A new documentary chronicles the creation and devastation of “the greatest movie never made.” And if you’ve ever loved a movie with spaceships in it, you have the man chronicled therein—Alejandro Jodorowsky—to thank.
The documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune, which opened nationwide last month, travels back in time to 1974, before Star Wars or Alien or any other great sci-fi space battle movie existed. Jodorowsky, 85, is a Chilean-born filmmaker of Jewish and Ukrainian heritage who made his career mostly in Mexico and France. At the time, he was gaining notoriety for his bizarre but beloved films El Topo and The Holy Mountain.
He met with producer Michel Seydoux, who told him he’d produce any movie Jodorowsky wanted to make. Without thinking about it, Jodorowsky said, “Dune!” He was referring to Frank Herbert's best-selling sci-fi novel—which, at the time, had not even seen. Still, he clarifies in Jodorowsky's Dune that he had heard good things about it, and dreamed of making a big-budget space epic—one that extended beyond the “scientific rigor” of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had come out a few years earlier.
Over the next two years, Jodorowsky accumulated a roster of artists, designers and producers who would go on to create the world’s greatest science fiction movies. The dream team for his would-be Dune included artist, painter and sculptor H.R. Giger (Alien, Aliens, Prometheus), writer and special effects artist Dan O’Bannon (Star Wars, Alien, the original Total Recall, Dark Star), and artist, cartoonist and writer Jean Giraud (Alien, Tron, The Fifth Element), and artist Christopher Foss (Alien, Flash Gordon, A.I. Artificial Intelligence).
Together, the team tackled the movie project for Dune, assembling a 600-page tome with a full script, extensive costume and scenery designs, and more than 3,000 shot-for-shot storyboards that detailed exactly how each and every scene in the movie would look.
Jodorowsky and his “spiritual warriors” brought a copy of the book to every major studio in Hollywood. Every studio loved it—but not enough to finance it. They worried the story was too long to be told on film, that audiences weren’t interested in movies about space, and that Jodorowsky was an untested wild card as a director. Ultimately, a film that had every piece in place except the financing fell apart.
“Almost all the battles were won, but the war, we lost,” bemoans Jodorowsky in the documentary detailing the ordeal.
One of the 600+ pages Jodorowsky and his team put together to present "Dune" to movie studios, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
At the end of the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, the filmmakers show the unmade film’s concept art side by side with scenes from just about every modern science fiction and fantasy movie. The similarities are pretty revelatory.
After Jodorowsky's potential version of Dune fell apart and Star Wars became an unprecedented box office hit, a studio invited most of Jodorowsky’s team (though not the director himself) to make a movie called Alien. That was just the beginning. Today, almost every major science fiction movie involves either someone from Jodorowsky’s team or someone who was deeply influenced by their work.
Here are seven movies that might never have existed without Jodorowsky’s Dune.
H.R. Giger designed these bases for House Harkonnen and House Corrino in Dune.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
H.R. Giger posing next to his concept art for House Harkonnen. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Giger went on to design the iconic Xenomorph alien in Alien.
Alien has sprouted several related films, including 2012’s Prometheus, which also bears a striking resemblance to the Dune concept art.
And the spaceship…
…looks a little familiar too.
Concept art for the main spaceship in Jodorowsky's version of Dune. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
3. Star Wars
When it started to look like Dune wasn’t going to happen, special effects artist Dan O’Bannon jumped to another project—George Lucas’ space movie. Using some of the methods and ideas he’d picked up working with Jodorowsky, O’Bannon created some of the iconic computer-generated special effects for Star Wars.
Here’s a shot from a location scouting trip the Dune team made:
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Compare that with one of the opening shots of the original Star Wars:
And here’s a concept costume for Jodorowsky’s movie…
Alejandro Jodorowsky (left) and Jean "Moebius" Giraud with a concept costume for Dune. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
…compared to a character people are fairly familiar with from Star Wars.
Actor Anthony Daniels with C-3PO, the character he plays in Star Wars. Photo via Getty Images
4 & 5: Tron and The Fifth Element
Artist Jean Giraud went by the name “Moebius” for most of his career. After doing character and costume designs for Dune, he went on to do them for Tron and The Fifth Element. You can see his sketches from all three movies (as well as his work for Alien and other films) here.
6. David Lynch's 1984 adaptation of Dune
A highlight of the movie is when Jodorowsky describes his schadenfreude-based reaction to seeing David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Dune in theaters—he, like most of the movie-going public, thought it stunk. But before Jodorowsky, film studios doubted a story as long as Dune could be adapted to the screen. Jodorowsky proved that it could be, even if no one would let him take a crack at it.
Toward the end of the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune, Jodorowsky says he still holds out hope that his version of the film will be made some day, albeit without a few of the original cast members he had in mind. Even if it has to be after his death, he says, he wants it to happen.
In the meantime, any nerd worth their salt needs to get out and see Jodorowsky’s Dune.