This review was originally published during last year’s AFI Fest, on November 19, 2013. It is being reposted now that the film has officially opened theatrically.
Dune is the most influential movie that was never made. Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction novel eventually came to movie theaters in 1984, but in the 1970s, a much different adaptation was in the works. This production was an amalgam of some of the best-known artists of the age, along with a few more who would become famous in later years. After a great deal of build-up and preparation, this version of Dune fell apart. Yet the fallout from the project is such that popular culture would look very different had it never been attempted. That’s the power of Dune. That’s the power of Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Jodorowsky was the cult sensation of acid cinema in the 1970s. The Chilean-French-Jewish director made a name for himself with underground hits like El Topo and The Holy Mountain. When it came to filmmaking, he threw all rules, coherence and sense of decency out the window. Anything went, audiences lapped it up, and eventually he found himself in the plum position of choosing whatever project he wanted. This was 1975, and a group of French producers had just bought the film rights to Dune. That’s what Jodorowsky wanted. He hadn’t read the book, but its ideas sparked his imagination more than its story.
Jodorowsky’s Dune chronicles the years that Jodorowsky spent assembling his crew for the film, whom he referred to as his “spiritual warriors.” Still vivacious in his 80s, the man now describes filmmaking as a holy art and worships creativity above all else. He sought out likeminded collaborators for this epic. The film was to star Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Jodorowsky’s own son, who underwent a strenuous two-year physical regimen in preparation for his role. It featured art design by Dan O’Bannon, H.R. Giger, Chris Foss and Jean “Moebius” Giraud. Pink Floyd was to do the soundtrack. The movie would have been ten hours long, its story culminating in an entire planet experiencing a spiritual awakening and then roving the Universe as a messenger of enlightenment. In short, it would have been amazing.
What hurts the most for any cinephile is that this vision came so close to fruition. The story in part seems nigh-mythical, with Jodorowsky approaching and snagging these titanic figures through trickery. He purchased Welles’s participation by promising to provide him catering from his favorite French restaurant. He signed Dalí on the agreement that he be paid $100,000 per hour, then arranged it so that they could shoot all of his material in one hour. By any measure, Jodorowsky earned this film. He had the entire thing meticulously mapped out in a storyboard/art book/script that was thicker than two phone books. But in the end, the funding simply didn’t materialize. Hollywood loved Jodorowsky’s ideas, but they didn’t love him and were ultimately too skittish.
The documentary does a good job of taking the viewer inside the brains of Jodorowsky and his spiritual warriors, using animation to visualize all of their ahead-of-their-time concepts. Mostly, it’s a straightforward presentation, not unlike other making-of-what-was-never-made docs such as Lost in La Mancha and Persistence of Vision. The real star of the show here is Jodorowsky himself. The man is an arresting screen presence, to say the least. He’s overbrimming with exuberance that belies his age.
Jodorowsky embodies a truly outlaw spirit, such that headlining a major studio picture seems to have never been a real possibility. But he had the last laugh. The dream that was deferred ended up exploding all over the movie world. The spiritual warriors took the ideas they developed while working on Dune and used them elsewhere. You can see its mark on Star Wars, Alien, Blade Runner and every movie that they in turn inspired. Every idea that Jodorowsky conceived for Dune, he would eventually use in his comic books, such as The Incal and The Metabarons. Do not weep for Dune, for while we never saw the movie, we have encountered it in some form or another over the years.
Without Jodorowsky, Jodorowsky’s Dune is nothing special. With him, it’s an entertaining, informative way to learn and think about what could have been. It will hopefully inspire at least some regret over the loss of the ’70s Dune and get more people to check out Jodorowsky’s work.