TIFF Review: Jodorowsky's Dune, The Documentary About The Unmade Film that Supposedly Revolutionized Sci-Fi
Jodorowky’s Dune is a compelling look into director Alejandro Jodorowky’s (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) mind, with the emphasis on a project he tried to get made, his take Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, Dune. Any look behind the scenes of movie making is generally enlightening — the politics, the day-to-day administrative drudgery — but this is a film that comes to life with a clear twinkle in Jodorowsky’s eye regarding his Dune plans, which were the stuff of legend. With director Nicolas Winding Refn and producer Michel Seydoux along for the ride providing interview insight, this is a movie true film aficionados will enjoy, even though there’s one tiny hiccup which will elicits a groan as the documentary nears the conclusion.
Let’s start there, with the hiccup, dispensing with one of the primary goals of this documentary, to make you feel like there might not have been a science fiction revolution without this unmade and embattled film. This, of course, is bonkers, the idea that you can point at one thread and say, “Taaa-daaaah,” as if culture simply goes stagnant without a single tributary. Here they’d have you believe there wouldn’t be an Alien without Jodorwosky pulling together much of the visual effects team that would eventually sign on to that movie. Ostensibly true, but slanting a certain positive way to achieve unearned cultural significance, for if you can imagine a world where a never-made version of Dune is owed credit, then why not say we might have gotten something better than Alien if they’d made Jodorowsky’s film instead? Or perhaps we never get Terminator Salvation at all! For if you’re going to skew history to your liking, don’t be surprised when you get a few eye-rolls as you trot out the crackpot theories.
Additionally, by pulling out aspects of Jodorowsky’s Dune from future films, they could be taking advantage of coincidence, or universal consciousness. I mean, was this the only film, ever, that would feature an evil castle with a rocky landscape acting as a backdrop? Can they really take credit for colorful space ships and light saber duels, short of the creator of those works saying, “Oh yeah, I definitely jacked that film stylistically”? I mean, I could say there will be a raft of new film criticism that uses silly metaphors coming your way after I retire, but that doesn’t make it true.
Nevertheless, for all my kvetching, this is actually a pretty great film, because Jodorowsky’s ambition was impressive, joyous to behold. His plan, which could easily be labeled “wacky” or “crazy pants” was to bring Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, and David Carradine together in a cast, and then have part of it scored by Pink Floyd. I’ll let that sink in. And really, as they mistakenly search for relevance, they actually aren’t giving themselves enough credit, for though this likely wouldn’t have been a film that influenced a generation, it would have been a work that defied and confounded the conventional wisdom of what it even was to be a big-budget spectacular. This would have been a movie appreciated now, as the very creation of this documentary suggests, but it likely would have been a massive failure at the time. It was at least as crazy as it was impossible to coherently deliver. Jodorowsky himself wasn’t really doing Dune at all; he was a surrealist who didn’t want to conform to any narrative structure, or even attempt Herbert’s vision in any real manner. This break with the novel could have been a wonderful choice, as Jodorowsky is both bold and accurate in proclaiming this idea of sticking close to the source material is a weaker choice, especially given the huge difference in medium from the written world to the visual one.
The story of Jodorowsky’s Dune is also good fun. Anytime you have a movie butting up against the idea of commercial Hollywood, there’s plenty of room for levity. Jodorowsky, in his quest for the “spiritual warriors” (seriously, direct quote) who would help him make his film kept running across people who were mostly confused by the whole thing. Really, it seemed as though everyone, with the exception of Jodorowsky, was in the dark, but willing to follow the charismatic man through the fire. He had these beautiful drawings from H.R. Giger and Chris Foss, a willing producer in Seydoux, and a limitless imagination paired with an uncanny ability to lure huge personalities into his retinue.
Still, it’s clear Jodorowsky was the demanding sort. For the main part of Dune’s Paul, Jodorowsky figured he’d just cast his son, so he sent him to two years of martial arts training so that the fighting would feel authentic. This wasn’t a weekend course, either, this was six hours a day, seven days a week, for two goddamn years. Jodorowsky now admits this might have been a little extreme, though perhaps they can reasonably take credit for The Matrix scene where Neo gets all the fighting styles downloaded into his brain.
In the end, Jodorowsky’s Dune fulfills the itch to which almost all documentaries aspire: It captures an interesting moment in time. That I don’t believe it forever altered the course of history (any more than other ambitious project that didn’t come off) is mostly irrelevant, because the story was worth telling regardless. When Jodorosky breaks out his giant Dune movie project tome, flipping the pages, his eyes filled with wonder, we’re being exposed to a universal truth, namely, seeing someone this talented in the throes of the creative process is bound to be intriguing.