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Jodorowsky’s Dune – film review

August 7, 2014

JODOROWSKY’S DUNE

The most influential sci-fi film never made?

dune 4.ac-4a

Directed by Frank Pavich. Appearances by Alejandro Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, Chris Foss, H.R. Giger, Diane O’Bannon, Richard Stanley, Nicolas Winding Refn and Gary Kurtz. Year of release: 2014. Running time: 90 minutes.

A documentary feature recounting the creative development behind the making of     the legendary 1975 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel ‘Dune’ which was ultimately abandoned just prior to filming.

I first became aware of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted production of Dune upon     the release of Alien in 1979; when visionary genre fave Dan O’Bannon made mention of it in such magazines as Fantastic Films. As he recounted in these publications     (as well as the making-of movie tie-in The Book Of Alien published that same year) O’Bannon found himself prematurely back in LA at the end of 1975 (having spent     an extended period living in Paris) with half his possessions back in Paris and the other half in storage; essentially living on the couch of his friend Ronald Shusett – mourning the collapse of Dune. It was this predicament which led to O’Bannon and Shusett’s collaboration on the Alien screenplay. Also published in 1979 was a beautiful art book compilation of the work of British sci-fi artist Chris Foss – 21st Century Foss (which included a preface by Jodorowsky himself) – which is where       I first saw and fell in love with many of the incredible and sumptuous designs Foss had created in Paris for Dune. So needless to say; when word came out this feature-length doco was in the works, I got very excited. And what can I say but, wow. Frank Pavich and his team have done a remarkable job putting this together.

Originally published in 1965, Herbert’s sprawling space epic takes place eight thousand years in the future where humanity has spread out across the galaxy, colonizing whole star systems. The focus of the story is the desert planet Arrakis,     the only place in the known universe where a mind-expanding spice called Melange     is harvested. The spice is crucial for interstellar commerse, as it allows mutant navigators to ‘fold space’ and travel vast distances through the cosmos via the power of thought alone. The hero of the story is Paul Atreides, the teenaged son of a ruling family based on the planet Caladan. When the Emperor of the Known Universe sends Paul and his family to Arrakis to oversee spice production; the Atreides’ sworn enemies the Harkonnens launch a surprise attack – wiping out the Atreides and forcing Paul and his mother Jessica to flee into the deep desert, where they are befriended by the planet’s indigenous population known as the Fremen. Believing Paul to be the embodiment of a prophesied messiah, the Fremen elect him as their leader as they wage fierce guerilla war to force the Harkonnens off-world and take back control of spice production and live out their lives in self-determination.

alejandro jodorowsky dune

Jodorowsky’s take on ‘Dune’ would have departed quite substantially from Herbert’s text – especially with regards to the ending. From the very beginning he explains he set out to approximate the experience of an LSD trip in the viewer – not so much the effects of a trip per se – but more to generate a sense of profundity and wonder. In a case of life imitating art; Jodorowsky (also referred to as ‘Jodo’ by his fans) likens     his attempt at making ‘Dune’ to a spiritual quest to change the world; affectionately referring to his creative collaborators as ‘spiritual warriors’ – which fascinatingly apes his on-screen role as The Alchemist; gathering together disciples in his previous film The Holy Mountain. And there are amazing synchronicities at play during Jodo’s gathering of his spiritual warriors – in the sense that he always appears to be in the right place at the right time in finding and approaching his dream team of chosen collaborators. For example, after a less-than-fruitfull meeting with special effects pioneer Doug Trumbull (his first choice as visual effects supervisor) – Jodo happened to pass by one of the few LA cinemas screening John Carpenter’s expanded student film Dark Star, paid for a ticket and was impressed enough with the visual effects to seek out the film’s credited special effects supervisor Dan O’Bannon. In an amusing sound bite, O’Bannon recounts his subsequent initial meeting with Jodo; sharing a joint and experiencing an almost supernatural – dare I say it – spiritual epiphany     with the visionary director. The first of Jodo’s spiritual warriors though to join the cause was celebrated French comic book artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud; who was immediately tasked with setting the visual tone for the projected film; producing over 3000 storyboard images. Others involved in the designing of Dune include British sci-fi book cover artist Chris Foss and Swiss surrealist painter H.R. Giger (the Oscar-winning designer of Alien four years later) – both of whom appear on camera. Sadly Moebius, however, was too ill to contribute to the doco and Dan O’Bannon had already passed away in 2009. Dan’s widow Diane knew Dan at the time of Dune’s production and relates in the documentary some of the correspondence she received from Dan while he was residing in Paris – detailing his enthusiasm for the project and his unbridled excitement in working shoulder-to-shoulder with such luminary artists (all of whom Dan would later bring to the table for Alien by the way).

hr giger harkonnen fortress dune

Larger than life, Jodo himself comes across as such a supremely genuine and affable personality that it is easy to see how he was able to win over so many creatives in his quest to get the movie made. He also demonstrates a canny ability in figuring out what appeals to the various people he approaches. His ‘gamesmanship’ in tricking Salvador Dali into accepting the role of Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV by negotiating an appearance fee of $100,000 per minute of screen-time (the total being 3 minutes on-screen) – as opposed to his initial asking fee of $100,000 per on-set hour displays a shrewdness of acumen which is breathtaking to behold. Another example of this astute ability is when he entices the massively obese Orson Welles into appearing     as the evil Baron Harkonnen (after he had at first refused) – by promising to hire     the head chef from his favorite Parisian restaurant to service him for the duration     of the shoot.

Director Pavich has assembled an impressive array of on-screen commentators in addition to Jodorowsky himself, including some of the key people involved; artists Chris Foss and H.R. Giger (as mentioned) feature prominently, as does producer Michel Seydoux. Drive helmer Nicolas Winding Refn also makes an appearance; as he is the only person on the planet who can claim to have experienced Jodorowsky’s version of Dune; having spent an evening with the eighty-four year-old director talking him through the 3000 storyboard images and concept art. There has even been talk in geek circles of a possibility that Refn may actually consider helming an animated version of Jodorowsky’s vision for Dune based on these storyboards.

Jodorowsky's Dune - storyboards

As to the film’s legacy – it’s interesting to speculate whether or not the late 70s     sci-fi craze sparked by the success of Star Wars would have actually occurred         had Jodorowsky’s version of Dune been made – and inevitably died at the box office (it was, after all, a film with a relatively high budget and an estimated three hour running time). Perhaps there would have been no Star Wars at all? And likewise     it’s interesting to ponder whether or not there’d also be an Alien had Jodorowsky’s production of Dune gone ahead – since O’Bannon would most likely never have had the impetous to drag his typewriter out of storage in LA and force himself to write (in the wake of Dune’s collapse) and develop the screenplay which became Alien. If this had been the case then just imagine all the subsequent sci-fi horror films which would never had been made in the wake of the release of Ridley Scott’s highly influential film. Without Alien, there would never have been the Galaxy Of Terror Roger Corman knock-off; showcasing the talents of one James Cameron for a start – which may never have subsequently led to Cameron ever having a career as a director. And there’d probably be no Blade Runner either (well, not as we know it) – as Scott only took on that particular project in desperation to throw himself back into work after abandoning his own helming of De Laurentiis’ Dune (following the untimely death of his older brother in the early 1980s).

If I have a criticism of this otherwise impressive documentary it would be that     some of Pavich’s unsubstantiated claims of influences which Jodo’s version of   Dune possibly had on subsequent sci-fi movies are a bit of a stretch. While I can accept the image of goggles being ripped off to reveal wires in empty eye sockets from 1980’s Flash Gordon appears to be a direct steal from Jodo’s storyboards;     some others (such as the ‘single shot’ pull-back through the Milky Way which opens Contact being inspired by the continuous opening shot from Jodo’s boards) are somewhat dubious and could easily be considered as nothing more than mere coincidence. So is this the most influential sci-fi film never made? A missed opportunity? Quite possibly. But I do prefer to think of it more as a creative springboard from which an entire generation of great films (and filmmakers) were     able to come into being thanks to its untimely demise – forever ensuring that Jodorowsky’s unfilmed Dune will be universally recognized as a monumentally important catalyst in the history of sci-fi cinema.

5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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3 Comments
  1. Really want to see this doc someday (it still hasn’t been announced for release here in the UK, and naturally sales would be limited so maybe it’ll never happen). I remember reading about this project back in 1979, reading issues of Starlog and Fantastic Films concerning the gestation of ALIEN. Of course, with the technology of the time it just couldn’t be done, the film would have likely turned out like something from the Batman tv series. But goodness such crazy ambition! If only films could be made today with such zeal and passion and crazy ignorance of what might be popular.

    But its failure to be made gave us ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER, so it was all good in the end.

  2. billted permalink

    “Refn may actually consider helming an animated version of Jodorowsky’s vision for Dune based on these storyboards.”

    That would be beautiful.
    I’d also like to see an animated or comic adaption of O’Bannons original Alien script using his preferred designs like the Foss derelict.

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