The Legacy of Dune, Jodorowsky’s “God” Film

Lamenting the failed Dune adaptation from the director of <i>The Holy Mountain</i>.

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30 May 2013, 5:10pm

Dune would be the coming of a God, an artistic, cinematographic God,” states Alejandro Jodorowsky in the trailer for Frank Pavich’s documentary—recently screened at the Cannes Film Festival, to wide acclaim—about the Chilean director’s failed attempt at adapting Frank Herbert’s canonical sci-fi novel Dune for the screen. So the story goes that "God" didn’t quite make it past pre-production and the casting of Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali, but despite the ultimate death of the project, the absurd name-droppability of this unfulfilled cinematic fantasy has thankfully kept Dune in the realm of myth.

Jodorowsky’s aspirations with this project were not only to make an adaptation of the sci-fi bible, but to make “the world”—stated with histrionic enthusiasm, this assertion resonates until you realize the vagueness behind its grandiosity. Everything about the film would have been obese in scope: the script was longer than 1,000 pages, and would have amounted to an alleged 14-hour running time. And, while the imagined representation of technology in the film would have been mind-blowing, Jodorowsky also planned to employ some real-life technological acrobatics to “rival Orson Welles” (whom he also, in what sounds like something of a passive-aggressive move, had cast as the Baron Harkonnen, a character he envisioned as being so corpulent he could only move using the “anti-gravitational bubbles” that emanated from his extremities).

His specific plan to one-up Orson Welles’s three-minute explosive opening to Touch of Evil involved a tracking shot through space that would settle in the galaxy of Dune, then further plunge downward onto the corpses of smugglers of the infamous “Spice Mélage” (a substance whose political effects are akin to oil, whose cognitive effects are akin to Adderall, and whose physical health effects are akin to whatever’s in Lance Armstrong’s pocket). Though “zooming through the vastness of space down to the minutiae of the day-to-day” has now become a hackneyed trope, at the time, this would have been an unprecedented opening sequence.  


Trailer for Frank Pavich’s documentary

Jodorowsky’s film was ultimately too ambitious for its budget and too outlandish for Hollywood, but its potential has instilled in fans both of Dune and Jodorowsky a simultaneous sense of awe and melancholy: the idea of it might be so theoretically beautiful that the final product would have paled in comparison. Jodoworsky, it seems, was not trying to put together the crew for a real motion picture—he was trying to throw the best art party ever. Apart from the aforementioned art-world icons he cast, the director had also solicited the help of HR Giger, Chris Foss, Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Dan O’Bannon, and Pink Floyd (who would make a different genre of music for each planet showcased in the film).

In pre-production, Jodorowsky fostered the still burgeoning careers of Foss, Giger and O’Bannon, who, after their unrealized collaboration on Dune, would all go on to collaborate on Alien. It was suggested (albeit by the ever-hyperbolic Jodorowsky) that O’Bannon was so engaged in his work on Dune that following its cancellation, he “had to go to a clinic for many years.” O’Bannon himself attributes the loss of Dune to the genesis of his screenplay for Alien, suggesting that he was left in such a malaise that he had nothing left to do but write one of the most acclaimed sci-fi movies in film history.

The increasingly mythical pre-production ended up serving as a sort of artistic salon, with Jodorowsky gathering a community of spaceship-obsessed geniuses who would go on to contribute to epidemically popular sci-fi movies (in other words, collaborating on the creation of people’s notions of and anxieties about the future). Dune, the film that’s nothing but a perpetual hypothetical, has therefore widely informed our collective pop-cultural imagined imagery of the future.

It thus seems that with this new documentary about the squandered project, documentarian Pavich and Jodorowsky are furthering the attempt at making Dune into the “God” movie, albeit with a new angle--one that highlights its status as something legendary yet intangible, engendering so much speculation that its actual existence would perhaps be superfluous.

When Jodorowsky made a polemical comment about lovingly “raping” Frank Herbert’s novel, he clarified in simply insisting that“ Dune didn't belong to Herbert just as Don Quixote didn't belong to Cervantes. There is an artist, one alone among millions of others artists, who one time in his life, by a piece of divine grace, receives an immortal theme, a MYTH.” 

And just as Frank Herbert’s Dune didn’t belong to Frank Herbert, Jodorowsky’s Dune no longer belongs to Jodorowsky: it is an ever-transforming, subjective dream we can visualize when desperately trying to avoid the Thetans and the Jadens of contemporary sci-fi. It is ours for the conceiving.

Sample of work by Chris Foss for Dune


Sci-fi illustrator Chris Foss was put in charge of conceptualizing the spaceships for Dune, an honor given that Jodorowsky refers to spaceships as “the most beautiful object in the galaxy next to the soul.” In his schizo-transcendentalist fashion, Jodorowsky was adamantly against the unsavory trend in science fiction of “giant refrigerators” masquerading as vehicles. “The 'galactic' ships of North American technocracy are a mouse-gray insult to the divine, therefore delirious, chaos of the universe. I wanted jewels, machine-animals, soul-mechanisms,” asserts Jodorowsky, and in these images we see how Foss delivered a graceful synthesis of nature and technology. These nimble-looking spacecrafts look more likely to break out into contact improv than, say, trans-planetary war.

Sample of work by HR Giger for Dune:

HR Giger, a relatively unknown Swiss artist at the time of his involvement in Dune, was enlisted to design the sandworms that plague the planet Arrakis (and also provide a convenient means of transportation), as well as the Harkonnen Castle, featured in the top two images.  He had envisioned the majority of this egg-shaped castle as subterranean, suggesting that “like an iceberg which shows only a tenth of its volume, Harkonnen hides its evil deep inside…The only link with the outside world is a drawbridge which can be lowered like an enormous penis to admit visitors. The main gate is only an entrance, never an exit, for it has barbs like sharks' teeth which prevent anyone from turning back.” The illogical rules of Giger’s castle underscore the wonderful illogicality of the whole production—the whole thing sounding like it was cooked up within a precocious and scary child’s—or, well, HR Giger’s—game of dolls. 

Sample of work by Jean “Moeibus” Giraud for Dune:

The Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (above, left & right)

Feyd Rautha (left)   The Emperor of the Galaxy Padishah Shaddam IV (right)

Dune storyboard segment (above)

Graphic novelist Moebius, or Jean Giraud, was brought on to do set and character design, as well as to storyboard the behemoth script, and churned out an alleged 3,000 drawings over the course of pre-production. For the best idea of how these characters would have manifested in the actual movie, insert Orson Welles’s face in the top left image, Mick Jagger’s face in the bottom left image and Salvador Dali’s face in the bottom right image.