Last night, I saw Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary about a film which was never made but has nonetheless had a remarkable impact on science fiction film since its development in the 1970s. In all honesty, I had never heard of this ill-fated “adaptation” of Frank Herbert’s classic novel, and so it was with great pleasure that I saw the poster at my local theater and realized I’d have the chance to watch a documentary about something science fictional.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (JD from now on) is an insane journey into what may have been the most experimental science fiction epic ever devised. Alejandro Jodorowsky was a noted surrealistic filmmaker in the 60s and 70s, producing such works as El Topo and The Holy Mountain, and so anyone familiar with his work might understand just how ambitious, and, indeed, insane, Jodorowsky could be. The documentary, however, provides enough context about Jodorowsky’s career — namely, through short excerpts from the aforementioned works — to convey the wildly imaginative vision that led to Dune. Throughout the documentary, Jodorowsky passionately lays out the spiritual and ideological agenda that guided the film from start to finish and his view of film as a medium for producing art and capturing the human spirit. From his perspective, Dune was always meant to be a spiritual journey created by spiritual “warriors” (his term), and so the eccentric and seemingly counter-intuitive choices made throughout the initial development has a certain kind of logic to it. The documentary lays these elements out primarily through Jodorowsky himself, whose passion and yearning for the promise of Dune almost flows out of the screen like a river of dreams. Insofar as a documentary can present beauty, JD does so by giving room to its primary subject.
Part of the documentary’s charm, as such, rests in Jodorowsky’s character: an enigmatic, uncompromising filmmaker who appears to honestly believe in the liberative potential in film as an art form. It’s that uncompromising nature which might explain why Dune was never made, though JD never explicitly says as much. Whatever one might think of his filmography, JD’s character study reveals a visionary whose passion and spirituality guide his artistic process. This isn’t just a film about Dune; it is a film about Jodorowsky and his methods, about the processes of making art as opposed to entertainment. From the often humorous tales about cast selections and negotiations (Salvador Dali being one of the more amusing examples) to Jodorowsky’s amusing style of telling these tales, there is much to love about the framing of JD as a kind of surrealist documentary adventure. Jodorowsky himself acknowledges that he imagined Dune as taking the audience on an LSD trip without them ever actually taking drugs and that this process should alter their perceptions: of film, of the human subject, of reality. JD explores this vision with an unmeasured hand, giving Jodorowsky space to expound upon his visions, desires, and dreams rather than remaining focused on the objective truth one might receive with a history. Unlike, for example, a Star Wars documentary (which I happen to be watching at this moment — Empire of Dreams), JD is a deeply personal exploration. That subjective perspective gave me a deeper connection to the material, as it is only through the personal element, I would argue, that we can understand what Dune was meant to be.
In that respect, the remaining elements are all funneled through Jodorowsky’s spiritual agenda, such that all of the production crew and cast choices are identified with the spiritual “warriors” about which the audience is repeatedly reminded. H.R. Giger (Alien), Michel Seydoux (Cyrano de Bergerac), Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Total Recall, etc.), and others each have their moment in the spotlight, each reinforcing Jodorowsky’s narrative, which JD frames by beginning with Jodorowsky and ending with a brief discussion of the influence Dune has had on sf film since — the actual conclusion tells us that Seydoux and Jodorowsky have teamed up to make another film (The Dance of Reality). I do take issue with the conclusions drawn from this influence, though, as it seems specious to assume similarities in future films are always necessarily influenced by a single predecessor. True, Giger and O’Bannon worked together on Alien, but JD tries to support this claim by placing images side-by-side, as if suggesting that two similarly-shaped items are necessarily connected on the same line rather than, perhaps, the product of an individual’s visions (Giger’s, for example). There are also moments where JD tries to argue that other films were influenced by Dune without having any direct connection to its creative talents — at least, no connection that is made apparent to the audience. This seems to undercut Jodorowsky’s claim that Dune was meant to inspire, even if the final moments of the film are, indeed, rather inspiring. Perhaps I expect such claims to be more firmly grounded in objective truth, which JD seems averse to doing precisely because of its primary subject.
For me, part of what made this documentary so fascinating was the feeling that I too was being taken on a journey of sorts. I didn’t know about Jodorowsky’s Dune, and so every stage of documentary revealed details which breathed life into a project I had no personal connection to. By the end, I felt the same yearning for Dune that Jodorowsky relived as he explored his memories of the film that was never born. There is something unique about this version of Dune that I now feel deserves to be on the screen, even if it will never be so. The worst case scenario would be the release of the rare production book Jodorowsky and Seydoux used to entice the studios to fund them; this would give all of us access to a vision that has remained hidden, and it just might open new pathways to the imagination in a manner consistent with Jodorowsky’s spiritual agenda. Whether that will ever happen is up to speculation, but it should happen. It must happen. I’d certainly buy such a book.
Regardless, this is a film I recommend any fan of sf see immediately. It’s crazy, beautiful, and enormously entertaining. As far as documentaries go, this is easily one of my favorites.
Overall: N/A (note: the point-based grading is worthless here, so I’m only providing an inflated grade)
Inflated Grade: A