Alejandro Jodorowsky's ambitious, mind-bending adaptation of Frank Herbert's "Dune" might have been the greatest science fiction movie of all time. We'll never know for sure; the film spent two years being developed and planned before a lack of funding killed the project. Fortunately, the 2013 documentary "Jodorowsky's Dune" allows us to glimpse the revolutionary picture that might have been. Director Frank Pavich takes us on a spellbinding journey through the imaginations of the artists who assembled in the 1970s to try to bring Jodorowsky's dream of "Dune" to life, but the star of this 2013 film is the visionary filmmaker himself, a master storyteller with a quixotic personality that holds the audience's attention no matter how fabulous - or trustworthy - his tales might be.
By the middle of the 1970s, Jodorowsky had already made a name for himself in Europe as the creator of surreal cult films like "El Topo" (1970) and "The Holy Mountain" (1973). He teamed up with Michel Seydoux to adapt Herbert's "Dune" for the big screen, despite the fact that Jodorowsky had never actually read the book himself. Together, the two men gathered artists like H.R. Giger and Chris Foss to work on the concept art for the picture. They also lured musical groups, actors, and other creative individuals to participate in their film. Eventually, however, they had to convince a studio to back the project, and there the film foundered. Despite a lavishly detailed storyboard version of the entire movie, nervous studio executives balked at the weirdness of Jodorowsky's vision, and a different "Dune" eventually arrived on the big screen in 1984, with David Lynch as the director.
Pavich's documentary brings the story of this cinematic journey to life through interviews, clips, concept art, and some truly hypnotic animation sequences. Fans of science fiction, comic books, surrealism, and cinema history will find themselves very much at home with the vocabulary and the major players, and the project as a whole forms an enormous web of influence. Where else do Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Dan O'Bannon, Mick Jagger, and Pink Floyd all intersect? The film also traces the impact that Jodorowsky's aborted work made on later science fiction juggernauts, particularly "Alien" (1979). Interviews with H.R. Giger prove especially poignant since the artist's death in May of 2014, while the segments featuring Jodorowsky's son, Brontis, offer glimpses of what it was like to be both the filmmaker's son and his choice for the role of Paul.
Jodorowsky stands at the center of everything in both the unfinished film and the documentary, and he's simply fascinating, a perfect subject for this kind of movie. He might be a genius, or a madman, or both. He has the charisma and seductive conviction of a cult cinema messiah, with wild lights in his eyes and an endless stream of stories. We don't wonder that he convinced so many people to give up years of their lives working on his project in Paris, although it's unclear how much of Jodorowsky's narrative is absolute truth and how much is embellishment for art's sake. Could he actually have gotten Orson Welles into the bizarre costumes designed for Baron Harkonnen just by promising to hire him a particular chef? The possibilities are tantalizing, even after almost forty years.
For both science fiction fans and movie history buffs, "Jodorowsky's Dune" is a must-see picture, a compelling story of inspiration, adaptation, and a legacy that transcends apparent failure. The documentary is currently playing in the United States and Canada; visit the official website for information about screenings. For more films from Alejandro Jodorowsky, look for "Santa Sangre" (1989) and "The Dance of Reality" (2013).