by Ken B.
There is a certain degree of mystique and interest that surrounds the great, ambitious, unmade films. The fabled stories from those involved with the project, the lamenting from everyone that it never happened, and the stories of events that led to its downfall. In recent years, one of the biggest examples of this was in the 1970s, with Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune. Later to be (tragically) made by David Lynch, Jodorowsky’s project was so far ahead of its time, and so frantic with ideas and concepts, that Jodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich’s documentary on this unmade movie, proposes that its impact can be felt throughout the following decades in all forms of sci-fi, essentially being the most influential movie never made.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is mainly based around relaying its subject’s career. He got his start directing theater in Mexico in the early 1960s. His first film, Fando y Lis, was so controversial that it was banned in the country and launched actual full-scale riots. This set the tone for the auteur’s ensuing career, crafting violent, surreal, and/or abstract pictures, like El Topo and The Holy Mountain. By 1974, Jodorowsky was given the opportunity by a French producer to film a version of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Jodorwosky moved to Paris and began assembling a cast and crew, including putting his son in the lead role of Paul Atreides. To play parts in the supporting cast, he reached out to the likes of Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí, with the latter only agreeing to play the part of Emperor Corrino if he was paid at the rate of $100,000 per hour (Jodorowsky and team resolved this through some clever negotiation wording). Behind the camera, artists such as H.R. Giger helped author the storyboards and set designs, miraculous and grand creations that have to be seen to be believed. But Jodorowsky’s vision was never going to be backed by anyone with enough clout (or currency) to fund the multi-million dollar production, and so, rather untriumphantly, the whole thing came crashing down.
That’s the story of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune. That’s what happened. It isn’t intrinsically interesting material for a documentary, but Pavich is able to turn it into a colorful and informative 90 minutes, cutting between interviews with those involved, like Jodorowsky, Giger and producer Michel Seydoux, and exterior filmmakers and film experts, unrelated to the project itself but still with much to add. The presentation and animation of Dune’s prospective artwork is an ingenious accompaniment. The technical execution and editing is superb, intercutting clips from various films and interviews with a comfortable degree of confidence and watchability.
The one thing that keeps me from liking Jodorowsky’s Dune much more though, is a kind of unconditional waxing nostalgic, especially from Jodorowsky, about the masterpiece that this film might have been. He even quotes himself from 1974, where he apparently told some of his crew members that they were in the midst of making the most important movie of all time. There’s never a point where there isn’t at least a little bit of deification, an endless parade of “Look how cool this could have been” – and although you have to agree with such a statement, it can be tiring. The air of smugness is coyly played with when Jodorowsky recalls initially refusing to see David Lynch’s Dune in the 1980s because he worried about how much better Lynch’s version could, but after his family dragged him along to a screening, feeling an odd sense of relief that the film was “awful”.
But Jodorowsky is a charismatic man, as he discusses every aspect of what, if the documentary is to be believed, could have been his magnum opus. And if there is one thing to be said throughout all of the rubble of hype that is created, it’s that everyone was clearly very enthusiastic about the idea, and to an extent, that excitement never really faded completely. Despite it very much having one track of opinion, of hype, and voice, Jodorowsky’s Dune still proves itself as valuable and even fun watching material for sci-fi fans, Dune fans, Jodorowsky fans, and those curious about what happens in some of these more fabled unrealized movies.