'Jodorowsky's Dune': The Great '70s Sci-Fi Epic That Never Was

Imagine a world in which Star Wars was just a successful B flick, and where a different sort of space opera colonized the brains of two generations and counting. Imagine a world in which children play Fremen warriors rather than Jedi knights, and where few recognize the name George Lucas but everyone knows Alejandro Jodorowsky. That's the world that Frank Pavich's new documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune, hints at while entertainingly tracing how it might have come to exist.

In our world, only film nerds and counterculture connoisseurs are likely to light up at the mention of Jodorowsky's name. While his El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) have emerged from decades of samizdat scarcity, his crypto-mystic psychedelic tales of spiritual gunfighters and alchemical hero quests remain a minority taste. And yet, as Pavich's polished blend of talking heads and archival imagery relates, the films were successful and buzzed-about enough internationally in the mid-'70s that French producer Michel Seydoux wooed the Chilean-born Jodorowsky by telling him to "do whatever you want" and he would help him make it. As Jodorowsky recounts for Pavich's camera, he immediately responded "Dune"—Frank Herbert's smash 1965 sci-fi novel, which at the time he had not read.

He not only went on to read it, he immersed himself in its story of an exotic galactic empire, a mind-expanding spice, and the noble scion who leads an interplanetary religious revolution. And he came to see in it a chance to expand not only artistic vistas but also human ones. As he tells Pavich, he aimed to create a film that would create LSD-like hallucinations without LSD and that would change the world.

Jodorowsky soon pulled key collaborators into his obsession. He drafted the late French comics artist Jean Giraud, aka Moebius, to help him imagine Herbert's worlds and characters and to storyboard the script shot by shot—a process that led to more than 3,000 drawings. He recruited British illustrator Chris Foss and then-obscure Swiss artist H.R. Giger to further expand his unprecedented vision. But this wasn't mere Hollywood-movie development. The uncompromising Jodorowsky recruited only true believers—"spiritual warriors"—to work on his "sacred" film.

Jodorowsky took an equally unorthodox approach to casting. He says he clinched Orson Welles to play villain Baron Harkonnen by promising him a personal chef. And he got insane arch-surrealist Salvador Dalí to play the emperor of the galaxy by promising him $100,000 per minute of screen time and a flaming giraffe. Then he headed to Hollywood to try to raise the last $5 million needed to put it all on film.

Jodorowsky notes casually that Disney said no, as if there could be any way that a studio then producing the likes of Freaky Friday would say otherwise. Everyone else said no, too, which gets to the essential disconnect at the heart of Jodorowsky's project, and of Jodorowsky's Dune: For all of the director's passion and the richness of his vision, he had set himself a task that would be almost impossible to achieve on any budget. One of the highlights of Pavich's doc is a discussion/ad hoc recreation of Jodorowsky's planned opening, a tracking shot that would travel across the entire universe. As critic Devin Faraci points out in his interview, there may have been no way whatsoever to do that given the effects technology of the time. And in the end, no bottom line-minded studio executive who had seen The Holy Mountain—or been subject to one of Jodorowsky's fervid pitches—was going to pull out his checkbook for a relatively conventional take on the material, much less a cosmic mindblower the director suggested could be "12 hours, 20 hours" long. Pavich's film seems to cede to the fanboy perspective that Jodorowsky's Dune never went into production mostly because of timid bean counters, rather than its daunting impracticality.

David Lynch would go on make a Dune adaptation, released in 1984. Jodorowsky describes to Pavich his dread at the prospect of seeing his dream project realized by a director he respected, and his glee when he forced himself to go and quickly realized "the picture was awful." And maybe in the end Jodorowsky wins anyway. Pavich's film makes a good case that the Jodorowsky version's behind-the-scenes influence was huge and long-lasting despite its stillborn status. In the most obvious example, visual-effects coordinator Dan O'Bannon recruited Foss and Giger to work on a new film he was co-writing; the result, Alien, would go on to redefine what space travel and otherworldly nightmares look like onscreen. And the work that Jodorowsky and his collaborators did still survives in "the Dune book," an inches-thick bespoke volume featuring the conceptual sketches and Jodorowsky and Giraud's detailed storyboarded script.

Pavich draws heavily on the Dune book to give an inkling of what the finished film might have been like, with his subject's enthusiastic participation. Illustrator Foss, in fact, opines at one point that the actual film perhaps never could have lived up to Jodorowsky's vivid, impassioned description of it. Perhaps Jodorowsky's Dune, then, is something more than the next best thing.