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D: Frank Pavich / 90m

With: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Michel Seydoux, Chris Foss, H.R. Giger, Jean-Paul Gibon, Brontis Jodorowsky, Nicolas Winding Refn, Richard Stanley, Devin Faraci, Diane O’Bannon, Gary Kurtz, Amanda Lear

Following the success of The Holy Mountain (1973), Chilean-French movie maker Alejandro Jodorowsky was given carte blanche by his producing partner, Michel Seydoux, to make another movie. Jodorowsky chose to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune, a sci-fi novel that was deemed unfilmable. Ploughing forward irregardless, Jodorowsky set about assembling the people he needed to help him realise his dream of making the finest sci-fi movie ever. Setting up a pre-production unit in Paris, he enlisted the talents of artists and designers Chris Foss, Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), and H.R. Giger, brought on board Dan O’Bannon to handle the special effects, and approached both Pink Floyd and French progressive rock band Magma to provide the score. His ambition produced a script complete with extensive storyboards and concept art that was sent to all the major studios, and which, as Herbert himself put it, was “the size of a phone book”, and would have meant a movie lasting around fourteen hours. In the end, none of the studios was willing to finance Jodorowsky’s epic vision, and the unrealised movie is one of cinema’s great What if’s…

Forty years after its production was prematurely halted, the idea of a version of Dune directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky remains a tantalising prospect. The size and scope of Jodorowsky’s ambition is evidenced by his determination to have only the best working on the project (though O’Bannon was recruited after Douglas Trumbull proved less “spiritual” than Jodorowsky would have liked). This extended to his casting of Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen, David Carradine as Duke Leto Atreides, and bizarrely, Salvador Dali as Emperor Shaddam IV (Dali negotiated his way to being paid $100,000 a minute for his role, little realising he would only be in the movie for a maximum of five minutes). Jodorowsky’s enthusiasm for the project is reflected in the passion he evinces even now, looking back on a period that saw him at the height of his creativity, and which, if it had been made, would have been a sci-fi epic like none before it. Some of the storyboard sequences have been animated for this documentary, and while they’re necessarily rough, they give more than enough of an idea of what Jodorowsky was aiming for. Whatever else the movie may have been, it would definitely have been as visually arresting as his previous works.

In the end, and while Jodorowsky may well have been the best director to adapt Herbert’s weighty novel, the irony is that the studios didn’t trust him, and each one baulked at his insistence on filming his script as written. Ever the uncompromising auteur, Jodorowsky was the unwitting author of his downfall, and it’s this that gives Pavich’s astutely handled documentary a touch of unexpected pathos. (It also leads to the movie’s funniest moment when Jodorowsky recounts seeing David Lynch’s 1984 version and finding himself relieved to learn that it was terrible; his unaffected glee is terrific.) Pavich assembles as many eye witnesses as he can to flesh out Jodorowsky’s remembrances, and there’s a wealth of detail in there, as well as heartfelt appreciations from the likes of fellow directors Refn and Stanley. And for a movie that was never made, the documentary shows just how influential it’s been, just as Pavich et al make the case for Jodorowsky’s unfinished Dune as being a lost or missing masterpiece. What seems clear is that, whatever form it might ultimately have taken, it would have changed the face of sci-fi forever – and we might be living in a world where Star Wars (1977) is known more as an imitator than a trailblazer.

Rating: 8/10 – though there are times when you wonder just how Jodorowsky was going to pull it all off, Jodorowsky’s Dune remains an absorbing examination of one man’s impassioned creative ambition and what could have been; Jodorowsky is an engaging, mercurial presence, and this is a compelling, if at times bittersweet, tribute to a man who, like Frank Herbert, has the ability to create new worlds from his own imagination.