There is no doubt that Denis Villeneuve created a whole universe with Danube – 75%. The adaptation of the novel of the same name by Frank Herbert it was one of the most anticipated projects of one of the most acclaimed directors of contemporary cinema. However, there are those who have pointed out that it does not have the same magnetism as its previous blockbuster, the impeccable Blade Runner 2049 – 88%, and they have expressed how cold, distant and even empty the film feels in its first half. This is correct in a couple of key elements of the text that pale in the film: the suspense and the sense of danger.
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The master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, in a famous interview, explained that this feeling only works when the viewer has information about a threat that the characters are unaware of. The example he gave is a time bomb under a table in which two people have a conversation. The fact that the public is aware of the meter creates a sense of danger and anticipation that would not exist if this information had been withheld from them. It is important to remember this lesson when talking about why Danube it may feel flat in your first half.
Unlike the movie, the novel makes it clear, by narrating its thoughts, that it is Dr. Yueh (Chen Chang) who will betray Duke Leto and his family, as he has formed a secret alliance with Baron Harkonnen. This element, although it remains in the facts, as it is revealed in the film, does not translate into the structure of the film, since we are never anticipated that he is the traitor and, therefore, there is no suspense that keep us anticipating what he will do or how the Atreides might save themselves from him. Deleting that little detail has big consequences in the first half of Danube – 75%.
In Villeneuve’s film, Yueh appears for just a few minutes and little is known about him outside of his role as a doctor and his warning to Paul (Timothée Chalamet) not to trust the Bene Gesserit and his own mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). In the book, we are told before the Harkonnen invasion that Yueh’s motivation has to do with his wife, but that he hates them as much as the Atreides. In the pages that tension of knowing who the traitor is adds to the mistrust that Thufir (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Leto’s mentality (Oscar Isaac), sows in him regarding his concubine. Another subplot that was completely removed from the film.
This combination of elements, the revelation of Yueh as a threat and the intrigue around an innocent character, combine to increase the suspense. And they also put the reader on the side of the Atreides, who effectively fall without much trouble into the Harkonnen web and Yueh’s trap in the public eye. The fragmentation of the family builds on many fronts before Leto’s death, adding more impact and relief to Paul and Jessica’s escape later on. Like a greater weight to the tragedy of the Duke’s death.
However, the film completely eliminates these two subplots. Although at the beginning there is this brief nod that Jessica, due to her affiliation with the Bene Gesserit brotherhood, could have ulterior motives, this is never exploited later in Danube – 75%. In fact, there are barely a couple of brief scenes between her and Leto, which detracts from the romantic relationship that is best portrayed in the book, and shocks her death afterward. Similarly, suppressing this role of Yueh, the film misses the opportunity to generate suspense, as there is not really a threat that the viewer anticipates as close to the characters.
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Who saw Danube They could argue that while Yueh’s role is not revealed, we are told that the Harkonnen have a plan in various scenes, including the first appearance of the Sardaukar, when they are hired to infiltrate the invasion, and when Reverend Mother travels to Giedi Prime, the planet of the Baron, to demand that he let Paul live. However, these glimpses of the Atreides’ enemies don’t feel as imminent as the book turns out to have a traitor in Arrakeen’s own palace and under the complete trust of the family.
It also doesn’t help that Paul’s assassination attempt, a catalyst for this intrigue game that culminates in Leto’s paranoia in the book, doesn’t really have any consequences in the movie. In adaptation, there is no major function of this plot point. In the novel, after this event, Leto has a conversation with his son in which he is surprised that the young man defends Thufir for failing to realize that the palace was not safe. It is a brief moment in which the duke recognizes that his heir is compassionate and in which his affection is expressed for him. In the film, there is hardly a scene with these two characters together that establishes the love they have for each other, which takes weight off their relationship and the eventual tragedy that awaits them.
The sense of danger is palpable in Danube just after the fall of House Atreides. There is a sense of threat for the first time during the scene where Jessica and Paul are abducted from the ship where they will be taken to die in the desert. It lies in the fact that the audience already knows that the protagonist has not yet mastered the Voice and their lives depend on him finding the perfect tone this time. The same goes for Leto’s last attempt to try to assassinate the Baron with the poison on his tooth.
Another problem is that this lack of suspense leaves the actors to their fate. Hence the most emotional scene in the first part is when the young duke finally comes to terms with the idea that his father has died and has no choice but to try to survive as the visions about the destruction of his family seem to become real. The weight of making this emotional sequence falls entirely on the interpretations of Chalamet and Ferguson, and no matter how effective these are, they cannot compensate for a first hour without danger. As much as we are told about the threat faced by the Atreides, we have to be shown what kind of danger lies in wait for them and translate it, as far as possible, into something palpable and imminent for the public.
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That doesn’t happen until the second part of Danube – 75%. Once we are shown how easy it is for the Harkonnen to sneak out with their spies, as well as gain the backing of the Emperor’s deadly guard, and how brutal their attack on the Atreides army was, now we can feel the feeling of threat with the characters in their attempt to escape the purge, because the dimension of the power and the enemy’s capacity has already been shown. But it is only well after the first hour of the film that all this happens and as a result of that flatter first half, which seems to have been more concerned to amaze with its production design of the different worlds that are shown on screen.
Now, we must give the concession to Villeneuve that, even dividing the novel in half, there was a lot of material that, as we see, not even almost three hours of film could have compacted satisfactorily. Although it is a surprise that someone who has done such tense sequences as the shooting on the border of Sicario: No Man’s Land – 94% or the race to contact the Chinese general in The arrival – 94%, and who also fully understands the importance of controlling the information that is revealed to the public to play with their emotions, as he did with the suffocating Intrigue – 81%, has lost sight of the fact that, in that first half of the book, it was important to highlight Yueh’s betrayal in order to establish sufficient suspense capable of hooking the public, raising the sense of risk and loss on the characters and giving background to the great tragedy of the Atreides.
It remains to be seen if for the sequel to Danube – 75% the director manages to focus more effectively on the sensation that reading the novel offers. Fortunately, the second part of the book no longer relies so much on suspense or political intrigue but on training Paul in the ways of the Fremen and is closer to a biblical tale about a rising leader who, against all odds, manages to win. And if Villeneuve’s film also stood out in something, it was in offering that epic and almost prophetic sense of the story. One can only hope that he does not lose sight of it.
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