It’s bold and somewhat absurd to claim that a film that never saw celluloid would have been bigger than Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But absurdism is a familiar state of being for Chilean avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose most legendary unmade project is the focus of Jodorowsky’s Dune. If Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Dune, Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel, had made it to the screen instead of David Lynch’s, Sting would’ve probably had to save his shirtlessness for the stage—and we’d all have been better off for it.
Artist Chris Foss, who worked with Jodorowsky on the film (and, eventually, with Ridley Scott on Alien), made that lofty claim, but he’s just one of many “Jodo” boosters interviewed in Frank Pavich’s highly entertaining documentary. The stars of the show, however, are Jodorowsky himself—a charismatic and rather lively now-85-year-old—and what may as well be called the Great Big Dune Storyboard Book. Easily the size of a phone book (kids, ask your grandparents), Jodorowsky and his carefully selected “spiritual warriors”—aka crew—laid out their entire vision in approximately 3,000 drawings, which were then beautifully bound and given to studios to prove that the nut who made “the original midnight movie” El Topo could also helm a big-budget release.
The execs raved. And then they said no. No to a film that starred Orson Welles, Salvador Dalí, and Mick Jagger, with a soundtrack by Pink Floyd and then-huge French prog-rock band Magma and a creative team that comprised more than a few masters of their respective crafts. No to two-and-a-half years of preproduction sweat. No to a work that Jodorowsky said would be “important for humanity.” (A story about, um, an intergalactic war over a prized spice.)
Yes, it’s obvious that Jodorowsky had outsized ambitions and a mad (but impressively detailed) vision. And producer Michel Seydoux offered to fund anything the director pleased. (“I say, ‘Dune.’ And he say ‘yes!’” Jodorowsky recounts with childlike excitement still in his eyes.) As Jodorowsky tells the story of his Dune from start to finish, he’s so giddy that his English is a bit broken, and sometimes he just switches to a different language. Therefore, the doc has subtitles throughout—an insulting trend that’s on the rise, mostly in television, for English speakers who don’t sound blandly all-American, but it saves some frustration here. You don’t want to miss anything this guy is saying, and once his tale grabs you, the 90-minute film flies.
Jodorowsky’s tale, however, occasionally seems a bit tall. More than once, he blindly searched for a certain person, only to serendipitously end up in the same place with him at the same time. What are the odds! So either this movie—or Jodo’s plan—was written in the stars, or Jodo is full of shit now and then. It doesn’t matter, and neither is it irritating that he’s unabashedly amused by his own ideas. You’ll be smiling, too, because most of them are pretty amazing. And when the Dune book’s drawings are animated, the doc proves their visceral genius: In one interrogation scene in which a captive’s limbs are cut off, you’ll shudder from the tension and the pain.
Early on in the film, Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn talks about having dinner at Jodorowsky’s home and being shown one of the few copies of the book that remain. “In a way, I’m the only guy who actually ever saw Jodorowsky’s Dune,” he says. “And I’m gonna tell you something: It’s awesome.”
Pavich’s intentions go beyond demystifying the project, damning Hollywood for being too uncomfortable with the unconventional (“[They like] things that sound like two other current movies, like Jurassic Park crossed with Twilight,” director Richard Stanley quips) and too obsessed with the bottom line (the only time Jodorowsky shows anger is when he recalls a studio’s request to shave the film to an audience-friendly length, for “This money. This shit.”). The doc also inarguably shows how Dune’s art influenced many films after the book got passed around, including Star Wars, The Terminator, and even recent releases like 2012’s Prometheus. But the one that matters most is Lynch’s creation. “I will not go to see that, because I will die,” Jodorowsky told his sons. “But step by step, step by step, I became happy. Because the picture was awful.”