By Andrew Kemp
Frank Herbert’s DUNE is a paradox. It’s a novel of fantastic scope, high adventure and spirituality that hangs on a deeply personal space opera plot. In short, DUNE is everything a movie producer wants in a blockbuster film.
On the other hand, the same material that makes Herbert’s novel so appealing renders it a whopper to reel in. The story is dense and inaccessible, the setting weird and unwieldy, and everything that happens is in pursuit of a drug that alters your consciousness and expands your mind. That’s a hard sell in Peoria.
DUNE is like a siren sitting on an enormous safe full of cash, and great filmmakers have sunk to the depths trying to crack it. Perhaps the greatest is David Lynch, a true visionary of the art form, whose turgid, silly 1984 adaptation clearly got away from him. Rumors abound that prior to Lynch, names like Ridley Scott, David Lean and even Jack Nicholson all considered giving it a go. A 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries had its merits but came woefully short. The fact is that the story of DUNE as a movie is written with the misfires.
Before all of these failures, there was Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Chilean-born surrealist behind art house smash EL TOPO (1970) and the breathtaking, bonkers THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (1973) [NSFW] built a team in the mid-70s—not of technicians, but of “spiritual warriors”—to bring DUNE to the screen for the first time. What he created was a landmark of cinema history, an impact crater that shook the industry and left a mark on pop culture that’s easy to identify even today. Not bad for a movie that wasn’t even made.
JODOROWSKY’S DUNE, a new oral history of the film that never was, begins with an interview from DRIVE (2011) director Nicolas Winding Refn in which he claims Jodorowsky once walked him through the screenplay and storyboards step-by-step, making Refn the only person who has actually seen his version of DUNE. The documentary tries to rectify that to an extent, filling the screen with storyboards and animated concept art that gives audiences a glimpse at what could have been a cinematic mind-trip to rival that of Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Jodorowsky, you see, had no interest in the pop and whizz of traditional space opera. He believed that with DUNE he had a responsibility to change the world, to alter the minds of those in the audience and to provide the experience of tripping on LSD without the pesky need to actually take the drug.
In the story between Jodorowsky’s inspiration and the inevitable collapse lies a truly inspired documentary, one that breathlessly fawns on the director and his vision, but still allows Jodorowsky (now in his 80s) to work himself into a puckish frenzy describing every wild shot or audacious casting choice or the moments where his artist’s indignation causes friction with his crew. (Evidently Pink Floyd was really into hamburgers, that most banal meal.) Watching Jodorowsky rant is almost a bigger draw than the fragments of his lost film. This is a man who once talked Salvador Dali into playing the crazed emperor of the universe, and his charm still shines through in his advanced age, even if he is prone to halting interviews to play with his cat or indulge in an inappropriate metaphor or two.
The story of his film, as painted by Jodorowsky and the others, is an unlikely “team on a mission” tale as the director assembles his collaborators, from the late Dan O’Bannon (DARK STAR, ALIEN) to comic artist Moebius, HR Giger and the French progressive rock band Magma. Every time the peak of the story is seemingly reached, it just gets bigger. By the time a burning giraffe gets a mention, it’s just another oddity to throw onto the pile.
Of course, Jodorowsky never misses an opportunity to find the metaphysical in the moment, and likewise the documentary becomes about something more than a lost artifact of cinema history, but also about life and loss and the very-human need to create. It’s a credit to Jodorowsky’s vision that shortly after his project fell apart, other science fiction films began to hire his team (O’Bannon, Moebius, and Giger were all hired by Ridley Scott for ALIEN) and gradually his failed effort flowed out and gave life to other projects, films and stories that would alter the course of the movies in a very real way. Although DUNE was never made, its influence is everywhere. The documentary makes a compelling argument that the lost DUNE is a keystone project. It’s death guided the subsequent four decades of genre cinema, but if it had lived. . . well, then maybe it would have changed the world.
Maybe the money guys were right. Maybe the film had no chance of achieving its ambitions, and there may have been little chance of making back its budget even if it did. But, then, one never knows. Jodorowsky still hopes for a DUNE animated film that incorporates his script, and now that you mention it, advances in special effects and a renewed interest in smart science fiction may have created an environment that’s ripe for a DUNE revisitation. An attempt led by Pierre Morel fell apart back in 2011, but maybe the right director can finally crack this nut.
What could go wrong?
JODOROWSKY’S DUNE is now playing at UA Tara Cinemas. Get tickets HERE.
Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.