In the mid-1970s, fresh off the success of the surprisingly profitable cult films El Topo and The Holy Mountain, director Alejandro Jodorowsky set out to film Frank Herbert's sci-fi novel Dune. Jodorowsky's version of the movie never got made, and whatever the end product might have been, it's a safe bet that it wouldn't have been as entertaining or watchable as Jodorowsky's Dune, Fran Pavich's documentary about the non-making of Jodorowsky's Dune.
Jodorowsky's failure at making Dune was neither for lack of trying nor lack of ambition. Interviewed now, full of jocular bluster like a modern-day Baron Munchausen — and every bit as unreliable a narrator — the smiling Jodorowsky says he wanted to make a movie that wouldn't be just a movie, but a picture that would re-create the feeling of being on LSD (sign me up!), and do nothing less than enlighten all of humanity. Also, he wanted the film to be 12 hours, give or take.
Okay, but how do you convince a studio to pony up the tremendous budget required for what is clearly an impossible project? You don't. Jodorowsky and his producer Michael Seydoux had already spent a few million of their own dollars developing Dune, and it was designed and cast and ready to go, but every studio balked. We do get to see a lot of those storyboards and designs the studios saw, some animated, all aided by a wonderfully noodley synth score created by Kurt Stenzel for this documentary. (Pink Floyd was on board for Jodorowsky's picture, but it's hard to imagine them improving Stenzel's new score.)
Like Room 237 last year, Jodorowsky's Dune is all about how we perceive movies. That this version of Dune never got made frees all parties involved to speculate that it not only would have been the most amazing movie ever, but that the existing storyboards and designs still went on to influence everything that came after it.
There are some direct connections, to be sure. Artist H.R. Giger went on to Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien, and there's no question that some of Giger's Dune ideas were used in that film and its sequels, up to and including Scott's 2012's Prometheus. But we're also told that the Star Wars lightsaber duel was directly inspired by a fencing scene in Dune, never mind the swashbuckling films of the 1930s that Lucas was homaging; that a robot POV shot led to similar shots from the T-800's POV in The Terminator, even though 1973's Westworld did robot-vision first; and that Jodorowsky's intended universe-spanning opening scene inspired the opening of 1997's Contact, ignoring the existence of Ray and Charles Eames' short film "Powers of 10."
This is all hooey, of course, and had Jodorowsky been able to make Dune to his original vision, there's a good chance that it would have been a studio-destroying boondoggle to rival Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate. But instead we're free to imagine what might have been, and in doing so, Jodorowsky's Dune is fun, occasionally mind-blowing hooey.