Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune is one of the most influential films that doesn’t exist. That’s the assertion of a highly entertaining documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune, about how the wild-man director of El Topo dreamed of making a crazily ambitious version of Frank Herbert’s popular sci-fi novel in the mid-’70s.
The film was intended to mimic a psychedelic experience, minus the drugs. His Dune, Jodorowsky assures us, would have been something else indeed. For the cast, he says he received verbal commitments from Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles. (Jodorowsky and his son Brontis would have played the leads, as they did in El Topo.)
The behind-the-scenes names were (and are) guaranteed to knock out the fanboys: screenwriter and special-effects man Dan O’Bannon and artists Chris Foss and H.R. Giger. Pink Floyd, enjoying the success of The Dark Side of the Moon, agreed to do the music, and the estimable Jean Giraud (known as “Moebius”) drew thousands of storyboard images.
The result might well have been mind-boggling, though you may not realize how much so unless you know Jodorowsky’s work, including The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre. A true believer in expanding consciousness, the director made movies that were strange even for the freewheeling ’60s and ’70s. They are bloody, sexual and surreal allegories that quickly won him a cult following (which included John Lennon, who bankrolled one of his efforts).
The documentary, directed by Frank Pavich, is infused with Jodorowsky’s excitement as he regales us with tales of what might have been. Now 85, and much more urbane than you might expect, Jodorowsky remains a passionate believer in the power of movies to effect revolutionary change, an idea that is perhaps out of fashion. He’s quite a raconteur, despite (or maybe partly because of) his fractured English. (He was born in Chile and has spent most of his working career in France.)
Jodorowsky and his Dune collaborators may not have made a film, but they did produce one amazing artifact: a massive book containing eye-popping designs for the movie’s space vessels and costumes, plus an incredibly detailed storyboard of the plot. (Incidentally, the director hadn’t even read the novel when he agreed to make the film, and assures us that it would have been much more his vision than Herbert’s.) Jodorowsky’s book was used to shop the project to Hollywood studios — the filmmakers were aiming for a then-impressive $15 million budget.
Pavich shows us many images from the storyboard, and even treats some to a simple form of animation to suggest how the movie might have looked.
The project had undeniable ripple effects — O’Bannon and Giger teamed for Ridley Scott’s extremely influential Alien, for instance. The film contends that images from Jodorowsky’s Dune were echoed in numerous later movies, and that certain scenes in Star Wars resemble elements from the storyboard. As to whether these connections are convincing, you’ll have to be the judge.
For all his fervor and grand vision, Jodorowsky is a genial sort, and willing to own up to some frailties. He confesses that he was deeply wounded by the project’s collapse, and even took delight in the failure of David Lynch’s dreadful 1984 film of Dune. Not nice, but certainly human.
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