Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune — a galaxy spanning tale of power, religion, and aristocratic family rivalries that served as an analogy for everything from middle east oil-politics and the environment to feminism and ‘60s drug culture — was a book that undeniably changed science fiction literature forever. It seemed fitting then that in 1975 the experimental Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky would set out to adapt the book into a movie that would change cinema forever. Although the movie would never be finished, and not even a single frame of film would ever be shot, a new documentary — Jodorowsky’s Dune — argues that he did in fact succeed.
Through an effective mix of interviews and animated sequences that bring to life concept art and storyboards, Jodorowsky’s Dune tells the story of how the director travelled the world bringing together visionary artists — that he refers to as ‘his warriors’ to realise his psychedelic, world changing vision. First amongst these, and perhaps most vital, was the famous French comic book artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud — who sadly passed away in 2012, and as such is conspicuous by his absence. It’s to the film’s credit that although we never hear a single word from him, and see him only briefly in a couple of still photos, that it always feels like Moebius is close, with subtle, deft animations of his storyboards guiding us through the movie, and his distinctive character sketches and costume designs introducing us to its players. As Jodorowsky describes him, he was his ‘camera’, who through over 3,000 storyboard images and an unparalleled eye for cinematography gave the movie a true sense of structure, scale, and fluidity.
Next up to join the team was Dan O’Bannon, at the time a practically unknown visual effects designer and struggling screenwriter, whose only major work had been not just doing the effects for, but also starring in, John Carpenter’s ultra-low budget space comedy Dark Star. O’Bannon is also sadly deceased, passing away in 2009, but here he lives on through recorded audio and filmed interviews with his widow.
“For me, Dune will be the coming of a god. I wanted to make something sacred, free, with new perspective. Open the mind!”
“In that time, I say, if I need to cut my arms in order to make that picture, I will cut my arms. I was even ready to die doing that.” — Alejandro Jodorowsky
Although Moebius’ design talent gave the movie an overall identity and backbone, Jodorowsky wanted to broaden out the visual style, hitting upon the idea of having separate artists for each individual planet. As part of this he recruited the Swiss artist HR Giger, whose grotesque biomechanical, airbrushed nightmares would shape the buildings and landscapes of the home-world of the central villain, Baron Harkonen, alongside the accomplished British science fiction artist Chris Foss, whose psychedelic space ship and robot designs had graced the covers of novels from such luminaries as Isaac Asimov and E. E. “Doc” Smith.
The result of bringing this team of warriors together was the ‘Dune book’, a huge, brick-like volume combining Moebius’ storyboards, Jodorowsky’s screenplay, and a vast array of costume, prop, character, and set designs. Pioneering an approach that is now the default method for pitching large budget science fiction and fantasy projects, this book — a visual representation of how Jodorowsky’s vision would be committed to celluloid — was sent to every major movie studio in Hollywood.
Unfortunately, as impressive as this combined effort undeniably seemed, Hollywood wouldn’t bite. Not only was the project arguably too big and too revolutionary for the time, but Jodorowsky was seen as too much of a risk for Hollywood, too experimental and uncompromising, and the studios balked at his plans for the movie to be nine to twelve hours long. Furious and heartbroken, the director returned to Paris empty-handed, his vision destroyed. It’s here that the documentary is at its most moving, as Jodorowsky — still as animated, passionate, and righteous at 85 years old as he ever was — rails at Hollywood’s eternal glorification of budget and formula over artistic endeavour.
It is also here that Jodorowsky’s Dune argues that that the director’s vision truly began to change Hollywood forever.
After the production collapsed, a distraught Dan O’Bannon returned to the US, his dreams in tatters. Close to giving up filmmaking, he decided to take one more stab and set about writing screenplay called Star Beast, and managed to sell it to 20th Century Fox. They — somewhat understandably — weren’t too keen on the title though, and changed it. They also found a young — and hitherto unknown — British director to shoot it. It was 1978 and Ridley Scott’s Alien had just been greenlit.
O’Bannon, on board as both writer and effects consultant, went about recruiting friends he had made during the aborted Dune production. Giger was brought in to create the iconic and terrifying creature designs, and Chris Foss to design the exteriors of the spaceship Nostromo. Without his involvement, Jodorowsky’s band of warriors had been assembled again, to create one of the most iconic and influential science fiction movies of all time.
But even before Alien, Jodoworsky’s Dune argues that the aforementioned ‘Dune book’ — now of course in the hands of every major studio — was having an impact on Hollywood, and in a fascinating sequence it shows direct comparisons between Moebius’ sketches and iconic sequences from everything from Star Wars and Flash Gordon to Contact and Prometheus. Jodoworsky himself would go on to have a vibrant and influential — if fiercely independent and Hollywood avoiding — filmmaking career, as well as collaborating again with Moebius on the highly influential Incal comics, again drawing on their own work on Dune.
As a piece of documentary filmmaking, a nugget of movie history, and a fascinating glimpse into how Hollywood operates Jodorowsky’s Dune is a triumph, never once failing to captivate and hold the audience’s attention. It’s also essential viewing for any fan of Moebius’ work, and is a fitting tribute to his legacy as one of science fiction’s great unsung, but most important, visionaries. But above all it is a celebration of passion, vision, and artistic endeavour, and an important reminder of how cinema can both shape and capture our imagination.
Jodorowsky’s Dune opens in New York and Los Angeles on 21st March, with further cities to follow.