Behind a bold but beguiling failure

19 June 2014

The unmade adaptation of Frank Herbert's epic interstellar saga, Dune, by iconoclastic wild-man of psychedelic cinema, Alejandro Jodorowsky, has long drifted in the imaginations of sci-fi fans like a cinematic Marie Celeste.

David Lynch's version of Dune, largely considered a flop, succeeded only in tanking spectacularly at the box office and very nearly torpedoing Lynch's career. Perhaps this is why there has always been such a powerful aura of tantalizing potential surrounding Jodorowsky's version: the yearning for what might have been endows it with the status and allure of a lost masterpiece.

Frank Pavich's documentary tells the story of this spectral film through a series of interviews with the project's key players, such as producer Michel Seydoux; Illustrator Chris Foss, legendary Swiss surrealist painter H.R. Giger (in his last ever interview) and the indefatigably exuberant Jodorowsky himself.

The reasons Jodorowsky's Dune was never made are perhaps obvious. In many ways, Pavich's film describes an impossible project. As Jodorowsky cheerfully explains, he was completely undaunted by any expense or extravagance when it came to assembling his show business dream-team of "spiritual warriors". Aside from Foss and Giger, Jodorowsky managed to convince an all-star cast to join him on his quixotic quest, including Mick Jagger and David Carradine as actors, Dan O'Bannon (of Alien fame) as special-effects designer, and Pink Floyd to provide the score. Salvador Dali was persuaded to join the production with the promise of a $100 000 per-minute salary and a flaming giraffe, while the notoriously rotund Orson Welles was beguiled when Jodorowsky promised to hire the chef of his favourite Parisian restaurant as his personal cook for the duration of filming.

This uncompromising extravagance was carried into the project's entire design. Jodorowsky wanted to begin the film with the ultimate wide shot, beginning outside the limits of the very universe and slowly zooming in to focus on space pirates battling over a starship.

Jodorowsky is clear about his ambition for Dune. He simply wanted to make a movie which would transform the consciousness of everybody who saw it. Fuelled by the psychedelic radicalism of 1970s counterculture, along with his own unique brand of messianic mysticism, Jodorowsky had no qualms about transforming Herbert's source material to fit his transcendent vision of mind-altering cinema. In Jodorowsky's version of Dune, the eponymous planet evolves into a conscious being which travels among the stars expanding the consciousness of everyone in the universe.

Inevitably, the Hollywood studios rejected the idea of funding a project that was so weird yet so extravagantly expensive. This is perhaps the film's ultimate lesson: to have an uncompromising artistic vision runs the risk of that vision never being realised. Jodorowsky's answer to this is simple: exuding an almost spiritual acceptance of the project's failure he asks "why not be ambitious?" Jodorowsky would rather have the wax melt from his wings than restrict the altitude of his flight.

By sticking to his artistic guns in this uncompromising way, even Jodorowsky's failures can be construed as successes, or so Pavich would have us believe. After the project unravelled, Giger and O'Bannon went on to collaborate in the Alien franchise, while Jodorowsky's psychedelic vision of space was ultimately realised in a series of comic books he wrote with Moebius, the prolific artist who illustrated the gargantuan storyboard for Dune. The storyboard itself, much like the conscious-altering planet in Jodorowsky's version of Dune, floated around the Hollywood studios for years, providing inspiration for the art design of movies such as Star Wars and Prometheus. Even the impossible wide shot was eventually realised in the opening sequence of Contact, finally made possible by digital technology.

Pavich brings the story to life by animating the pencil drawings from Moebius' storyboard, allowing us a glimpse of what the movie might have looked like. But ultimately, the film is carried by the seemingly limitless energy and infectious enthusiasm of Jodorowsky himself. Just as Giger, O'Bannon and the others must have been all those years ago, for a brief moment one is swept up and carried into Jodorowsky's insane vision in which the impossible appears to be within one's grasp.