Alejandro Jodorowsky, Alex Cox, Amanda Lear, ambitious films, auteur theory, Best of 2014, Brontis Jodorowsky, Chris Foss, cinema, Dan O'Bannon, David Lynch, Devin Faraci, Diane O'Bannon, documentaries, Douglas Trumball, Drew McWeeny, Dune, El Topo, favorite films, Film auteurs, film festival favorite, film reviews, films, Frank Herbert, Frank Pavich, George Lucas, H.R. Giger, inspirational films, Jean Giraud, Jodorowsky's Dune, Michel Seydoux, Movies, Nicholas Winding Refn, Pink Floyd, Richard Stanley, Salvador Dali, Santa Sangre, sci-fi, science-fiction, special-effects extravaganza, The Holy Mountain, unfinished films
What is the greatest sci-fi film ever? Depending on who you ask, you might get answers like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Silent Running (1972), Solaris (1972), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Star Trek II: The Wraith of Khan (1982) or Disney’s The Black Hole (1979). The answers probably depend on lots of stuff: the age of the person in question, where they sit on the “Star Wars vs Trek” scale, how “hard” they like their sci-fi…hell, how someone defines the genre can even affect this particular list. One thing is pretty clear, however: ask this one simple question to a crowd of people and expect to get a crowd of answers (unless, of course, you’re at a Trekkie convention, at which point the answer will, obviously, be Silent Running).
The greatest sci-fi film ever made? That’s a hard question. But the greatest sci-fi film never made? That, friends and neighbors, is much easier to answer. After all, which sci-fi movie was supposed to have featured Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles in starring roles, while Pink Floyd supplied part of the musical score? Which hypothetical extravaganza gave notorious freaknik H.R. Giger free reign over part of the production design, featured eye-popping storyboards by renowned graphic artist Jean Giraud (aka Moebius) and would have rivaled the special effects technology of Star Wars a full two years before George Lucas and his team struggled to make their landmark film?
If all of the above sounds like some sort of acid trip dreamt up in a sensory deprivation chamber, know that it almost came to pass, albeit in the same way that comets “almost” batter the Earth on a constant basis. Who was the mad genius responsible for what would have, without a doubt, been the single most mind-blowing, game-changing, iconic science fiction film in the history of the medium? Why, none other than the mad monk of experimental cinema, the spiritual guru behind essential “midnight” films like Fando y Lis (1968), El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973): Alejandro Jodorowsky. As we see in Frank Pavich’s amazing, inspirational new documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014), the Chilean auteur’s singular, stunning vision for Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel may have been doomed from the get-go but the Technicolor sense of wonder associated with the project will live on forever.
Beginning with a quote from Austrian neurologist Viktor Frankl (“What is to give light must endure burning”), Pavich’s documentary immediately introduces us to one of the most kinetic, passionate, amazing filmmakers to ever draw breath, the inimitable Alejandro Jodorowsky. Instantly infamous after his bizarre, spiritual and surrealist El Topo managed to tear a collective hole in the brain-pans of ’70s-era film audiences, Jodorowsky was riding high after the success of El Topo’s follow-up, the even more “out-there” Holy Mountain. Looking for his next project, Jodorowsky had the good fortune of running into a friend who extolled the virtues of the Frank Herbert book, Dune (1968), a massively popular best-seller. The rest, as they say, was almost history.
Despite never reading the novel, Jodorowsky immediately started to put together a production plan that must have seemed about as realistic as someone attempting to flap their arms and fly to the moon: assemble a dream-team of creative personnel (from all disciplines), shoot for the moon with casting (Jagger at the height of the Stones power, the legendary Dali as “Emperor of the Universe,” Welles when he’d already become a societal recluse, David Carradine, just because), pull out the stops for the musical score (Pink Floyd, fresh off the record-breaking success of Dark Side of the Moon) and aim for a final product that’s more about mind-expansion and “ushering in a new era” than earning box office coin. Had Jodorowsky been able to pull off this amazing mess of an idea, we’d probably still be discussing the film, almost 40 years after its release. Instead, the version of Dune that fans finally received was the troubled 1984 David Lynch version, a film that bore very little resemblance to Jodorowsky’s proposed epic. Despite never being made, however, copious production notes, pictures and sketches exist from the pre-production visualization, production notes and designs which have actually been (subtly) influencing popular film for several decades. A film so influential that it influenced films without ever being made…now that’s a legend!
From beginning to end, Jodorowsky’s Dune is an absolute and complete joy, a film that’s more about the never-ending passion to create and a “never say die” attitude than anything as simple as a failed adaptation of a popular novel. Pavich utilizes some truly great talking head interviews, from the likes of directors Nicholas Winding Refn, Richard Stanley and Alex Cox, to genre experts like Badass Digest’s Devin Faraci and Ain’t It Cool’s Drew McWeeny and actual personnel from Jodorowsky’s planned version of the film, including producer Michel Seydoux, H.R. Giger (before his recent death), Dan O’Bannon’s widow, Diane, and legendary graphic artist Giraud. Looming over everything, however, is the formidable presence of the master himself, Jodorowsky: at no point in the film is Jodorowsky ever less than a wonderful, exuberant personality, a true force of nature who comes across as the single greatest cheerleader that the human race has ever had. In fact, I’ll lay a little wager down here: if you don’t feel your heart growing three sizes by the time the film is over, ala that mean old Grinch from yore, I’m gonna go ahead and assume that you’re already dead. Even then, I’m pretty sure ol’ Alejandro would still be able to wring at least a grin from the most somber soul.
While any notion of a “perfect film” is, by definition, rather pie-in-the-sky, Jodorowsky’s Dune is that rarest of things: a perfect film, from beginning to end. Chalk it up to a perfect storm of awesomeness: a fascinating subject, plenty of in-depth information and amazing production notes, excellent commentary from participants and experts, a subtextual underdog story and some of the coolest, funniest and strangest behind-the-scenes stories ever told. It’s almost impossible to pick the best stuff out but one of my personal favorites was the section devoted to Jodorowsky and Seydoux trying to secure Dali for the film. While the notorious surrealist went out of his way to make things difficult for the filmmakers, their ultimate solution was pure genius (let’s just say that, for the briefest of moments, Dali got his wish and really was the highest-paid actor on Earth). The truth is, however, if there’s one good story here, there are at least a hundred: one of the film’s meanest hat-tricks is how it makes the 90-minute runtime feel closer to 15 minutes…if ever there was a film that deserved to be 3+ hours, Jodorowsky’s Dune is that film.
For me, Pavich’s documentary is absolutely essential thanks to my incessant fanboy love of Jodorowsky: I was corrupted by his films at an early age and, thankfully, haven’t looked back since. Even if I wasn’t a huge fan of his work, however, Jodorowsky’s Dune would still manage to capture my heart. At its core, Pavich’s film is really about the never-say-die attitude of true artists, the kind of folks who simply can’t bend and conform to society no matter what they do. There’s something unbelievably empowering about listening to the 84-year-old Jodorowsky talk about his various philosophies: he has a way of making even the impossible seem possible, which also goes a long way towards explaining the appeal of the documentary, itself. Thanks to Pavich’s film, cinephiles and multiplex-patrons alike can revel in some of the most imaginative, insane, epic and impossible cinematic creations never put to film.
Jodorowsky’s Dune may not exist in any way that we can consume but, thanks to Frank Pavich’s amazing Jodorowsky’s Dune, at least we’ll be able to admire the mirage from a distance. If the stars would have aligned all those years ago, Jodorowsky would have been able to make his film…and it very well may have changed the world as we know it. We’ll never have the actual film but we’ll be able to marvel at the imagination and innovation behind it from now until the stars in the sky finally wink out. In a perfect universe, Jodorowsky made his Dune and it was, without question, the single, greatest sci-fi film ever.