A long time ago in a galaxy far away, the maverick Chilean-born film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky dreamed of making an epic, hallucinatory adaptation of Frank Herbert’s best-selling science-fiction saga Dune. Backed by the Paris-based producer Michel Seydoux, the guru-like director of El Topo and Santa Sangre worked for two years on this grand folly, recruiting a team that included the French comic-book artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Hollywood screenwriter and special effects expert Dan O’Bannon, and future Alien designer H.R. Giger. But this was in 1975, before Star Wars turned sci-fi blockbusters into a mainstream studio staple. Jodorowsky’s big-budget space opera collapsed, leaving behind a huge archive of production designs and storyboarded scenes.
Premiered at Cannes this week, director Frank Pavich’s entertaining documentary makes the case for this overblown epic as a legendary lost masterpiece. The film features interviews with key players and commentators including the 84-year-old Jodorowsky, Seydoux, Giger, Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz and Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. The tone veers into film-fan geekery in places, but Jodorowsky is such a natural showman and irrepressible egotist that his ancient anecdotes never become tedious. Though technically polished, the film’s cultish subject matter suggests any theatrical appeal will be niche. TV sales and home entertainment formats should prove more natural outlets.
Never troubled by anything resembling modesty or irony, Jodorowsky claims that he planned Dune as “the most important picture in the history of humanity”. In one of many unwittingly comic slips, he freely admits he never even read the novel and happily rewrote the ending: “I was raping Frank Herbert,” he grins, “but with love.” According to his colorful account, the project came together via a series of almost mystical encounters with the “spiritual warriors” he required to realize his world-changing vision. One was the legendary Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, who eventually agreed to play a small role. In Jodorowsky’s version, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles also consented to join the stellar cast, while Pink Floyd signed on to compose the soundtrack.
However unreliable a narrator Jodorowsky may be, this documentary does a service to film history by making his lavish storyboards public, and even bringing some alive with brief animated sequences. Pavich’s uncritical fanboy approach is forgivable, even if it overclaims the historical significance of Jodorowsky’s stalled sci-fi spectacular. Refn argues that Hollywood was “afraid” of Dune on some deep psychological level. The more banal truth is that several big US studios mulled the project, but balked at its spiralling budget and epic running time.
That said, the fascinating slow-motion impact that Jodorowsky’s failed folly seems to have had on future generations of sci-fi films, from Star Wars to Prometheus, is covered a little too briskly here. Giger and O’Bannon later worked together on Ridley Scott’s Alien, where some of their Dune designs found a home. Jodorowsky explains how he and Moebius recycled many of their original concepts in their long-running Incal comic-book collaborations, though no mention is made of their failed lawsuit against French auteur Luc Besson, alleging that he plagiarized their work for his 1997 film The Fifth Element.
From a distance of almost four decades, Jodorowsky’s psychedelic blueprint for Dune looks very much like a preposterous 1970s period piece, with overtones of Barbarella and Flash Gordon. After all, David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation was a notorious turkey, so who knows if this more ambitious earlier take would have fared any better? For all its claims of prophetic genius, Pavich’s documentary may well prove to be a more enjoyable film than the high-camp carnival of excess it seeks to commemorate.
Production companies: Snowfort Pictures, CameraOne, Endless Picnic
Producers: Frank Pavich, Stephen Scarlata, Travis Stevens
Starring: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Michel Seydoux, H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, Nicolas Winding Refn, Amanda Lear
Director: Frank Pavich
Cinematographer: David Cavallo
Editors: Alex Ricciardi, Paul Docherty
Music: Kurt Stenzel
Sales company: Snowfort Pictures
Unrated, 85 minutes