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Film Review: “Jodorowsky’s Dune” Is More Addictive Than Spice


In the 1970s, Chilean independent filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky practically invented the midnight movie with El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), two cult movies in which words like “bizarre,” “unsettling,” and “insane” don’t even come close to doing it justice. Seriously (More Seriously).

Alejandro was and is ambitious, aiming to do things in films that have never been done, throwing himself and his son in lead roles, not adhering to any specific style, or circumscribed rules, and redefining guerrilla filmmaking forever. In eclectic film circles, he’s rightfully revered and remembered, but to the average moviegoer, his name will be met with confusion and a shrug of the shoulder. This was much like my own reaction to his name until I actually read about this project, and then saw the engrossing, captivating mind-exploding documentary that is Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune. It’s clear that Jodorowsky is a man with unparalleled vision, talent, and that if he had pulled off his version of Dune, he’d be a household name and the movie landscape would’ve been forever changed. Now, he’s inspiring filmmakers, even in failure (and indeed, the documentary and Jodorowsky himself argue that he didn’t fail), as we learn how and what happened to the massive Dune film project he spent years of his lives developing, nourishing and flowering. After watching this movie, you’ll know why Jodorowsky’s Dune is and was the Holy Grail of movies that were never made, and that Hollywood’s ignorance and fear of Jodorowsky and all he represented may have robbed us of a movie on par with Star Wars. Instead, George Lucas calmly borrowed designs and elements to create his own pop culture defying film.

The film is absolutely riveting for all 90 minutes, thanks to Jodorowsky’s broken English one liners and a sea of fascinating interview subjects. In 1975, Jodorowsky embarked on a massive undertaking with French producer Michel Seydoux to adapt Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi and philosophy tale Dune, about a world 21,000 years in the future called Arrakis, a pivotal piece of the political and power structure in this realm, because it houses a spice called “melange,” the most important substance in the universe. It was seen as an impossible, or foolish book to adapt, but maybe  because Alejandro Jodorowsky never read it, he made it his next project and poured his life’s blood and soul into it. He planned on accomplishing things with technology and SFX that haven’t even been replicated or attempted TODAY, let alone in the mid-1970’s. That’s how far-ahead-of-his-time™ he was.

Over a two year period, Seydoux and Jodorowsky cobbled together an All-Star team of quirk and weird. He wanted Salvador Dali to be the Emperor of the Galaxy. He had to promise $100,000 per minute of screen time, but he made it happen. He wanted Mick Jagger. They met at one of Andy Warhol’s parties where Mick Jagger agreed on the spot. For the villainous Baron Harkonnen, who is so fat that he required an anti-gravity device to move, he (obviously and laughably) required Orson Welles. He tracked Orson Welles down to his favorite French restaurant in Paris, where he engorged himself on 4 bottles of wine a day and other gastronomical pleasures. Welles wasn’t interesting in acting anymore, but when Jodorowsky promised to hire the restaurant’s chef to cook every meal for him on set, Orson Welles agreed immediately. He gathered the smartest, most talented minds of science fiction to create and design the world, like Jean “Moebius” Giraud, the seminal French comic book artist of the time. He added H.R. Giger, Dan O’Bannon and unbelievable sci-fi book cover artist Chris Foss to the mix. H.R. Giger is the man who would create the Xenomorph in Alien and that beautiful, unnerving biomechanical world, and he worked with Chris Foss and Alien’s screenwriter Dan O’Bannon to bring perhaps the best monster ever to the screen, thanks to this unreal dream team that first formed for a different project entirely.

Jodorowsky wanted everything, and he got everything he wanted…except the most important thing: to shoot and finish his project. He made his son Paul Atreites, forcing Brontis Jodorowsky to train with a stunt coordinator and learn martial arts practically every day over a 2 year period. He got David Carradine, star of Kung Fu (a TV show that was inspired by El Topo), for one of the leads. He wanted different music for each planet, and tabbed Magma, a nutty French progressive rock band to represent the Harkonnen. He got a little band called Pink Floyd to create music for the world of Arrakis. It was a perfect storm of crazy, and Jodorowsky was the engine, conductor and cheerleader every step of the way. Most creators need to have absolute control over every facet of their production, but Jodorowsky trusted and enlivened every one of his team to go to the upper limit of their abilities, inspiring creativity rather than stifling it. Check out some of this concept art from Chris Foss, that is just orgasmic:

Dune would’ve been a mind-bending, life-altering experience if Jodorowsky had had his way. He wanted it to be akin to experiencing LSD, without having to take the drug (though what’s the fun in that?). He aimed to change the world with this movie, with some moving, batshit crazy plot twists and storylines. Paul Atreites would be a messiah to deliver his message to the masses, and Jodorowsky would do anything (“…if I need to cut my arms in order to make that picture, I will cut my arms. I was even ready to die doing that”) to make that happen.

But alas, it’s all about the money, and when they pitched the project to Hollywood executives, no one bit. It’s made clear that Jodorowsky was the reason why studios were tentative to pledge millions to the cause, despite the fact that he was the absolute reason it was so cool. To each meeting, he brought a copy of this brilliant bible of Dune that featured art, script, costume designs, production designs, everything that Seydoux claims had a reverberating effect on science fiction and Hollywood (during a sequence in which we see many images from the bible, practically transposed in movies like Blade RunnerStar WarsAlien and The Matrix, it’s hard to argue with his case). It’s heartbreaking all over to again to learn how this project fell apart, despite it happening nearly 40 years ago. It’s akin to archaeologists uncovering a life-changing artifact, and then sticking it into the washing machine and ruining it forever. It’s clear that once the project fizzled, Jorodowsky never fully recovered, because he could never put as much of himself into a project again. He never had chopped off his limbs like he threatened, but losing Dune was akin to losing a part of his soul.

Dune was so tantalizingly close to happening… but instead Hollywood thought it safer to bring the project to David Lynch, who isn’t exactly the poster child for “safe.” They went on to ruin his take too, as Dune became one of the bigger flops ever. The world robbed us of the real Dune, but you shouldn’t rob yourself of learning why and how, because in so doing, you’ll be inspired to create, to go for everything, holding nothing back, thanks to the repeated batty but brilliant sermons from the still vivacious and crazy Alejandro Jodorowsky.