Review: Jodorowsky’s Dune

Jodorowsky's Dune: One SheetI was one of those kids who read a lot of books while I was in school. I even worked at the local public library while I was in high school. Of the hundreds of books I read, though, none felt so profound as Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece Dune and it still ranks as one of my favorite books of all time.

The story is set amidst a feudal interstellar society in which noble houses control individual planets under the overall supervision of the Emperor. Think Game of Thrones 20,000 years later or the universe of Star Wars. The book focuses on Paul Atreides, whose family accepts the stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis. But Arrakis is the only source in the galaxy of the human-enhancing drug melange, or “spice” which makes running the planet a dangerous undertaking. It’s a big, sweeping novel that skillfully intertwines technology, the environment, politics, and religion.

Given its epic scope, however, it’s no surprise that getting Herbert’s 1965 epic onto the big screen has proven extraordinarily difficult. There have been a couple of attempts, notably the daft and highly dated 1984 David Lynch effort and the somewhat better 2000 TV mini-series, and there’s a Dune film rumored to be in pre-production, but so far the planet Arrakis, Paul Atreides and the sandworms have been left to our imagination.

Which is where Jodorowsky’s Dune comes in, examining the journey that Spanish surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky took in his ultimately failed attempt to film Dune in the mid 1970s.

Director Frank Pavich tells the tale by skillfully weaving extensive interview footage of Jodorowsky variously passionate, emphatic and wistful about the failed production, interviews with cast, production team members and critics, and storyboards and pencil sketch animations, all set to Kurt Stenzel’s Pink Floyd-esque synth-heavy soundtrack.

Alejandro Jodorowsky has always been an artist marching to the beat of his own drum, and it’s no surprise to learn that when he announces plans to make his own version of Dune, he hadn’t actually read the book, just heard very good things about it from friends. Later in the film he explains that a filmmaker must have their own vision of a story and that the relationship between the filmmaker and the novelist is as in a marriage: To consummate the relationship, after all, “the husband has to rape his wife”, and in that way he explained how he had plundered the story for his own treatment, including changing the ending to fit his vision of the story.

alexandro alejandro jodorowsky
Alexandro Jodorowsky explains his cinematic vision, in “Jodorowsky’s Dune”

Jodorowsky is known for his 1970 surrealist Western El Toro and his 1973 The Holy Mountain, both of which have trippy, weird excerpts in this film. They’re bizarre in a very dated, 70s way, and if you’re like me, you probably won’t want to see those films even as they demonstrate his unique perspective and genre-skewering attitude towards story, narrative, taboo subjects and even cinema itself.

The best way to understand what Jodorowsky wanted to do with Dune is through a quote that shows up quite early in Jodorowsky’s Dune: “movies are an art, the search for the human soul. I wanted to make a film that would give the people who took LSD at that time the hallucinations that you get with that drug, but without hallucinating. I wanted to fabricate the drug’s effects.”

I always viewed the story as epic, a hero’s journey that is a clear parallel to that of Jesus (and of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, a film that came out two years after Jodorowsky’s Dune arrived in Hollywood, a point highlighted at the end of the documentary in a most provocative manner).  Jorodowsky explains it: “To me, Dune will be the coming of a God” and later, “I was trying to find the spiritual meaning of the story.”

With characteristic aplomb and wit, Jorodowsky explains how he got people like Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and David Carradine on board, along with Pink Floyd signed to create the soundtrack and both Moebius and Chris Foss as the creative team. For special visual effects he first tried Douglas Trumbull, effects lead for the groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey, but didn’t find a sympathetic audience and turned instead to Dan O’Bannon, effects supervisor for the shlocky Dark Star. O’Bannon went on to write the ground-breaking film Alien.

I greatly enjoyed Jodorowsky’s Dune and found the behind-the-scenes story of a film that never was quite engaging in a manner similar to the equally fascinating Lost in La Mancha. Jodorowsky comes across as a passionate raconteur who was ahead of his time with his vision of Dune, and that’s always fascinating to hear. Recommended.

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