Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013): The insane sci-fi epic that never was

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a 2013 documentary that tells the story of an unmade 1970s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic novel, providing a glimpse into one of the most unique aborted movie productions in history. The film was set to star the likes of Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dali, and feature an original soundtrack including Pink Floyd. The film’s storyboards and concept art have been circulating around Hollywood ever since, and have directly inspired the Alien franchise, among others.

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013): The insane sci-fi epic that never was

The documentary is directed by newcomer Frank Pavich, and includes interviews with director Alejandro Jodorowsky, as well as various producers and creative people like the late Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger (who passed away earlier this year). While the film will be lost on those unfamiliar with Dune or Jodorowsky, it provides enough wacky food-for-thought to warrant a watch, but it doesn’t inspire much faith that this adaptation would have been any good.

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The film begins by detailing avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ideas for a Dune adaptation. He says he wanted to create a film that would inspire young minds across the world, and he describes his dream of opening up a collective consciousness bursting with creativity and love for mankind. Essentially, he wanted the film to provide an LSD trip without the drug.

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013): The insane sci-fi epic that never was

It’s revealed that the film was set to star Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen, Salvador Dali as the emperor of the universe, David Carradine as Duke Leto, Mick Jagger as Feyd-Rautha, and Jodorowsky’s son Brontis (who had previously co-starred with his father in El Topo) as Paul Atreides. The film would have featured original music by Pink Floyd and Magma, and have a wide assortment of talented visual artists on board. By bringing all of these people together, Jodorowsky had literally assembled his dream team, a group of spiritual warriors that he hoped would change the world.

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013): The insane sci-fi epic that never was

The film shows us concept art and animates storyboard drawings to portray the film’s opening, as well as pivotal scenes. It features interviews with the cast and crew, and it also has commentary from various film bloggers and modern directors like Nicholas Winding Refn. Refn was actually shown the storyboards in Jodorowsky’s home, and he proclaims it to be the most potentially awesome film never made.

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013): The insane sci-fi epic that never was

The film then recaps Jodorowsky’s rise to fame. It begins with his independent and subsequently banned Mexican film Fando and Lis. He then reached international stardom in 1970 with El Topo, which would become known as “the first midnight movie”. Following this, he released his nuttiest film yet, The Holy Mountain, before becoming interested in adapting Dune in the mid ‘70s. However, he hadn’t even read Dune until the movie was well into pre-production.

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013): The insane sci-fi epic that never was

The documentary recounts how Jodorowsky got people like Welles, Jagger, and Dali to agree to sign on. From the way he explains it, it seems he decided who he wanted to work on/appear in the film and would then run into that person by chance in various places around the world. The project seemed to be progressing smoothly, with luck bringing his dream team together. He even refused to work with Douglas Trumbull, then considered one of the top special effects artists in Hollywood, due to his lack of “spirituality”. Instead, he brought on people like Giger, O’Bannon, Jean Giraud (better known as Moebius), and sci-fi book cover artist Chris Foss.

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013): The insane sci-fi epic that never was

However, after a grueling pre-production process, the producers were unable to find any studios willing to finance the film. They tried Disney and other top Hollywood studios, but no one would offer the final few million needed to begin filming. They thought it was too long (Jodorowsky suggests the movie had the potential to be 15 or 20 hours long, though it’s unclear how serious he is), and worst of all, they wanted a different director, because they didn’t believe that Jodorowsky could control such a huge production.

During this time, the Dune adaptation storyboard made its way around Hollywood, and the film shows us how its unique imagery may have been inspired films such as Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Contact, Flash Gordon, and Prometheus. In fact, Dune’s special effects artist Dan O’Bannon went on to write Alien, which also used the designs and drawings of Moebius and H.R. Giger, so it’s safe to say that Alien as we know it wouldn’t have existed without Dune. In retrospect, Jodorowsky’s Dune was truly ahead of its time.

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013): The insane sci-fi epic that never was

Of course, the project died, and eventually the film rights to Dune were picked up by Dino De Laurentiis, who hired David Lynch to direct. Unfortunately, we know how that turned out. In fact, one of the doc’s best moments is when Jodorowsky describes seeing Lynch’s Dune in the theater and becoming overcome with glee when he realized “the picture was awful!” It should come off as bitter and petty, but it’s mostly hilarious.

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013): The insane sci-fi epic that never was

If you’re a fan of Jodorowsky’s work, and have been dreaming of his Dune adaptation, then you may enjoy this documentary. If you know nothing about Jodorowsky or Dune, then you will likely learn or enjoy very little from this film. If you’re like me and have seen some of Jodorowsky’s work, and have heard of Dune in passing, then you’ll probably remain neutral throughout its short running time.

Here’s the problem: the documentary is so insular and focused that it fails to show any bigger picture until the last five minutes. Essentially, the average viewer is given no reason to care about the almost-made Dune until the very end. Once we see how the film has rippled throughout Hollywood by inspiring Alien and Star Wars, we start to get it. But until that moment, the film plays like a series of pleasant but irrelevant stories that go nowhere.

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013): The insane sci-fi epic that never was

The majority of the stories come from Jodorowsky himself, and while he seems like a friendly guy with a great artistic spirit, it’s difficult for a documentary to get by with nothing but one man’s anecdotes. The film is short, yet the seemingly endless middle feels far too long. Had the film been a 45-minute short, I probably would have appreciated it more. It’s tough to say what could have been cut, since each story and scene leads logically to the next, but it never really amounts to anything. Like the Dune adaptation itself, the documentary is brimming with doe-eyed optimism that’s doomed from the start.

As the film continues, I becomes clear that Jodoworsky’s Dune would have been a failure due to his unrealistic ambitions. The concepts were interesting, and they certainly had a great crew lined up, but how could it have worked? Jodorowsky’s idealism and anything-goes mentality worked for some of his low-budget features, but for a massive, lengthy epic?

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013): The insane sci-fi epic that never was

I agree with artistic integrity, but Jodorowsky agreed to pay Dali $100,000 an hour for his work, and then wonders later why no producer would join up. In the making of any film, there have to be compromises. Had Star Wars been presented to studios as a six-hour film, it also would have never been made. But it was instead turned into a trilogy, and the rest is history.

The creative people in Jodorowsky’s Dune all seem upset at the studios for not funding their vision, but what about their own approach? Jodorowsky himself demonizes money at the end of the film, but he was the one ready to spend massive amounts of money out of someone else’s pocket. There is strikingly little introspection on his part, although Jodorowsky’s “oh well!” attitude is bittersweet and endearing. The man is truly childlike, and I mean that in the best and worst of ways.

While watching this film, a creeping sadness came over me. I grew up watching obscure horror flicks on VHS, and I distinctly remember finding El Topo in an art-house rental store. It was in the cult film section, and because the film had no US distributor, it had imprinted Japanese subtitles. It was a transformative experience, and watching the film felt like a peek into an unknown world. When I found Santa Sangre a few years later, again on a faded VHS tape and with a large NC-17 rating on the back, it felt like I was watching something that I had no business watching. It was violent, freakish, and crudely spiritual. Coming to these films at the right time can truly change you, and that was Jodorowsky’s goal with Dune.

But during this documentary, I got the suspicion that I was wrong for liking his other films. Am I that conservative in my tastes now that I can’t “open my mind” to the avant-garde? Or are his films just crude spectacles masquerading as spirituality? I suspect it’s a bit of both, and as Jodorowsky’s Dune inadvertently shows, his films may have succeeded mostly due to luck.

Not that this is a bad thing, since great art is often the story of luck and near failures. But Jodorowsky really pushed his luck, and in retrospect, his films are just a hodgepodge of nutty imagery and stoned spiritualism. I can’t imagine any reality where his Dune would have actually been completed. But as they show at the end, maybe this isn’t so bad after all. It inspired many other projects, and its imprint is still seen on Hollywood sci-fi movies today (though, whether it really inspired all the movies this doc claims is certainly up for debate).

Had this Dune somehow gotten made, it would have been one of the most famous films in the world. There would have been raving fans who preached its beauty, and likely more detractors who loathed its approach, particularly in how it treated its source material. However, Jodorowsky will never make it, and we’re left with a blueprint by a charmingly unique and strange guy. I finished Jodorowsky’s Dune with a feeling that I was “over” his films, but I’m still rooting for him (especially when the making of this doc inspired him to direct his first film in 23 years). Any person this strange and excitable about art should spend their time creating, and whether you love or hate his films, the world is a better place with artists like him.

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  • Sardu

    I totally agree, and I think Jodorosky does as well- his film fares better as something seen on the screen of the imagination and had it ever been made it would simply have grounded all the amazing flights of fantasy and imagination of the creative team in a harsh concrete reality. I think they knew all along it could never really happen. *Maybe* as an animated film but that still would have been unspeakably expensive at that time. The way it turned out it’s as you say- it became a myth, and its DNA went on to inspire other projects.

  • Sir Raider Duck, OMS

    The one thing I didn’t like about the documentary: except for one guy at the beginning who pointed out the some of the shots Jodorowsky was planning aren’t even possible NOW, everyone in the film is of the opinion that Hollywood turned him down because they were afraid of his vision or couldn’t “think big” or whatever. No, it was because they didn’t want to give $19 million to a guy who had directed two or three art house movies and had zero sci-fi experience. Realize that four years later, George Lucas (who’d directed both the sci-fi movie THX-1138 and the mainstream hit American Graffiti) had a hard time getting $11 million for Star Wars. If Jodorowsky’s Dune had become a money-losing mess (which was entirely possible), the executives who approved it would all likely have lost their jobs.

  • This was actually a well written review. Since I am familiar with the “Dune” novel and Lynch movie I will likely get a kick out of this.

    As I get older the more comfortable I become with the idea that big crazy interpretations of things are better for film than something that tries to hold true to the book. Movies are not books and trying to hold too close or include to much just causes it to be clunky. But this might be a little too out there. I don’t know. I would like to visit the parallel timeline in which this got made, I imagine its film history is quite different.

  • Michael Martin

    My favorite part of the doc is Jodorowsky’s son. The bits about him training for years in the martial arts daily (as a kid) to be properly prepared to play Paul is both insane and awesome. I know it’s really just more of the same from the whole ball of never-gonna-happen but something about that just blows my mind.

  • rpdavies

    At one time Ridley Scott was linked with Dune, was it while Jodorowsky or Dino De Laurentiis held the rights?

  • The_Stig

    Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been such a glorious disaster, but I certainly would have preferred Mick Jagger as Feyd over Sting. “I WILL KILL HIM!” *duck pose*

    I’d like to see a doc made in this vein about Dan Ackroyd’s original vision for Ghostbusters.