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Review: ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’ & the growing myth of the greatest films never made

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Jodorowsky's Dune

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People have a tendency to overvalue the unknown – forever obsessing over the “if” and “what could have been.” This goes double for film fans. Movie buffs cannot help but add hyperbole and heap impossible-to-know expectations on films that were never made. And opinions can be strong, especially since there is nothing to prove them wrong.

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For decades, abandoned projects like Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, Alfred Hitchcock’s Kaleidoscope, Sergio Leone’s Leningrad, Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis, and any number of unfulfilled films from Orson Welles (Don Quixote, Heart of Darkness, The Other Side of the Wind, etc.) have captured the vivid imaginations of film fanatics as potentially some of the greatest films ever made – or rather, never made.

It is easy to see why expectations would run high for these films, the directors and varied source materials alone are worth the excitement. When even more details are added (cast, script, production team, etc.), it is almost too much for many to realistically extrapolate. There is, of course, no way to know how these films would have turned out, but it is still fun and interesting to discuss amongst like-minded individuals.

Another film often discussed in the theoretical “greatest film never made” debate is surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version of Frank Hebert’s acclaimed sci-fi novel Dune.

The interesting new documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune chronicles the filmmaker’s struggle to bring his potentially groundbreaking vision to the big screen – “A film that gives LSD hallucinations – without taking LSD,” he says. The film also briefly touches on the effect the film’s abbreviated pre-production (it never shot a single frame) had on not only those involved, but also the future of the film industry as a whole.

And who is Jodorowsky? Certainly not as recognizable or universally respected name as those others listed above, but influential nonetheless. Alejandro Jodorowsky is a Chilean-born filmmaker, who rose through the ranks of surreal-absurdist art before making his first film, the controversial, ultra-low budget Fando y Lis (1968). His next film was El Topo (1970), an acid western that has developed a fervent cult following as one of the first true midnight movies. The film became a major influence on subsequent filmmakers, as did his next film, The Holy Mountain (1973). Jodorowsky was on a hot streak, and now with more power and more money, he set out to make his magnum opus, Dune, the ultimate sci-fi cinematic masterpiece.

Admittedly, I was skeptical at first about his film’s potential so-called “greatness,” but the documentary really does suck you in and convince you. The film treats the audience to a barrage of awe-inspiring visuals and stories of enthusiastic collaborations. The people lined up to be a part of the film is mind-numbing and a little too serendipitous to believe: artists H. R. Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud for set and character design; Dan O'Bannon (Dark Star, Star Wars, Alien, Heavy Metal, Total Recall) for special effects; Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, and Magma for music, and David Carradine, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Gloria Swanson, and Salvador Dalí (among others) in the cast.

Jodorowsky himself is a fascinating and entertaining interview subject. He has an incredible ego and ambition (like most great filmmakers) and is often prone to hyperbole and elaborate fantasies. He tells the story of the film’s production in an almost divine light – full of luck and destiny, but ultimately heartbreak. Jodorowsky has made only four films in the intermittent decades, including the acclaimed Santa Sangre (1989) and The Dance of Reality (2014), his first film in over twenty years.

Ultimately, the film does exactly what it set out to do: make a more-than-convincing case that Jodorowsky’s version of Dune had a tremendous amount of potential, but nothing more than that. My problem is not with this documentary, but rather the misnomer of “greatest never made.” Most of the key pieces may have been in place, but how can a film garner such lofty praise without ever shooting a single frame? So many things can happen during production and post-production, but yet, the filmmakers and featured subjects (many of which are filmmakers and should know this brutal reality more than anyone) are so quick to declare this particular film one of the greatest ever, or at the very least, greatest science-fiction film.

In reality, the most important part of the film is the effect it had on future projects, most notably Alien, which involved many of the same creative people. The influence of Jodorowsky’s Dune can be seen far and wide in many Hollywood films, not just science-fiction. It is just a shame that Hollywood was not ready for the film back then because who knows what "could have been."

* * * * out of 5 stars

Jodorowsky’s Dune opens on Friday, May 2 at The Theatres at Canal Place in New Orleans with several showtimes daily.

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