Movie Review: “Jodorowsky’s Dune”

ImageIn the cinema, nothing is more legendary than a movie that never got made. We’ll never know what Orson Welles’ “Don Quixote” or “Dead Calm” would have been. We’ll never see Stanley Kubrick’s “Napoleon.”

But these films, limited only by our imagination of how they might have turned out, become more mythic in the unmaking than they ever could have been with real-world budgets, real-life casting decisions and the other shortcomings that actually making a movie entail.

Alejandro Jodorowsky was a Chilean director from the golden age of avant garde cinema — the 1960s and early ’70s. His surreal, nightmarish visions “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” practically invented “midnight movies” as a genre. Extreme, horrific, striking and drug-influenced (Jodorowsky liked his drugs, too), they have their amateurish touches, which one takes into account when seeing them through modern eyes.

And once upon a time, “Jodo” had his hands on one of the greatest science fiction novels of them all. “Jodorowsky’s Dune” is a film about the film he never got to make.

It has Jodo, on camera, wild-eyed and in fractured English, telling the story of rounding up artists such as the French comic book illustrator Moebius, the Swiss sculptor and designer H.R. Giger, and others, a team of “spiritual warriors” he enlisted and dragged to France to conceive a transcendent film experience. It would a Messianic movie that would mimic the effects of LSD for the viewer, science fiction more in the vein of “2001” or “Solaris” than the film that followed it and set the tone for big screen sci-fi — “Star Wars.”

Jodo, who has aged into a Klaus Kinski look-alike, is a mesmerizing storyteller who embraces the “madness” that it takes to make his sort of art. Just hearing him tell this tale transports us to a time when directors were godlike artists who raised money based on their artistic visions and not on the box office potential.

Directors such as Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive”) and Richard Stanley (the cult sci-fi classic “Hardware”) sit in awe of this huge book of storyboards and designs that Jodorowsky’s team concocted, a guide to the movie he was to make which he showed to every studio in Hollywood — only to have them, to a one, reject it.

Frank Pavich’s documentary starts giving us hints as to why that happened early on. Jodo meets with the King of Hollywood Effects of the ’70s, Douglas Trumbull (“2001,” “Silent Running”), and is put off by the man’s practical considerations, which Jodo takes as arrogant and technocratic.

Jodo lines up bands of the era — Pink Floyd, Magma — to do the music. He courts artist Salvador Dali to play the Emperor of the Galaxy and the artist proceeds to hijack the budget. Jodo lines up Dali’s “muse,” Amanda Lear, for a part. He wants Mick Jagger for this role and Orson Welles for that one.

Forget for a moment that he had David Carradine for the leading Duke Leto role. That’s legitimate enough. But Jodo cast his teenage son as lead character Paul Atreides, having him trained to “live” the part. For years. It was to be a movie built entirely on stunt-casting.

“When you make a picture,” Jodo laughs and shrugs, “you must NOT respect the novel.” He refers to what he’d planned for “Dune” as “raping, but with love” novelist Frank Herbert.

Not that anybody quoted here has so much as a discouraging word about Jodo’s ambition and plans for the project. As fascinating as his vision was, it’s hard to see this film-that-never-was as a tragedy.

When a couple of fanboy critics show up on camera to declaim the project’s wide influence on sci-fi that followed, they have a point. But they, like “Jodorowsky’s Dune”, oversell it and gild the lily. Yes, H.R. Giger got a taste for Hollywood and he and “Dune” designer Dan O’Bannon and artist Jean “Moebius” Girard teamed up on “Alien.” And many movies plainly have similarities to this planned film’s look, setting and design.

But you have to credit Herbert with the whole desertification of science fiction. He’s the one who raided Bedouin and other cultures for his story of a desert world where moisture is gold and the excrement of giant worms is “Melange,” the mind-altering “spice” that is the most valuable substance in the galaxy.

And claiming Jodo’s film would have had the cinema’s first use of “heads-up” graphic displays is simply wrong. American TV’s “The Six Million Dollar Man” beat him to it. Perhaps Jodo borrowed that idea from it.

“Jodorowsky’s Dune” is still a mesmerizing movie, a history lesson about the pre-blockbuster era in science fiction movies, even if it is a documentary that plays like a pitch for yet another adaptation of “Dune.” The tale that foiled David Lynch (he made a 1984 flop film of it) and tested TV’s SyFy Channel still sits in those production books, Jodo’s Great White Whale of a movie that never was.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violent and sexual images and drug references

Cast: Alejandro Jodorowsky, H.R. Giger, Nicolas Winding Refn, Gary Kurtz, Michel Seydoux, Chris Foss

Credits: Directed by Frank Pavich. A Sony Classics release.

Running time: 1:30

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