Is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune” the most influential movie never made?
Late in the lively, anecdote-strewn documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” director Frank Pavich enumerates the ways. The swordfights in “Star Wars,” the cyborg POV in “The Terminator,” the galaxy-spanning opening shot of “Contact” — all were prefigured in the massive “Dune” storyboard book that circulated through studio suites in the mid-1970s. Writer Dan O’Bannon and visual consultants Chris Foss, Jean “Moebius” Giraud, and H.R. Giger all went on to work on 1979’s “Alien,” with Giger’s designs for the creatures and sets dictating the dark look of movie science fiction for decades to come.
Without Jodorowsky’s “Dune,” no “Blade Runner,” no “Matrix”? (Definitely no David Lynch’s “Dune,” the 1984 turkey that was made only after the earlier production fell apart.) Pavich presents a fascinating case, but his movie’s much better at making you wish Jodorowsky’s version — “a massive asteroid that just missed Earth,” in the words of one onlooker — had come to fruition.
In retrospect, it’s obvious why the film was never produced: The director was a lunatic. The Chilean-born Jodorowsky was best known for “El Topo” (1970) and “The Holy Mountain” (1973), startling midnight-movie mash-ups of spaghetti-western violence and Carlos Casteneda jive. Maybe there’s a metaphor in the scene in “Holy Mountain” where a mystical Alchemist (played by the director) turns another character’s turd into gold, but Pavich doesn’t go there.
Jodorowsky went there and beyond. Interviewed at length in the new film, the now-frail 84-year-old filmmaker practically levitates with enthusiasm as he recalls his attempts to turn Frank Herbert’s sci-fi bestseller into “something sacred” — “a film that would give you hallucinations without drugs.”
In two years of pre-production, Jodorowsky brought together O’Bannon, Giger, Moebius, and Foss, urging them with daily pep talks to create an immense, visionary version of “Dune” on paper. He cast his teenage son, Brontis, as the novel’s young hero Paul Atreides, and had the boy undergo rigorous martial arts training. (The adult Brontis recalls this period with great fondness.) Salvador Dalí agreed to play the Emperor of the Galaxy for $100,000 per minute and a burning giraffe. Orson Welles signed up to play Baron Harkonnen, but only if his favorite Paris chef was installed on set. Mick Jagger said yes to Feyd Rautha, the role that was played by a codpieced Sting in the Lynch version. Jodorowsky intended to use a different prog-rock group to compose the music for each planet — he berated Pink Floyd into coming aboard — and planned to illustrate the hero’s conception with a camera shot that traveled up his mother’s vagina.
Remarkably, no one involved seems to have bothered to read the book except Dalí’s then-lover/muse Amanda Lear, who had to describe the plot to the aging Surrealist. Jodorowsky eventually got around to it, but he makes his feelings clear to Pavich: “When you make a picture, you must not respect the novel. . . . I was raping Frank Herbert, but with love, with love.”
Wouldn’t you want to have been a fly on the wall when the “Dune” team pitched the film to Disney, among other studios? No one bit, of course. It’s possible that no movie could ever have matched the one in Jodorowsky’s head — in the pre-CGI era, anyway — but it’s just as clear that Hollywood executives in the years before “Star Wars” were terrified of an artist with so much vision and so little interest in dollars and cents.
Pavich brings on a few film critics to discuss the importance and influence of the unmade epic, and Nicholas Winding Refn (“Drive”) — a director with obsessions of his own — talks with wonder of poring through the “Dune” production book and “seeing” the magnificent film in its pages. The music by Kurt Stenzel is a pitch-perfect replication of mid-’70s synth noodlings: an ersatz Tangerine Dream score for a film that never was.
But the final say belongs to Jodorowsky, as it should. “Have ambition! Be immortal!” he cries, an idealist to the last. In the end, “Star Wars” was the movie that remade science fiction and pop culture in its own image — we’re still living in the aftermath of its blockbuster Big Bang — but how much more wonderfully strange things might have been if Jodorowsky’s “Dune” had got there first.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.