When I reach my 80s, I hope I'm half the dreamer 85-year-old Alejandro Jodorowsky is today. The iconoclastic director of such hallucinatory surrealist films as El Topo and The Holy Mountain gets the full-on fanboy treatment as director Frank Pavich chronicles the Chilean filmmaker's failed quest to film Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic Dune.
Planned several years before the release of Star Wars, Pavich is convinced (along with others) that Jodorowsky's shoulda-woulda-coulda-been masterpiece was destined to become the greatest science-fiction film ever made. It's hyperbole, but imagining what if? can be fun, especially when you consider the vision the cult director had for Herbert's epic.
One thing Pavich makes abundantly clear: Jodorowsky dreamed big. He spent two years crafting a script (without having read the book) and recruited French comic artist Jean "Moebius" Giraud to handle the storyboards, which weighed in at 3,000 pages. His goal was to make a movie that would recreate what it felt like to be on LSD, thus enlightening all of humanity. He also envisioned the film clocking in at 12 hours or so.
Today we'd laugh at such grandiose claims, but Jodorowsky managed to assemble an impressive roster of talent to help bring his vision to life. Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and members of Pink Floyd all signed on. Rejecting special-effects wizard Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey) as being too greedy and arrogant, he drafted Dan O'Bannon, sci-fi novel artist Chris Foss and then-unknown H.R. Giger (who won an Oscar for his work on Alien) to help design the film's look. Seeing how each bought into Jodorowsky's ambitions and catching glimpses of the resulting illustrations and storyboards — which the director still preserves in a colossal illustrated screenplay (three were made at the time) — it's hard to deny that his vision was anything short of spectacular.
Pavich also makes the claim that several of Jodorowsky's ideas influenced iconic moments in several Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters that followed — everything from Alien's nightmarish set designs to Star Wars' climactic lightsaber duel to android POV shots in The Terminator to the universe-spanning tracking shot that popped up in Contact. Again, many of these assertions are more wishful thinking than truth. Star Wars was clearly an homage to swashbuckling serials, and the universe shot was first seen in Charles and Ray Eames' Powers of Ten, but there's little doubt that Jodorwosky's ideas certainly preceded them.
Pavich's greatest asset is Jodorowsky himself, who proves to be a wonderful storyteller, winning us over with his energy and charm as he explains the logic behind his ideas and recounts amusing anecdotes about how he enlisted and negotiated the involvement of his cast and crew. To Welles, he promised on-set meals by his favorite Parisian chef; he offered to pay Dali (per on-screen minute of appearance) more than any other actor in history. The filmmaker was clearly a savvy, if eccentric, operator, and damned if you don't start to think that maybe he could've pulled the whole insane thing off.
And, yes, Jodorowsky is still a little bitter. After all, not only did all his planning and creativity come to naught, but he also subjected his son Brontis to two grueling years of full-time martial arts and combat training to prep for his portrayal of Paul. Though he and business partner Michel Seydoux both invested and raised substantial sums to bring Dune to fruition, no Hollywood studio would sign on. Seydoux sold off his rights to Dino De Laurentiis, who eventually produced David Lynch's disastrous 1984 adaptation.
Pavich and industry fans assert that Jodorowsky's vision of Dune would have set science-fiction cinema on a path quite different than the one eventually charted by Star Wars, that its success would have ushered in an age of intelligent big-screen speculative fiction. Given the mercurial talents and extravagant ambitions involved, it seems far more likely the film would've eclipsed Heaven's Gate as a studio-busting flop. Still, it's nice to dream.