In the cinema, nothing is more legendary than a movie that never got made. We’ll never know what Orson Welles’ “Don Quixote” or “Dead Calm” would have been. We’ll never see Stanley Kubrick’s “Napoleon.”
But these films become more mythic in the unmaking than they ever could have been with real-world budgets, real-life casting decisions and the other shortcomings that actually making a movie require.
Alejandro Jodorowsky is a Chilean director from the golden age of avant garde cinema — the 1960s and early ’70s. His surreal, nightmarish visions “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” practically invented “midnight movies” as a genre. Extreme, horrific, striking and drug-influenced (Jodorowsky liked his drugs, too), they have their amateurish touches, which one takes into account when seeing them through modern eyes.
And once upon a time, “Jodo” had his hands on one of the greatest science fiction novels of them all. “Jodorowsky’s Dune” is a film about the film he never got to make.
It has Jodo, on camera, wild-eyed and in fractured English, telling the story of rounding up artists such as the French comic book illustrator Moebius, the Swiss sculptor and designer H.R. Giger, and others, a team of “spiritual warriors” he enlisted and dragged to France to conceive a transcendent film experience. It would be a Messianic movie that would mimic the effects of LSD for the viewer, science fiction more in the vein of “2001” or “Solaris” than the film that followed it and set the tone for big screen sci-fi — “Star Wars.”
Directors such as Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive”) and Richard Stanley (the cult sci-fi classic “Hardware”) sit in awe of this huge book of storyboards and designs that Jodorowsky’s team concocted, a guide to the movie he was to make which he showed to every studio in Hollywood — only to have them reject it.
Frank Pavich’s documentary starts giving us hints as to why that happened early on. Jodo meets with the king of Hollywood effects of the ’70s, Douglas Trumbull (“2001,” “Silent Running”), and is put off by the man’s practical considerations, which Jodo takes as arrogant and technocratic.
Jodo lines up bands of the era — Pink Floyd, Magma — to do the music. He courts artist Salvador Dali to play the Emperor of the Galaxy and the artist proceeds to hijack the budget. Jodo lines up Dali’s “muse,” Amanda Lear, for a part. He wants Mick Jagger for this role and Orson Welles for that one. When a couple of fanboy critics show up on camera to declaim the project’s wide influence on sci-fi that followed, they have a point. But they, like “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” oversell it and gild the lily. Yes, H.R. Giger got a taste for Hollywood, and he and “Dune” designer Dan O’Bannon and artist Jean “Moebius” Girard teamed up on “Alien.” And many movies plainly have similarities to this planned film’s look, setting and design.
But you have to credit Herbert with the whole desertification of science fiction. He’s the one who raided Bedouin and other cultures for his story of a desert world where moisture is gold and the excrement of giant worms is “Melange,” the mind-altering “spice” that is the most valuable substance in the galaxy“Jodorowsky’s Dune” is a mesmerizing movie, a history lesson about the pre-blockbuster era in science fiction movies, even if it is a documentary that plays like a pitch for yet another adaptation of “Dune.” The tale that foiled David Lynch (he made a 1984 flop film of it) and tested TV’s SyFy Channel still sits in those production books — Jodo’s Great White Whale of a movie that never was.