There has never been an unmade movie more influential than Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune. It’s the seed from which most modern cinematic science fiction sprung, and now you can soak in its surreal splendor with Jodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich’s documentary about the greatest science fiction movie never made.
Watching this doc is like snorting anti-freeze: a thrilling rush that leaves you exhilarated, then depressed. Exhilarated because unless you are a soulless husk, Jodorowsky’s passion of film, for science fiction, and for life, will infect you like a super-virus. Depressed, because if this movie had been made it would have changed the history of science fiction, of movies and, if Jodorowsky had his way, the world.
Jodorowsky was the wrong guy to take on Dune. He hadn’t even read the book when he agreed to direct the project. At that point he’d directed a handful of trippy midnight movies, each one a lunatic vision of raw sexuality, carnal violence, and shocking images. But when a producer told him about Dune, there was a messiah in it and that’s all Jodorowsky needed to know. He wanted to make a movie that was “an LSD trip for the entire planet,” a journey into revelation that raised everyone’s consciousness. For purists, it would have been a disaster, as Jodorowsky bent Dune to his own purposes. But for people who love art, it would have been glorious.
Jodorowsky blew through $2 million in preproduction, taking the movie right up to the edge of being made. The cast alone was enough to make strong men weep, and every single one of them was 100% confirmed: David Carradine as Duke Leto, Jodorowsky’s son (who endured a two-year training process) as Paul, Udo Kier as Piter De Vries, Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen, Mick Jagger as Feyd-Rautha, Geraldine Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Hervé Villechaize, and Salvador Dali as the mad emperor of the universe. Pink Floyd was hired to do the soundtrack, and French experimental band Magma was hired to do music for the Harkonnen planet. But the production team was what wound up mattering the most.
The only person who was known in Hollywood was Dan O’Bannon, brought on board to do the special effects after his work on John Carpenter’s Dark Star. An unknown named H.R. Giger was hired to design the Harkonnen planet. Moebius, France’s most famous cartoonist, drew the movie’s storyboards (a document as thick as a telephone directory), and British painter Chris Foss was hired to do spaceship design. Needing a fresh infusion of cash, Jodorowsky brought this mad vision to Hollywood where, one by one, the studios turned him down. The dream was over, but its influence was only just beginning.
O’Bannon would go on to work on special effects on Star Wars, and write Lifeforce, Blue Thunder, and Total Recall, but, most importantly, he wrote Alien, a movie featuring a creature designed by Giger, whom he met while working on Dune. Moebius would go on to do production art for Alien, Tron, The Abyss, Willow, and The Fifth Element. Chris Foss wound up working on Alien, Superman, Flash Gordon, and Kubrick’s version of A.I. Ridley Scott would swipe images from Moebius to use in Blade Runner. The entire visual palette of much of 80s science fiction can be traced back to this film.
But it could have been weirder. And better. Science fiction in the West has long lingered in the shadow of the military industrial complex, mostly because they’re the people who had the rocket ships. As a result, the language of most mainstream sci-fi has been the language of militarization and colonization. We build space colonies, we fly ships, we conquer the unknown, we settle planets, we exploit resources. Our science fiction, for a long time, was all about empires, rebels, imperiums, kings, rulers, lords, cosmic feudalism and dictators. Jodorowsky wanted an alternative. He wanted…well, let him say it, in this poem he wrote Chris Foss describing what he wanted him to do on Dune:
I do not want that the man conquers space
In the ships of NASA
These concentration camps of the spirit
These gigantic freezers vomiting the imperialism
These slaughters of plundering and plunder
This arrogance of bronze and thirst
This eunuchoid science
Not the dribble of transistorised and riveted hulks.
I want magical entities, vibrating vehicles
Like fish of a timeless ocean. I want
Jewels, mechanics as perfect as the heart
Rebirth into other dimensions
I want whore-ships driven
By the sperm of passionate ejaculations
In an engine of flesh
I want rockets complex and secret,
Sipping the thousand-year-old nectar of dwarf stars…
In reality, Jodorowsky’s Dune never could have been made. It was taking on technical challenges George Lucas wouldn’t even dare, years before Star Wars. It was too long. It would have bankrupted any studio that took it on. But if it had been made, think of the alternate history of sci-fi it opens up.
The Hollywood blockbuster would have been spiked with LSD and George Lucas would have made more movies like THX-1138 and less movies like Star Wars; instead of Spielberg and ET in the multiplex we would have had Jodorowsky and Sante Sangre. Instead of movies about space combat and killer robots, we’d have had films about transcendental visions and tantric sex. Directors like De Palma might have stuck to their indie roots rather than going big budget. The world would have been a weirder place.
It never could have happened, but sometimes a dream is more powerful than reality, and Jodorowsky’s Dune is the story of a pure dream that is all the more powerful because reality never forced it to compromise. And whenever we need a little bit of inspiration, whenever our souls are weary from seeing the same old science fiction, over and over again, we can break off a tiny piece of this vision, sit back, close our eyes, and let it dissolve on our tongue.
Grady Hendrix is the author of Satan Loves You, Occupy Space, and he’s the co-author of Dirt Candy: A Cookbook, the first graphic novel cookbook. He’s written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today and his story, “Mofongo Knows” appears in the anthology, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination.