Lost in the Desert

fm duneJodorowsky’s Dune’ reveals what could be the best sci-fi movie never made

They call it “the greatest science fiction movie never made.”

The source material is one of the most iconic, influential and beloved of modern sci-fi novels. The production would have teamed up an extraordinary brain trust of creative young geniuses—designers, graphic artists, and special effects wizards destined to become cinema A-listers in subsequent projects like Star Wars, Alien, and Blade Runner—along with a couple of maverick old-school geniuses. And it would have cemented the reputation of one of the most engaging nut-ball visionaries ever to emerge in the annals of cinema.

If only Alejandro Jodorowsky’s dazzling adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune had been made.

But now we get the next best thing in Jodorowksky’s Dune, an irresistible documentary by Frank Pavich that celebrates the movie that might have been. Pavich structures his film around a series of interviews with Jodorowsky himself, the Chilean-born iconoclast with roots in avant garde theater in Mexico City and Paris, whose trippy 1970 experimental film El Topo became the godfather of the midnight movie. Now a dapper 84, the cosmopolitan Jodorowsky (“Jodo” to his friends) recounts his vision for Dune with exuberant relish, and a passion undimmed by time.

As charming as Jodo is, however, Pavich’s film is more than talking heads. During two years of pre-production on Dune, the director amassed a vast archive of images—paintings, sketches, costume designs, storyboards—eventually bound into an enormous volume the size of several metropolitan phone books. This treasure trove of visual material, its images occasionally animated onscreen, is the centerpiece of Pavich’s doc.

The saga began in the early 1970s, after the release of El Topo, when French producer Michel Seydoux gave Jodo one million dollars for his next film—which turned out to be the equally bizarro The Holy Mountain (1973). When Seydoux asked Jodo what he wanted to do next, the director seized on Dune, a novel he had not read, but whose story of oppression, revolution, ecology, and the coming of a messiah appealed to him thematically. He might as easily have chosen Don Quixote, or Hamlet, Jodo recalls with a chuckle and a shrug. But, “I said Dune.”

Determined to make a film with the visual impact of a drug trip, a mind-altering epic that would be “the most important picture in the history of humanity,” Jodo holed up in Paris to write his script, then set about finding his team of “spiritual warriors” to help him realize his vision. His first recruit was comic book artist Jean Giraud, known as “Moebius,” who not only sketched all of Jodo’s elaborate costume ideas, he also drew a massive storyboard for the entire script, shot by shot.

Jodo approached special effects maestro Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey), but found him too much of a “technician,” and not spiritual enough. Instead, he recruited Dan O’Bannon, whose low-budget Dark Star had the personality Jodo wanted. Jodo also brought in sci-fi pulp magazine cover artist Chris Foss to do character paintings of various spacecraft, and Swiss artist H. R. Giger (of Alien fame) for creepy robo-organic designs of armor and fortresses for the evil house of Harkonnen. Jodo lined up Pink Floyd and a French Goth band of the era, Magma, for the soundtrack.

In front of the camera, Jodo wanted Orson Welles for the bloated villian Baron Harkonnen, and legendary surrealist painter Salvador Dali as the “Emperor of the Galaxy,” and he recounts the unorthodox methods by which he persuaded them to agree. Alongside David Carradine, and Mick Jagger, Jodo cast his son, Brontis, as Messiah-hero Paul Atreides, whose fate ultimately departed somewhat from Herbert’s original. “I changed the end of the book—evidently,” Jodo laughs.

These days, the projected budget of $15 million would barely cover car fare to get Kristen Stewart to the set on time. But it was enough to scare off potential backers in 1975—especially with wild man Jodorowsky at the helm. And indeed, there’s a disconnect between actual snippets of Jodo’s early films (static and surreal in a sort of quaint Dadaistic way) and his grandiose plans for Dune. Maybe Jodo could never have translated his passion for Dune to the screen intact, given the primitive tools of the day, in which case, Pavich’s film may be the greatest version of Jodorowsky’s Dune that could ever possibly be.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

★★★★ (out of four)

Documentary by Frank Pavich.

With Alejandro Jodorowsky. A Sony Classics release.

Rated PG-13. 90 minutes.

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