Every filmmaker’s biography contains a few great what-ifs—magnificent, unwieldy projects that never quite reached the point when the cameras rolled. Yet few of those are as what-the-fuck as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s planned adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, a book the director admits he hadn’t read at the time he pitched the movie to producer Michel Seydoux. The goal, Jodorowsky explains in Frank Pavich’s wildly entertaining documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, was to mimic the effects of LSD without requiring actual drug intake. But that’s just the starting point for what was, by all accounts, the most insanely ambitious sci-fi picture of its era. The director planned to stake his claim on greatness from the movie’s opening shot, a Touch Of Evil–inspired long take that would begin in the far reaches of the galaxy and appear to track all the way down to ground level.
For special effects, Jodorowsky brought aboard Dark Star’s Dan O’Bannon, rejecting 2001: A Space Odyssey whiz Douglas Trumbull as insufficiently spiritual. Cameos would have included Mick Jagger and a troublemaking Salvador Dalí, who led Jodorowsky to Swiss set designer H.R. Giger, joining forces with comic artist Moebius. The soundtrack would have featured, among others, Pink Floyd and the French prog-rock group Magma. Today, this Dune exists only as a book of storyboards Seydoux and Jodorowsky showed to skittish studio execs. The two allegedly had a plan to keep the budget under control, even though Dalí would have been paid by minute of screen time and Orson Welles—set to play the blimp-like Baron Harkonnen—only signed on to the project when Jodorowsky agreed to have the F For Fake auteur’s favorite chef cater the shoot. The sheer number of times Jodorowsky claims to have just happened on the perfect collaborator—an artist staying at the same hotel or eating at the same restaurant—makes Dune sound like a movie that was fated to be.
Except, of course, it wasn’t. Even in the mid-’70s, Hollywood wasn’t crazy enough to touch a project this unhinged (though the end result could hardly have been more off-putting than David Lynch’s 1984 cheese-fest). Still, Jodorowsky’s Dune is something subtler than a reminiscence. It’s an ode to what it means to make a film with unbridled creativity, without limits and without concern for commercial calculation. There’s no focus group hounding Jodorowsky to temper his vision. Viewers whose primary impression of the filmmaker comes from unfortunately sober viewings of El Topo will gain a new appreciation for the maestro’s enthusiasm. Subtitled in broken English, he comes across as a joshing, charismatic leader; it’s easy to see why so many would revere him as an artistic guru. While it’s heartbreaking that the movie never got made (son Brontis Jodorowsky, who would have played Paul Atreides, is particularly poignant imagining his alternate life as a superstar), Jodorowsky’s Dune posits that the raw materials nevertheless left an enduring mark on cinematic sci-fi, providing the basis for famous aspects of Alien, Star Wars, and Contact. In that respect, Pavich’s film is less about ruminating on what might have been than asking why it’s important to create. Jodorowsky’s opus found its place in the cosmos, even without existing.