Alejandro Jodorowsky is one of my favorite filmmakers, having directed the cult-beloved spiritual freakouts El Topo (1970), The Holy Mountain (1973), and the truly unusual NC-17-rated horror film Santa Sangre (1989). Jodorowsky himself is a mad genius who most certainly skews into auteur territory. He doesn’t want to merely tell stories, but completely blow your mind. He wants to – in his words – use movies the same way you use LSD. He wants to deliver a truly psychedelic experience, expanding the way you think, and connecting you with the spiritual forces that bind the universe. All of his films – even the bad ones (stay away from Tusk and The Rainbow Thief) – are strikingly original, and no other films are like them. I can’t even begin to describe the images in his movies without sounding like I am going mad myself. Needless to say, Jodorowsky’s movies are must-sees for any aspiring cineaste.
There was a time in the 1970s when Jodorowsky was inspired by God knows what to make a film version of Frank Herbert’s much-beloved-but-still-hugely-oblique cult sci-fi novel Dune. Given the already-psychedelic nature of the novel, Jodorowsky seemed like an almost-perfect match. And while Jodorowsky has once written an extensive essay detailing most of his creative and logistical ambitions in making Dune, we now have Frank Pavich’s documentary film Jodorowsky’s Dune to lay out all the groundwork and get new first-hand interviews from most of the people originally involved on what this massive, massive film project was supposed to be.
What Dune was supposed to be was, from the looks of it, the biggest and best science fiction movie ever made. The ambition that supported Dune made Avatar look piddling in comparison. Jodorowsky was to alter the novel into a gigantic, epically long LSD-laced sci-fi circus of cosmic and spiritual meditation. Pink Floyd was to release a triple album soundtrack record. H.R. Giger is interviewed about his designs of the Harkonnen homeworld. French comic artist Jean Giraud (a.k.a. Moebius) is interviewed about his incredibly detailed storyboards. Jodorowsky tells of his attempts to secure no one less than Salvador Dali to play the emperor of the universe. Jodorowsky’s son Brontis tell of his memories of intense martial arts training – Brontis was to play Paul Atreides. I kind of wish that Mick Jagger had agreed to appear in this doc; Jagger was slated to play Feyd Rautha. Dune was to be a very European cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey and the rollicking, speedy visuals of the yet-to-be-made Star Wars. Jodorowsky’s Dune posits a world wherein the kid-friendly Star Wars would never be, and all sci-fi obsession would hinge on the much more mindful and crazy Dune.
So if you’re a sci-fi fan of any stripe – especially if you’re the kind of sci-fi fan who likes looking back over the history of the genre – then this is a documentary you need to see. This is a film that is largely about Jodorowsky himself (a fascinating enough topic), but also about the way sci-fi movies have grown, changed, and mutated over the years. You get a good sense from Jodorowsky’s Dune about the way Hollywood approached sci-fi, and how certain films get made while others may fall by the wayside, however awesome they may be.
The frustrating part of Jodorowsky’s Dune, however, is how vague it is about the ultimate dissipation of the project. There are some anecdotes about how American investors didn’t really want to touch it. One of the interviewees talks about how Dune may have been too European for its own good, but there’s no excuse as to why the film wasn’t made with European money. What Hollywood ultimately ended up with in 1983 (and we’ve all seen David Lynch’s Dune, right?) is… well, all I can say is that I am an admirer and a fan of Lynch’s Dune, although I agree with just about every harsh criticism of it. Some of the people interviewed do say that Dune was cannibalized for other projects. Both Giger and Dune stalwart Dan O’Bannon ended up contributing to other famous sci-fi films that you know about.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is a bit of a low-fi affair (it’s constructed mostly of interviews and talking heads), but, thanks to a few well-made animations and an excellent psychedelic musical score, it seems to attempt to show what the movie might have been. In a way, this will be the only way you can ever see the best sci-fi film never made. It will make visible something that has been, until, invisible. Which has been, in a salient way, Jodorowsky’s ambition this whole time.