that freedom and liberty, defined in either the modern sense of liberation from constraint or the ancient sense of collective self-government as equals, are not really important values in the world Frank Herbert created. A romantic longing for the pre-modern world’s supposed wholeness, for social hierarchy and inherent natures, is common to many works of fantasy, of course; Tolkien and Lewis do not imagine worlds governed according to democratic equality, but rather nourish the romance of true kingship restored. Herbert, though, is not romantic about his pseudo-archaic world. Although there are more and less virtuous people in Dune, Herbert has a Machiavellian appreciation for the way that virtue is a double-edged sword when it comes to power, as apt to kill the wielder as the enemy.

That dark view of both human nature and power is the vital context for understanding the narrative that unfolds in this distinctive universe. The hero of the story is Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto and heir to the planet Caladan and also, potentially, to a much higher destiny that he does not yet suspect. At the outset of the novel, Duke Leto has been ordered by the Emperor to leave the pleasant world of Caladan to take over as a fief the hellish desert planet of Arrakis, governed for the previous eighty years by the Baron Harkonnen—a cruel and loathsome man who rules purely by fear. Arrakis is a brutal and impoverished world on which it is almost impossible to live due to lack of water. But it is also the only source of the most valuable substance in the universe: melange, the “spice,” a hallucinogen that makes it possible for members of the Spacing Guild to expand their minds and chart a course through hyperspace, thereby making interstellar travel possible. The destitute Arrakis, then, is also the source of the greatest wealth.

Duke Leto knows this apparent gift is actually a trap: the Harkonnens, his hereditary enemies, will never willingly cede such power, and the Emperor undoubtedly has his own designs behind the move. But the Duke has plans as well. There are people living outside of the cities on Arrakis, in the hostile environment of the desert, despite the lack of water and the terrifying sandworms (monsters hundreds of meters long that are virtually indestructible and that sow destruction in their wake). These people, the Fremen, have managed to survive in the harshest imaginable climate. Their society is tribal rather than feudal and so even more custom-bound and premodern than that of the galactic imperium, but with a flatter hierarchy and a more meritocratic basis for leadership (merit determined by mortal combat, naturally). Duke Leto—a man of honor and personal panache, qualities they instinctively respect—intends to make allies of them and turn them into a fighting force to rival the Emperor’s Sardaukar.

He never has the time to put this plan into action. The Harkonnens attack in force—with the assistance of a traitor inside the Duke’s house—not long after Duke Leto has established his presence on the planet. The Duke is killed, but his Bene Gesserit–trained concubine, Jessica, and their son, Paul, escape into the desert, where they find the Fremen—and where Paul finds his destiny. Paul, you see, should never have been born; he was supposed to be a girl, but his mother disobeyed her instructions from Bene Gesserit at the behest of her beloved Duke, who wanted a son. She thereby disrupted both the sisterhood’s breeding program and its political plans for the girl to marry the male heir to the Harkonnens, preserving peace between the two houses and their valuable bloodlines. Her disobedience also opens a new door, however. Paul’s mother hopes that he might prove to be the Kwisatz Haderach, and one of the first and most compelling scenes in the novel is when Jessica’s old teacher and harsh mistress, the Reverend Mother Mohiam, puts Paul to a test intended to assess this possibility. She forces him to endure excruciating pain via a mysterious box in which he must insert his hand, telling him she will kill him instantly with a poisoned needle, the “gom jabbar,” if he pulls it out. If he endures—which he does—he might indeed be the chosen one.

The Fremen also see him as chosen, but for a different reason. They think he may be their Lisan al-Gaib, a messiah figure foretold in prophecy who will restore water to Arrakis. But these prophecies were manufactured by the Bene Gesserit, both as a means of preserving social peace through hope and a way to provide any member of the sisterhood with a tool to win the help of the local population. Jessica and Paul take advantage of them to integrate themselves into Fremen society, but even manufactured prophecies have a power beyond anyone’s control—a power that Paul increasingly fears. Even before he comes to Arrakis, Paul has premonitions of the future, but the spice that saturates that world supercharges this ability, and in the desert he has visions both of his own death and, in those visions where he survives, of becoming the leader of a militant religious horde that will cut a bloody swathe across the entire galaxy in his name.

Paul’s aim throughout the novel is to find a way to survive and reclaim his rights without triggering this catastrophe. As his power grows among the Fremen, he periodically sees cruxes of choice where he could, perhaps, step off his destined path. He may even delude himself into believing, at the end of the novel, that he has managed to avoid his terrible destiny. He and his Fremen defeat the Emperor and the Harkonnens in battle, and his ability to destroy the spice allows him to blackmail the chief political powers to accept his demand for the Emperor’s daughter and his throne. Finally, he defeats the Harkonnen heir in single combat, an honorable victory that obviates the need for further bloodshed. But we know, from intimations of the future planted throughout the novel, that Paul has not succeeded in avoiding his dark fate, that the Fremen will in fact chart their course of bloody jihad across the galaxy despite his best efforts to win without unleashing them. Some force deeper than him, moving through him, demands it.

Whatever its literary merits (and I am not going to compare Dune with Inferno or Paradise Lost on that score) it is this, the ultimate inescapability of Paul’s fate, that gives the novel a kind of tragic grandeur. Dune has often been described as Lawrence of Arabia in space, and for obvious reasons: Paul, like T. E. Lawrence, is a foreigner who unites a bunch of fractious desert tribes and leads them to military victory against their oppressors. The Lawrence of David Lean’s landmark film, though, is the diametric opposite of a man of fate. Lawrence, like Paul, is a deeply lonely figure, but Lawrence starts out that way—his alienation from British society is what drives him to the desert in the first place—whereas Paul from the beginning is enmeshed in ties that bind and only comes to loneliness through his destiny. The more the Fremen believe he is their savior, the less fellowship he has with them—and the less fully human even his closest friends and lieutenants become:

Paul saw how Stilgar had been transformed from the Fremen naib to a creature of the Lisan al-Gaib, a receptacle for awe and obedience. It was a lessening of the man, and Paul felt the ghost-wind of the jihad in it.

I have seen a friend become a worshiper, he thought.

Paul does much to make himself into the Lisan al-Gaib of the Fremen and the Kwisatz Haderach of the Bene Gesserit—his prescience, for one thing, is real, and he makes hundreds of decisions that could have gone wrong and left him dead. He is an active protagonist in his own story. But the legends he inhabits were planted by others, and the force propelling him forward is not of his creation. Lawrence, by contrast, arrives in Arabia a nonentity and creates his own myth out of whole cloth. That act of self-creation is inseparable from his fundamental alienation; indeed, it is precisely because Lawrence has both no defined role in Arabian society and also no deep attachment to the British whom he supposedly serves that he can inhabit the role he does. In a world where “it is written” explains every twist of fate, Lawrence alone writes his own fate—that’s how his loyal lieutenant, Sherif Ali, puts it in the film. The Lawrence of the film, then, is an existential hero. Inasmuch as the success of the Arab revolt is credited to him, his act of self-creation also literally made history—and yet, that same fundamental alienation is why he’s quickly shunted aside after his victory by the politicians who actually understand power.

Paul’s case could not be more different. Not only is he not going to cede his place at any table, he doesn’t truly have the choice to do so. As he himself muses at one point, he can’t even die, because he can presciently see that then the jihad that would be mounted in his memory would become unstoppable. There’s a commonplace of commentary on Dune that the novel was intended as a warning about the dangers of messianic leadership, that we’re supposed to be seduced into rooting for Paul only to be appalled by where that leads, as Milton (in Stanley Fish’s interpretation) is supposed to have wanted us to be seduced into rooting for Satan only to be mortified by our recapitulation of the Fall in the act of reading. But a warning implies that there are forking paths, a right way among many wrong roads. Paul in his prescient state often sees these forking paths—and he is constantly looking for one that doesn’t lead to jihad. He doesn’t ever find it.

Of course, we do root for Paul, and we do so partly for moral reasons. His father, Duke Leto, is the “good” duke, a man of honor and a liberal spirit in the aristocratic sense of natural generosity, while the Harkonnens are cruel, greedy, lustful, devious, gluttonous, a veritable encyclopedia of vice. We cannot help but root for Leto, and so of course we root for Paul to avenge his death and reclaim his rights. But Leto is a “good” duke in something of the sense that Vito Corleone of The Godfather is the “good” Don, and like Michael Corleone, Paul finds that his progress toward power and vindication requires him to become a harder, more brutal man than his father was. We root for him anyway, both because we loathe his enemies and because of his own charisma and panache. But that needn’t blind us to the dark place where both of them are headed.

Yet even here, there is a crucial difference. The pathos of each of these heroes’ journeys depends on our not seeing any other path but the terrible one he treads. Paul’s path, though, is not merely overdetermined psychologically, but literally fated. The sign is right there in Paul’s surname “Atreides,” recalling Agamemnon, Orestes, and the rest of the tragic ancient Greek house of Atreus.

I dwell on this aspect of the novel because, unlike its environmentalism or its depiction of interplanetary imperialist exploitation, its sense of destiny or fate is profoundly alien to contemporary sensibilities, particularly cinematic ones. Dune would simply be a different story if Paul’s personal history or the history of the human species were up for grabs, if a key part of Paul’s tragedy were not that, unlike Oedipus, he isn’t blind, but can see, better than anyone else, and yet must do anyway. Can a modern science fiction blockbuster film partake of that kind sensibility? Going in to see Villeneuve’s film—rewatching the first part and then viewing the second—that was what I most wanted to know.

There were reasons, before even the first part of Villeneuve’s Dune came out, for me to be hopeful on that score. The first film that brought Villeneuve to my attention was Incendies, an adaptation of the Oedipus story—the archetypal tragedy of inescapable fate—set during the conflict between Israel and Lebanon. His first big-budget science fiction film, Arrival, was on one level about super-advanced aliens who visit Earth to teach human beings their language, but learning their language enables human beings to perceive time as nonlinear, future and past coexisting, such that we become beings of inexorable fate. But Incendies is ultimately about the Jocasta figure’s enduring love even after unspeakable violation, and the central question of Arrival is whether we would still choose to love once we know, for certain, that whatever we love will be lost. Villeneuve goes to very dark places, but he aims to bring light there.

Villeneuve would have been fully within his rights to make Dune a different, lighter story. When Alejandro Jodorowsky set out to make his film of Dune in the 1970s, he kept the setting but played fast and loose not only with the story but with its spirit. Indeed, as Jodorowsky argues in the 2013 documentary about his legendary unmade film, that kind of violation is inherent in the act of creation: “When you make a picture, you must not respect the novel. It’s like you get married, no? . . . if you respect the woman, you will never have child.” Without endorsing rape as a metaphor for either artistic creation or marriage, we can take the point that Jodorowsky was free to do what he wanted with Paul: to transform him into a successful messiah who miraculously turns Arrakis green after dying a sacrificial death, a vision that couldn’t be further from what Frank Herbert imagined. From the first part of his film, though, it was clear that Villeneuve aimed for greater fidelity. He not only saw the visual potential of the story and relished the opportunity to create a new world but also cared deeply about the story that Herbert wanted to tell—in particular, that he wanted us to experience Paul’s prescience as harrowing, feel with him some of the terror he feels as he perceives his destiny.

Villeneuve’s mastery of visual world-building is a major reason to see the films, needless to say. From his recent work, I had some idea of what to expect: enormous interior spaces in a stark, even brutalist style, and large, sleek objects floating with no visible means of support over sweeping, empty landscapes. The sandworms, when they first appear, are appropriately sublime sources of terror, and they’re appropriately alien as well—but also vaguely reminiscent of the ultra-intelligent giant squid in Arrival. For all that the film reflects Villeneuve’s sensibilities, though, his creative team has done phenomenal work filling out the details of this world to make it distinct, from the hieratic style of the art on both Caladan and Arrakis to the veins of reclaimed water that criss-cross the fabric of the stilltents. Specific moments will linger a long time in my memory, from the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) clinging like a spider to the ceiling to the deeply eerie monochrome of the gladiatorial arena on the Harkonnens’ home world of Giedi Prime—shot with infrared cameras, so both black and white appear to glow. The sound design is equally spectacular and original, and reason enough to see both films in a theater.

Villeneuve and his cast also do a convincing job of distinguishing between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” without hiding the brutal reality of even the “good” characters’ milieu. The Harkonnens are as loathsome as they need to be: the corpulent Baron is kept alive with some kind of prosthetic implants in his back and regular baths in a viscous black ooze; his favored nephew, Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), is a grinning bald psychotic while his less-favored nephew, Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista), is a screaming muscle-brained thug; and much of the Harkonnen population consists of deathly pale hairless drones bound for slaughter. The Atreides, likewise, are as noble as they ought to be, from grizzled and loyal warriors such as Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) up to Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) himself. He’s a loving father to Paul (Timothée Chalamet) and partner to Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a ruler determined to be respected, not just feared—because he sees that ultimately he’ll be more powerful that way. Even more so than in the novel, though, when Duke Leto dies we feel what the Emperor (Christopher Walken) ultimately says about him: that he lost because he was weak, and weak because he showed too much love, especially for his concubine and his son. This is a hard universe, and only hard people can thrive in it.

Finally, with nearly five and a half hours to work with between the two films (and I think they should properly be understood as a single film cut in half—neither film really stands on its own), Villeneuve has the room to spool out much of Herbert’s plot. Where he does make changes, they are by and large improvements that streamline and clarify without altering what is essential. Most prominently, he makes Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother, more of a driving force in bringing the Fremen to see Paul as their messiah, an effort she undertakes precisely because it will gain her son power. In the novel, she is much more ambivalent, more concerned for his welfare than for his status. The Bene Gesserit in general are, if anything, even more sinister in the film than they are in the novel (and they are quite sinister in the novel). From the Reverend Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) to the Emperor’s daughter, Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), they are more transparently motivated by their own desire for power and control than by any ideals about human progress.

Villeneuve also transforms Paul’s unborn sister, Alia (voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy), who is accidentally enlightened in the womb when her mother drinks the Water of Life (a poison derived from a drowned baby sandworm that, once neutralized by a trained Bene Gesserit, imparts prescience). Where Herbert had her play an important role in the plot while still a toddler, Villeneuve keeps her in utero for the entirety of the action, from which position she can communicate telepathically with her mother. This compresses time, always a good idea in cinema, but also removes the problem of successfully depicting a four-year-old girl with the mind of an adult woman (as in the novel), while making Lady Jessica considerably more creepy as she wanders about muttering to an entity inside her. Villeneuve also cuts an unconvincing subplot in which various of Duke Leto’s loyal henchmen think Lady Jessica is the one who betrayed him, as well as a number of minor characters like Count Fenring (left on the cutting room floor apparently, to the disappointment of Tim Blake Nelson fans), who would only have distracted from the central thrust of the story.

For all of these reasons, Villeneuve’s two-part film of Dune works marvelously well. But Villeneuve made one crucial alteration to the story that fundamentally changes its nature. It’s a change that’s arguably an improvement in terms of the film’s drama and general appeal. But it may cut out the dark heart of Herbert’s novel, precisely by excising the book’s sense that Paul is not an existential hero, a man who chooses his destiny, but a man of fate, whom destiny has chosen.

That change is to Chani (Zendaya), Paul’s love interest among the Fremen, and the change is further buttressed by other alterations both to Paul’s prescience and to the portrayal of the Fremen. We first meet Chani before we even get to Arrakis, in visions Paul has of a beautiful young woman with blue-on-blue eyes (an effect of long-term exposure to the spice). We meet her in person at the end of the first film, when Paul first encounters the Fremen in the desert and must face his first challenge from a Fremen warrior, Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun), in a fight to the death. But we only really get to know her in the second film, where she reveals herself to be the repository of a host of contemporary progressive attitudes.

Specifically: she does not believe that Paul is the messiah because she doesn’t believe in the prophecies at all. She doesn’t believe in defined sex roles or hierarchy, either; Fremen, she avers, are all equal. This is not, needless to say, what we actually see of Fremen society—Stilgar (Javier Bardem) is the chief of the sietch (the Fremen word for a desert community or settlement) that Paul has stumbled upon, and he holds his position by virtue of having bested his rivals in mortal combat. Late in the second film, Paul seeks to speak in a Fremen council but is rejected at first because only chiefs are allowed to talk there (which is what prompts him to publicly assert his status as the Duke of the planet and to claim the mantle of the messiah). The Fremen have their own Reverend Mother, whom Jessica comes to replace, with distinctive feminine powers analogous to those of the Bene Gesserit, and a similar feminine mystique surrounds the creation of the Water of Life. Fremen women do fight, and a tribal society inevitably has less social differentiation than a Great House like Atreides or Harkonnen, but Fremen society in the movie is not the egalitarian paradise that Chani suggests.

The film smooths over this contradiction by suggesting that there is a difference between northern and southern Fremen: the former, including Chani, are secular and egalitarian, while the latter, including Stilgar, are more socially traditional and religiously fundamentalist. So, while in the novel Stilgar is a wise ruler, in the second film in particular he is revealed to be an avid, even credulous believer, a trait that is played for comedy. (The moment when Stilgar insists that Paul’s denials that he is the messiah only prove he is in fact the messiah is lifted almost directly from The Life of Brian.) In the film, then, Paul is presented with a choice. He can side with the northern Fremen, reject the mantle of prophecy, and simply be another Fremen fighting oppressive off-world overlords—or he can claim to be the messiah, losing himself and unleashing hell upon the universe. The choice is also an erotic one, between Chani, his true love, and his mother, who increasingly sides with the fundamentalists to prepare Paul’s way to power and marriage to the Emperor’s daughter, the Princess Irulan. Paul makes his fateful choice, and loses both his love and the audience’s sympathy; after Paul’s Fremen warriors have boarded ships to unleash jihad upon the galaxy, the last shot of the film is of Chani, apparently alone on Arrakis, calling a sandworm to ride off into the desert and permanent resistance.

This is a considerable change from the novel, in which Chani is a loyal helpmeet—and a positive change from the perspective of character development and narrative tension. There are just a few problems with it, though, if we are supposed to believe that Paul’s choice is a real one.

First of all, it is one thing to disbelieve in a prophecy that has been planted by the Bene Gesserit, but Paul’s prescience is authentic and grows clearer with time. Earlier, he had visions of his own death, as well as more friendly visions of things that don’t happen—of Jamis, for example, kindly teaching him the ways of the desert rather than dying on Paul’s blade in ritual combat. But when he finally does meet Jamis, there is no obvious way for Paul to avoid combat with him; Jamis issues a challenge, and only Paul can pick it up. Then, after he drinks the Water of Life, Paul sees clearly for the first time, learning his past—his mother, unbeknownst to her, is the Baron Harkonnen’s daughter, and therefore what has felt like a feud between a good family and an evil one will inevitably end with the evil Harkonnen bloodline enduring—and the possible shapes of the future. It is precisely at this point, when his prescience is at its sharpest, that Paul accepts the title of Lisan al-Gaib and determines that he will marry the princess. Paul has seen something. How, knowing that, can we believe that he is still free to choose his destiny?

Second, while Paul plainly understands power and has a plan to use it, it’s never clear what Chani or the Fremen plan to do. They can fight the off-world oppressors, but by this point in the film the Harkonnens have already wiped out all the Fremen communities in the north with superior firepower, and in the end the spice must flow; the entire might of the galaxy will be bent to that purpose. It is Paul, in both the novel and the film, who has united the Fremen, given them a common purpose, and made the Harkonnens fear them (and Paul himself says that fear is their greatest weapon, since the Harkonnens outgun them). It’s also Paul who has the family atomic weapons with which to threaten to destroy the spice and to open a breach in the rock wall around the capital that allows the Fremen and their sandworm mounts to surge through, obliterate the Sardaukar, and take the Emperor and his retinue captive. Perhaps Chani and her secular compatriots have a plan for how to win their way, but we never hear it. That’s a significant omission if we’re to believe that Paul truly had a choice to remain with Chani and not embrace his inevitable role leading a galactic jihad.

Perhaps he didn’t have a choice, then, even in the film. You could read the ending, after all, not as a sign that Paul has made the wrong choice but that Chani has simply refused to accept the reality of fate and would rather live alone in the desert than be part of a historical process that she cannot endorse. Her rejection of Paul and his holy war would be like Kay’s decision in the second Godfather film to have an abortion, which didn’t end the “Sicilian thing” she had come to abhor but did end her family. This is a reading very much in tune with the darkness of the novel; it’s also one with considerable topicality at a time when women and men Chani and Paul’s age increasingly cannot connect over an ever-widening chasm between their worldviews.

Could that disconnect be what Villeneuve intended? We can’t truly know, and I’d normally say the filmmaker’s intentions aren’t dispositive anyway in interpreting the work. But Villeneuve may not yet have had his formal final word in this case. He has expressed his desire to make a sequel based (hopefully loosely) on Herbert’s second and far inferior novel, Dune Messiah, which would truly wrap up the story. Given Dune’s enormous box office success, he’ll likely get a chance to show us just what his Dune is. Is it a cautionary tale about the dangerous temptations of messianic ambition, a warning to refuse to heed the call of family, history, destiny, and choose instead to be a normal warrior in a just cause alongside a woman who loves you? Or, more in tune with Herbert’s original novel, is it a warning that sometimes, when the human race feels its deep need to “mingle bloodlines,” such dangers will come, whether we choose them to come through us or no?

The strongest endorsement I can give to Villeneuve’s achievement so far is to say that I hope we get find out.