‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’ Documents a Cult Director’s Ambitious Failure

We’ve all seen David Lynch’s 1984 film, Dune. For kids of the ’80s and ’90s, it was a staple in Dad’s VHS library. As an adult looking back on it, or as a fan of the novel that stands as a religious experience to certain types of D&D worshipping über nerds, it is a wholly flawed and nearly broken film. Its only true merits are the power of nostalgia and its charming datedness; mediocre effects (still looks better than CGI though!), huge swathes of the original text omitted and fuckin’ Sting over here popping some zero-gravity fat dude’s back zits cannot save this train wreck of filmmaking. Lynch’s Dune is, sadly, merely a curiosity of the ’80s; a film that must be seen once, but good luck sitting through it a second time.

But alas, on a bookshelf in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s personal office in Paris lies a massive tome, nearly a foot thick, that tells a much different story, one that gets long due clarity in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune.

With a smile, Jodorowsky gently places the book on a coffee table. As he opens this legendary volume and flips through its pages, he charismatically narrates to us his unwavering vision. Nearly 40 years later, the passion for his lost project still burns deeply. He zealously reveals his vision with great vigor, but also a profound sadness. Dune was to be his crowning achievement, but it was never meant to be.

In some alternate parallel universe, Jodorowsky’s Dune was released two years before Star Wars and changed the world. Jodorowsky’s Dune was meant to be a spiritual journey, not unlike taking LSD and meeting yourself for the first time. It was meant to be “the most important film in the history of humanity.” Dune was meant to be Jodorowsky’s masterpiece, the pinnacle of his career, which had already spawned avant-garde classics The Holy Mountain and El Topo.

He had the vision. He hired his team of talent (whom he lovingly called his spiritual warriors), and moved them all to Paris to work with him. Legendary illustrator Moebius worked hand in hand with Jodorowsky and painstakingly created storyboards for the entire film. These beautiful storyboards are the vast majority of the foot-thick book. H.R. Giger, who is best known for his work in the “Alien” series of films, contributed his dark, nightmarish vision to the House Harkonnen and the planet Giedi Prime. Sci-fi book illustrator Chris Foss had created intensely imaginative and wildly colored ship designs. Dan O’Bannon, who had worked with director John Carpenter on Dark Star, was the special effects supervisor and figured out solutions for the incredibly daunting practical effects shots (the opening scene was to be one long sweeping shot through the entire Known Universe).

Jodorowsky already had his star; his teenage son Brontis was to play the role of Paul Atreides and had trained exhaustively with a stunt coordinator for nearly two years. He had his co-stars signed on, including Salvador Dalí as Emperor of the Universe and Mick Jagger and Orson Welles as Harkonnen. He had musicians lined up for the score; Pink Floyd, whose Dark Side of the Moon was released the previous year, and the Parisian prog-rock band Magma, whose singer sang in an invented language decades before Sigur Ros. Jodorowsky’s vision, along with these incredibly talented and creative minds, was set to coalesce into a film that was to be truly transcendent. A film, Jodorowsky had hoped, that would change the consciousness of the world.

But sadly, fate had other plans. The project never left pre-production. When it came to funding from major American studios, there was little hope. Every studio received a copy of the colossal, legendary volume (20 copies were made, but only two are known to exist to this day), but not one would sign on. In the time before Star Wars, a huge-budget, big-vision sci-fi film was simply too much of a financial risk, especially with a mad visionary like Alejandro Jodorowsky at the helm. But the artist would not relent or bend his vision. Thus, the production eventually ran out of money. It was a monumental disaster, one that took years to recover from.

The legacy of the film still lives on to this day. O’Bannon was hit hard by the failure and ended up homeless after the collapse. But he was inspired. Sleeping on a friend’s couch, he started working on the screenplay for the film Alien, and we all know what happened with that idea. The majority of the creative team went on to work on Alien, which ended up as one of the most important science fiction films of all time. Giger’s House of Harkonnen concept art even made it into the 2012 film Prometheus. It can be argued that scenes in the storyboard even echo scenes in Star Wars.

For other visions to live, this one had to die. The ghost of Jodorowsky’s Dune serves as a testament to man’s creative visions, realized or not. Will we ever get a film version of Dune that lives up or exceeds the vision of Herbert’s book or Jodorowsky’s storyboard? We may not, but with this documentary, we can imagine.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Dir. Frank Pavich; feat. Alejandro Jodorowsky, Michel Seydoux, H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, Brontis Jodorowsky (PG-13)
★★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Opens Fri, April 18 at the Santikos Bijou


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