[Film Review] Jodorowsky’s Dune, by Frank Pavich

Alejandro Jodorowsky, experimental film director with mystical ambitions, wished to turn Dune, that monument of science-fiction, into an even more monumental film, a film sacred and beautiful, that would set off mutations in young minds all across the globe and forever alter the course of film history like 2001 did before it. Had his ambitions come to fruition, we are told they would have in fact eclipsed Kubrick’s work, and put Star Wars to shame. Fifteen minutes into Jodorowsky’s Dune, I am ready to believe it.

This film about a missed opportunity documents how Dune was conceived of, how an outrageously famous and inspired, nigh unthinkable cast of illustrators, artists, actors and musicians was assembled, yet failed to ever make it onto the screen. Despite essentially consisting in the recollection of a long string of anecdotes by the guru-director, his producers and collaborators (or fellow “spiritual warriors”, so he called them), the narration is animated into a larger whole by a collective passion for the project that has clearly lived on since the mid-seventies, and a sense that the often absurd casting and producing choices could indeed have resulted in an undying cult film that we would have all watched again and again.

All through the film we get to admire the art of Jean Giraud (aka. Moëbius, the French artist famous for the cinematic bande-dessinée Blueberry and the adult comic publication Métal Hurlant), who put together a 3000-drawing storyboard, some of which is animated for the documentary. We learn how no less than Dali and Mick Jagger were each cast as Galactic Emperor and sadistic aristocratic gladiator Feyd Rautha; how the surrealist painter was to be paid more than any Hollywood actor at the rate of $100,000 per “useful minute”; how – in preparation for the leading role – Jodorowsky’s 12 year old son practiced karate and ju ji-tsu with with martial arts master Jean-Pierre Vignau 6 hours a day, seven days a week, for months on end; how Pink Floyd and Magma were approached to create clashing musical ambiances, (with Orson Wells, HR Giger, Dan Bannon…); and so on, and so on.

In short, the film is about how the famous and the talented were brought together to work on the vision of Jorodowsky, only for it all to dissipate, leaving behind a huge concept-book no studio ever took up. The film failed to be made for the same reasons it was conceived: Jodorowsky would not accept any alterations to his vision, and no studio dared to hire him as director, for his past works were too experimental, too strange, the work too ‘adult’, too long, too expensive, and the financial implications and popular reception too uncertain.

My excitement about this extravagant whole withered about three-quarters of the way in. The underlying bitterness of the last quarter cast the whole into a more negative light. It left me with nagging doubt that the project was perhaps not all so perfect, and the whole process even a little distasteful. There was something about the madness that drove Jorodowsky, a measure of which can be read between the lines of the testimonials, that convinced me that his self-appointed position as “prophet” brought with it a measure of (self-)deception. Nearly all the interviewees were involved in the planning of Dune, expressing their common belief in a no doubt formidable, life-encompassing project, so the lack of non-believing voices became jarring. It felt like the multiple references to a cult and its visionary leader were not dramatic hyperboles, but the simple truth.

I began to suspect another documentary could perhaps have been made, about a grandiose man who, like many a brilliant filmmaker, thought his superior creative vision could change the world of film, of art, of science-fiction; who expertly convinced some of the most capricious, egotistical men in art, music and film to participate in his unrealisable project; who pushed his boy into a grueling training regimen; who convinced a talented artist to abandon everything, sell everything to take part; and who can horribly compare his dubious alterations to the book’s ending as a “loving rape” of Frank Herbert’s work (I paraphrase, but that’s the message). All this only to come out bitter, quite defeated. This is of course a harsh interpretation, conceived in my 2am mind. It ignores some measure of self-awareness from Jodorowsky and runs counter to the film’s 98% fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating which makes me feel a bit lonely. I should also add that the ending sequence recording the influence of their work on other films is convincing, and much acclaimed work in the film and comic worlds clearly owe a debt to the unmade Dune. Still, this alternative version may well be the unspoken dark side of Jorodowsky’s Dune, excellent, engrossing, self-mythologising film that it is.