TIFF Review: Jodorowsky’s Dune


One of, if not the, most famous films never made was Dune. Sure, we got the mid-eighties David Lynch version – admittedly that is a significant guilty pleasure of mine – and some terrible TV miniseries in the early 2000s, but every science fiction cinephile worth their salt has drooled over the folklore behind Chilean writer-director-mime-surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version which would have starred Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, Udo Kier and Salvador Dali and scored by Pink Floyd. The implosion of the project in the mid 1970s and the scattering of the creative and technical team resulted in Ridley Scott’s Alien, but also, according to the storyboard matches inside the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, inspired imagery from Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Flash Gordon, Contact and a host of other classic blockbuster science fiction epics. It was something like all the musicians that were at that one Sex Pistols show went on to create almost the entire Punk movement.

This documentary may be a talking heads and animated cut-away straightforward but when you have the burning energy of Jodorowsky as the main subject, even at 84 years young, there is more energy and passion (and more than a bit of crazy) to burn. His vision of the coming of a cinema version of Frank Herbert’s culty science fiction novel was as the coming of a cinematic God. It was to be something sacred, with more than a touch of madness. That he had never actually read the book, well that wasn’t going to stop him. He assembled his creative team, his ‘spiritual warriors’ in Paris from all over the world, young special effects and writer Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, Alien), graphic artists Moebius, H.R. Giger and Chris Foss and preached to them, almost like a cult priest or guru, for months in designing the storyboards and production design element. None of the creative team had read the Frank Herbert novel either, trusting to Jodorowsky’s unrelenting passion for his own ideas and vision. To say there was hubris and grandiosity going into the project is an understatement, but this is the writer director of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, the former film birthed the idea of a “Midnight Movie,” a practice which still continues (to a degree) today, and the latter, perhaps the strangest movie ever made. Trying to raise money from Disney, Paramount and the Other studios proved fruitless, as nearly everyone speculates, it was too visionary (and its runtime likely too epic) for the Hollywood Studio system, and too expensive to make anywhere else.

Thus, the project lives on as a dream. The perfect dream that exists in the minds of a few, because it was never relalized, has become idealized. Something that was to be made by spiritual warriors to mutate young minds has, after 40 years, passed into kind of a legend, almost myth, and it is now collected here as kind of a bible insofar as the storyboards and concept art collection that resulted and how it is further (and handsomely) eulogized by way of this documentary.

Director Frank Pavich animates the artwork of the ‘Big Dune Book’ that resulted from this collaboration, he gets other cinematic outsiders, Richard Stanley and Nicholas Winding Refn to set the stage – both are clearly fans of the man and the project, and well versed ones. At one point Jodorowsky is describes as an erudite lunatic, a dangerous combination if there ever was one. At another, he sits stroking a Siamese Cat like a classic Bond Villain while dissing effects man Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, Tree of Life among others) as a man of limited vision. To hear Jodorowsky describe his ‘vision’ of what marriage is, is jaw dropping, nearly alien. And his reaction to release of David Lynch’s Dune a decade after his ‘died’ is amusingly human.

The assembly of his team is told by Jodorowsky as a collection of extreme serendipity, maybe it has congealed in that fashion in his mind, but when the storytelling is this good, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The un-film is still his fantasy, and it is still magnetic to hear him describe his dreams. Jodorowsky wanted madness, instinct and speed (and to some extent, ‘maximum suffering’) not technique and the meticulous fussiness of the Hollywood machine. The dream of Dune, even for those who never read the book, lives onwards. There is a hope that someone turn these storyboards and artwork into an animated movie some day, there are seeds of that even demonstrated in the doc. It may, or may never, happen it will never be as perfect as the fantasy of Jodorowsky’s Dune.

(Footnote question: Why are there only one or two surviving copies of the ‘Big Dune Book’ the only ones out there? Is it a rights issue preventing it from being published as a reprint? Surely there is a big enough market for a boutique book to be had by fans of non-Dune and all the artists involved.)

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The spice must flow.

Rick Vance

I am glad I carved out time in my schedule to see this yesterday.

I would spend a STUPID amount of money on one of those books.