'Jodorowsky's Dune' shares a fascinating tale of failure

By Josh Terry

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, April 25 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Artwork by Chris Foss in Jodorowskys Dune.

Sony Pictures Classics

"Jodorowsky's Dune" is a documentary about a film that does not exist and a director who is almost too eccentric to exist.

Fans of Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic novel "Dune" have plenty of big and small screen adaptations to choose from, but the most fascinating one may be the film that was never made. "Jodorowsky's Dune" recounts an attempt by a Chilean filmmaker that would have revolutionized the sci-fi film genre if it had ever been completed but still made its mark on cinema history anyway.

The director in question is a man named Alejandro Jodorowsky, a surrealist filmmaker so consumed with passion and enthusiasm and charm that he'd be scary if he wasn't so refreshing in our age of irony. After making his mark in Mexico with a series of mind-blowing cult films in the early ’70s, Jodorowsky became obsessed with the idea of bringing Herbert's novel to the screen. The fact that he never actually read the source material? A minor inconvenience.

For 90 minutes, director Frank Pavich offers testimonial after testimonial about the greatness of the project that should have been, while a flamboyant Jodorowsky tells us the story of the process he went through to assemble its pieces before the studios all turned him away.

The project was intriguing based on its cast roster alone. Mick Jagger was slated to play Feyd Rautha. Orson Welles would have been the Baron Harkonnen. Salvador Dali would play the Emperor (for the right price), and after two years of martial arts training, Jodorowsky's 14-year-old son, Brontis, had been groomed to play Paul.

Behind the camera, Jodorowsky recruited even more impressive talent, including the visual design of Jean Giraud and H.R. Giger and Dan O'Bannon to handle the special effects. Jodorowsky shares an anecdotal story of each recruitment, which almost always includes fantastic coincidence and frequently mind-altering substance abuse. Attracted to a story about a universe powered by a mind-expanding substance called "The Spice," Jodorowsky indicates early on that his intention with "Dune" was to film an experience that would replicate the experience of taking LSD — without requiring his audience to do so, of course.

Based on testimonials of the existing script and storyboards, painstakingly compiled in a series of massive volumes Jodorowsky and his team sent out to prospective studios, it's clear that the director's vision was both unique and ground-breaking. At the very least it would have provided a fascinating bridge between Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and George Lucas' first "Star Wars" film in 1977. But those who have gone through the material in detail suggest Jodorowsky's film might have rendered "Star Wars" redundant.

When the project fell through, its elements popped up in other landmark sci-fi films that came over the ensuing decades, and while Jodorowsky's reaction to this is mixed, it's easy to see his satisfaction when he describes the epic failure of David Lynch's own version of "Dune," released in 1984.

Considering the reaction to the Lynch film, the legend of Jodorowsky's "Dune" may prove more impressive than a finished film. Judging by what the director planned to do to the source material (Jodorowsky is comically unapologetic about distorting Herbert's novel), fans might have hated the movie anyway. It's likely that Jordorowsky's "Dune" would have been the sci-fi equivalent of what Kubrick did to Stephen King's "The Shining" — frustrating to fans and fascinating to everyone else. But regardless of your camp, "Jodorowsky's Dune" is a compelling portrait of a dream that died.

"Jodorowsky's Dune" is rated PG-13 for some language and drug references, but mainly for some decidedly non-family-friendly sexual and violent content shown in clips from the director's early films.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.

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