TIFF13: Jodorowsky's Dune (2013)

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune is the greatest film that never was. In the mid-70s, the French-Chilean surrealist filmmaker known for oddball classics, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, teamed up with French producer Michel Seydoux to bring Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic — and my personal favourite novel — to the big screen. It was to be the greatest, biggest, most mind-blowing film ever made, intended to change the consciousness of the audience and simulate the use of hallucinogens in its filmmaking. Jodorowsky had the loftiest ambitions. Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune is the tale of this doomed ambitious project.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is also a love-letter to Jodorowsky and his crazy ambition. Featuring interviews with Jodorowsky, Seydoux, Nicolas Winding Refn, Jodorowsky’s son Brontis, artists Chris Foss and H.R. Giger, and recordings of the late great Dan O’Bannon, the film chronicles the pre-production of the doomed project in impressive detail. All that remains of the production are a few copies of massive design books, featuring the script, storyboards and dozens of conceptual art created by Foss, Giger, and the late comic artist Moebius. Pavich chooses art from some key moments in the script and animates them using current computer technologies, turning the storyboard photos into moving sequences that give us an understanding of just how insane the film would have been.

The most immediate pleasures of Jodorowsky’s Dune are the in-depth interviews with Jodorowsky himself, now 84, but every bit as wily and infectiously crazy as ever. With his expressive hand gestures, peculiar French-Spanish accent, and insane conceptions of reality and consciousness, Jodorowsky is a riot to listen to. One sequence in which Jodorowsky describes his absolute glee at seeing David Lynch’s Dune and realizing that film was awful is hilarious. Jodorowsky’s Dune ends up being a funnier film than most comedies.

The film closes out with a brief look at the imaginative successors to Jodorowsky’s failed Dune. Every major studio received a copy of the Dune production book in an incentive to acquire funds, and even though they passed on making they project, they cribbed an enormous amount of the film’s design in future films. Star Wars borrowed designs for Tattooine, Dan O’Bannon went on to write Alien and used Giger to create that film’s iconic creature. Pavich argues quite effectively that without Dune, we would have never gotten Star Wars or Alien or Blade Runner — the classics of the sci-fi genre.

The process of making this documentary also led to the reunion of Jodorowsky and Seydoux and the eventual creation of Jodorowsky’s latest film, The Dance of Reality, his first in over 20 years, which premiered alongside Jodorowsky’s Dune at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is hardly the most critical documentary ever made. It displays its affection for Jodorowsky and his failed project loud and proud. But it is a fascinating and riotously entertaining look into one of cinema’s big what-ifs. Jodorowsky’s Dune may not have been the definitive adaptation of Herbert’s great novel, but it very well could have been the strangest blockbuster ever made.

8 out of 10

Directed by Frank Pavich; featuring Alejandro Jodorowsky, Michel Seydoux, H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, Brontis Jodorowsky, Richard Stanley, Devin Faraci, Drew McWeeney, Gary Kurtz, and Nicolas Winding Refn.

Jodorowsky's Dune played on Sept. 10 and again on Sept. 11 during the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the TIFF Docs program.