A film review by Craig J. Koban April 18, 2014

RANK: #23


2014, PG-13, 83 mins.


A documentary directed by Frank Pavich

JODOROWSKY’S DUNE is a documentary that chronicles arguably one of the greatest sci-fi films…never made.  Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky tried, as only he could, to adapt Frank Herbert’s landmark 1965 novel DUNE to the silver screen in the 1970's, and it becomes abundantly apparent very early on in this Frank Pavich directed documentary that this DUNE was going to be unlike any science fiction film of its time.  Jodorowsky didn’t just want to slavishly make a studio and audience friendly escapist blockbuster; he yearned to have his esoteric fingerprints all over it.  “I wanted to make something sacred,” he tells us during the course of the film, “the coming of an artistic, cinematographical god.  I wanted to create a prophet.” 

Alas, Jodorowsky’s dream never became a reality. 

JODOROWSKY’S DUNE is so hypnotically alluring on so many levels, primarily because it deals with a massively compelling cinematic “what if” scenario, but also because Jodorowsky – at a ripe, but still spry and charismatic 85-years-old – makes for such a fascinating and engaging case study.  He’s perhaps best known for his deeply strange avant-guarde works in the early 70’s, like 1970’s EL TOPO (which is largely considered the first midnight cult film) and 1973’s HOLY MOUNTAIN, but when he was tasked with his next project he enthusiastically pitched a bold and ambitious concept for adapting DUNE, despite the fact that – by his own admission – he had never read the book.  And he was deeply passionate about making it, in borderline self-destructive ways.  “If I need to cut my arms in order to make that picture,” he boldly explains at one point, “I will cut my arms.  I was even ready to die.”  Right from the get-go, DUNE became Jodorowsky’s obsession. 



Yet, Jodorowsky's version of DUNE never saw the light of day, despite the tremendous outpouring of creative energy and zeal expressed by both him and his team in wanting to make it.  How did all of this begin?  PLANET OF THE APES producer Arthur P. Jacobs had the film rights to Herbert’s novel in the early 70’s, but when he died the rights were optioned relatively easily by Jodorowsky and his producing partners, mostly because – at the time – many in Hollywood believed that DUNE was unfilmable.  From here, Jodorowsky began the massive undertaking of writing the screenplay, which was faithful to the overall story contained within the source material while taking rather large creative liberties with it.  Jodorowsky then began the process of hiring his crew, who had to be, by his own criteria, artistic “warriors” to see his vision through to the silver screen.  “I was searching for the right genius in every person,” he matter-of-factly explains, and based on his infectious enthusiasm expressed to this day in reflecting upon the project, you gain an immediate sense that he was a respected figurehead that lured in the people he wanted. 

And what talent he did lure in, many of which today would easily be considered a relative dream team from a production standpoint.  Jodorowsky hired the Dan O’Bannon (who at that point directed DARK STAR and went on to pen ALIEN) for the visual effects.  For the art department, Jodorowsky snagged French graphic artist Jean “Moebius” Girard and Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, the latter whom also went on to design the now iconic look of the extraterrestrial monsters in ALIEN.  Jodorowsky wasn’t done there, further hiring Chris Foss (then known for his exquisite sci-fi novel cover paintings) to work on more conceptual designs for DUNE.  What’s abundantly clear is that Jodorowsky wanted the best of the best…and he got just that.  The crew here – also interviewed via archival clips and present day anecdotes – reflect on their own wide-eyed infatuation in seeing their director’s version of DUNE on the big screen.   

JODOROWSKY’S DUNE is jam-packed with more sensationally juicy insights about the production that never was, including larger-than-life tales of the filmmaker attempting to get just the right cast for his film.  My favorite story has to be Jodorowsky convincing the then gluttonous Orson Welles to play DUNE’s nefarious and equally rotund villain…on a promise that the enigmatic star/director would have his meals catered to him on set by his favorite French chef.  Then there’s the ape-shit crazy/bizarre account of how Jodorowsky tried to hire Salvador Dali for a part, but the Surrealist painter wanted $100,000 per hour.  Much easier was nabbing Mick Jagger (yes, that one), who agreed to a part within seconds of being approached by Jodorowsky.  Hell, even Jodorowsky’s own son Brontis figured in on the casting.  The mid-teen was put through a hellish six hour a day, seven days a week, two year training regiment to prepare for his role as DUNE hero/messiah Paul Atriedes.  Jodorowsky was not above making his own flesh and blood suffer to make his DUNE a reality. 

But now to the bigger question: How did this version of DUNE not happen?  I think it boils down to one thing: Hollywood seemed intimidated by the robustly grandiose image of Jodorowsky himself.  Yes, there were large-scale financial issues on the table as well (the budget ballooned to a then unheard of $15 million) and the film's length that Jodorowsky proposed (potentially 14 hours!) clearly scared executives as well.  As a result, DUNE crashed and burned before it was allowed to fully gestate and get off the ground.  The film rights remained dormant until the early 1980’s when, as history has shown, director David Lynch and producer Dino De Laurentiis swooped in and made their own 1984 version.  Arguably, one of the documentary’s most inspired and funny moments occurs when Jodorowsky recounts finally and begrudgingly screening the Lynch film; he felt validated by the film’s awfulness.   

DUNE still lives, though, in the hearts and minds of Jodorowsky and his crew…at least in spirit.  3000 storyboards exist for the film (some of which chronicle an extraordinary opening shot that, if actually shot and pulled off, would have been one of the most ambitious film openings ever) and innumerable costume and set design paintings. Jodorowsky’s script, obviously enough, still exists.  The documentary approaches a level of subtle tragedy, seeing as we will all never know just what kind of film would have emerged from Jodorowsky’s mind and what ripple effects it would have had on Hollywood.  JODOROWSKY’S DUNE takes a few missteps near the end in straining to make connections between how the director's vision influenced future sci-fi films (from ALIEN to STAR WARS to CONTACT); some of the correlations seem valid, whereas others seem more purely coincidental. 

Still, at the heart of this addictively entertaining and involving documentary is Jodorowsky himself, whom never ceases to become an intoxicating figure of interest.  He’s shown as fervently driven and more than a bit egotistical and self-aggrandizing, but also as a remarkably creative, brave, audacious, and exuberantly likeable man that truly cared about his projects, even the ones that sadly got away.  The documentary ends on a note of positive hope, all things considering.  Jodorowsky’s message to future generations of filmmakers is to never give up on your cinematic dreams, even when crushing defeat seems inevitable.   JODOROWSKY’S DUNE is a sobering and melancholic industry tale of missed opportunity, but it’s also oddly inspirational in its outlook.  It has considerable things to say not only about a lost sci-fi classic in the making, but also about the nature of how failure breeds newfound success. 

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