Having known next to nothing about Jodorowsky or Dune, I went into the film with a curious mind. Upon leaving, I’m left wondering where Jodorowsky’s works have been all my life. Though it is a documentary, Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune is an enjoyment for sci-fi geeks and general cinephiles alike.
Some exposition–Alejandro Jodorowsky is a Chilean-French filmmaker who rose to prominence in the 1960s and 70s through his absurd-surrealist art. Dividing his time between Mexico and France, he helped develop the Panic Movement, an art movement that specialized in a heightened (and at times violent) form of surrealism. He incorporated the movement’s virtues during his transition into filmmaking with his early works Fando y Lis, El Topo, and The Holy Mountain. They achieved a cult-like status among midnight moviegoers and, in the case of the former, even sparked a riot at its premiere in Mexico.
With his newly-gained notoriety for absurdism and psychedelic visuals, Jodorowsky was approached by French film producer Michel Seydoux to direct a science-fiction tale of his choice. Jodorowsky went with Dune, Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction novel that tells the story of the Atreides family as they attempt to wrestle control of their desert planet Arrakis (and its source of the psychedelic “melange” spice) from a powerful intergalactic empire.
Jodorowsky’s intention for the film’s visuals and themes was to make them so mind-blowing that they’d give the audience a spiritual experience–similar to those experienced when using LSD, only without the aid of the drug. He believed that his film would bring about a new school of thought and give the audience a heightened understanding of life, referring to the project as a Christ-like object of holy reverence.
Appropriately, he labeled his collaborators his ‘disciples’; from special effects artist Dan O’Bannon, production designers and art directors H. R. Giger and Jean Giraud (a.k.a. Moebius), to actors David Carradine, Orson Welles, and fellow surrealist Salvador Dalí. He was also very selective of his cast and crew, turning down such big names as Douglas Trumbull (the special effects artists behind 2001 and Close Encounters) because he felt they did not believe in the film’s vision.
Over the course of two years, the team compiled a giant collection of pre-production materials, with everything from intricate storyboards to concept art, only to have it shut down by budgetary concerns and other production problems–mainly that no Hollywood studio would back the esoteric Jodorowsky as director. The novel’s rights were snatched up elsewhere and Dune was eventually released as the David Lynch-directed 1984 flop (which Jodorowsky cites as a relief as proof that his original vision wasn’t stolen from him).
As Jodorowsky himself, now 80-odd years old and stammering excitedly, recalls all this, it’s tempting to not take him seriously and to write off his mannerisms as encroaching senility: he leaves his thoughts unfinished, fills in explanations with onomatopoeic sound effects, and even stops the interview at one point to tease his mewling house cat.
But as the documentary progresses we see that this eccentricity is instead a result of an overly passionate artist. Jodorowsky revels in awe at the very medium of filmmaking, referring to its angelic power to inspire and influence how we see the world. His innocent sense of enthusiasm makes it that much more emotional as he talks about the film’s failed production, as if he’s consoling a hurt child behind his crazy-eyed demeanor.
Though Dune may not exist as Jodorowsky originally intended, director Frank Pavich gives us a pretty good look at what could’ve been. Jodorowsky’s original storyboards and artwork are animated to imitate his vision, from a ‘circle of life’ conception sequence to an opening shot that literally spans multiple galaxies, accompanied by a droning score of smooth synthesizers. It may not give you a psychedelic experience, but for a surrealism junkie like myself it will more than keep you enthralled.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is a tale of one of the greatest films never made, though its influence is evident in many of Hollywood’s most recognizable blockbusters (i.e. Dan O’Bannon and H. R. Giger’s work on the Alien franchise, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, and countless comic books and other works of art). While he never got to direct his film, Jodorowsky is pleased with its lasting influence, which he connects to Dune‘s message of the shared human conscience. Not quite the spiritual awakening he intended for, but pretty darn close nonetheless.