As Alejandro Jodorowsky tells about his never made Dune, his energy radiates through the screen with an irresistible strength. Watching Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary directed by Frank Pavich, we do not get the impression that Dune was a failure or a doomed project.
On the contrary, Jodorowsky’s passionate commentary speaks of an exceptionally inspired work, during which a diverse group of strongly talented people contributed with original ideas to a visionary dream. Together they created the plans of this trip-like science fiction fantasy, which, even unmade, inspired some of the greatest sci-fi movies that we know today. But how could a film never made become so inspirational?
Jodorowsky, founder of the chaotic Panic Movement in theatre, started his career as a film director in the 70s with films similarly surrealistic to his theatrical work. After acid western El Topo he received $1 million to direct his next film, which was Holy Mountain, another psychedelic, surrealist work of art. Even though it generated limited return, this was the film that drove Jodorowsky into the attention of Michel Seydoux, who became the producer of Dune.
Jodorowsky, who had never read Dune before, wrote the script in 1974 and began his hunt for people who could make his dream come true. His first great discovery was comic book illustrator Jean “Moebious” Giraud, who became his “camera” and drew the storyboard of Dune frame by frame. Next he had to find the person who could work on the special effects.
Although first he wanted to get Douglas Trumbull, the special effects designer of 2001: A space Odyssey, with an unexpected twist he decided to hire Dan O’Bannon, who had only participated in one film as a visual effects designer. Chris Foss, known for his science fiction book cover artwork, and Swiss painter H.R. Giger also joined the visual team, and, according to Foss, thanks to the incredible, inspirational energy of Jodorowsky, they produced some of their best pieces of work while working on Dune.
For Jodorowsky, science fiction was a theatre and Dune was his “Prophet”. With his film he wanted to change how young people looked at the world. Unfortunately, he never succeeded in making this film, as all studios he approached rejected the plans of a 12-hour long psychedelic movie, and he refused to cut it. However, thanks to the 20 copies of the phone book-sized storyboard with countless beautiful drawings of scenes and design concepts,
Dune continued to live on even after its failure. Furthermore, Jodorowsky introduced some exceptional young talents like O’Bannon, Moebius and Giger to the film industry, and these people carried the legacy of Dune into their future projects. This is how Dune happened to be one of the most influential films never made, and here is our list of the seven greatest films that probably wouldn’t exist without Jodorowsky’s Dune.
1. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
The film that most directly shows signs of being influenced by Jodorowsky’s Dune is Alien. In 1974, Jodorowsky had managed to gather the greatest minds of film, music and popular art to work on the plans. In the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune the director said he needed his ‘spiritual warriors’ for the film, and every single person on team was handpicked so that they would share the director’s passion and psychedelic dreams.
Jean “Moebius” Giraud, H.R. Giger, Chris Foss and Dan O’Bannon worked on the visuals of the film, and the cast even included names like Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and the band Pink Floyd. Although Dune, that could have been ’the greatest achievement in science fiction’ (according to Nicolas Winding Refn), never became reality, it did not evaporate into nothing without leaving its legacy behind.
When the project failed, O’Bannon, who would have been working on the special effects of Dune, went on to work on a script that would later develop into Alien. He found himself greatly inspired by the nightmarish paintings of H.R. Giger, who admittedly used art as a way of self-therapy to express the dark images of his subconscious.
O’Bannon said in an interview that he “hadn’t been able to get Hans Ruedi Giger off his mind” after leaving Paris, and therefore ended up writing a script essentially about a Giger monster. He then advised Ridley Scott to get Giger on the team for the film, and with the addition of Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Chris Foss as a concept artists, the four made sure that at least a fraction of what has been created during the pre-production works of Dune would be seen by millions on the screen.
Looking at Ridley Scott’s film, it is apparent that the Alien Xenomorph has its roots in the design of the Harkonnen Castle that Giger produced for Dune, since atop this construction there is a head-shape with a lengthened skull very similar to that of the Alien Xenomorph.
2. Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)
George Lucas was not afraid to dream big when he started working on Star Wars. He wanted to reproduce the fantastic tales of his own childhood and at the same time awaken the inner child that is there in all of us.
Although his project was personal and strongly fuelled by his love of graphic novels and fantasy stories, it was also essential for him to produce a big hit, a film that would be loved and enjoyed by people of all age and background. In order to achieve this he merged the classic elements of western, fantasy, war movies and adventure film in a gigantic cosmic tale and used the latest computer technology to bring to life creatures never seen.
The result was a record-breaking blockbuster that cost $11 million but in the forthcoming years produced $190 million only from US sales. Yet, Star Wars, the all-time favourite sci-fi saga that established the popularity of the genre in the film industry would perhaps never been able to have the same frenetic success without Jodorowsky’s Dune.
At the time sci-fi fantasy was not the obvious choice for a blockbuster, but Lucas already had some experience in sci-fi with THX 1138, and it seems likely that he would have had a chance to see a copy of Dune’s storyboard that Jodorowsky had sent to all major studios.
This material potentially served as an inspiration for the concept design of several Star Wars creatures, including Jabba, who strongly reminds us of Baron Harkonnen in his monstrosity. Not only does the character design evoke Jodorowsky’s Dune, but the first scene of A New Hope, often regarded as one of the best ever opening scenes, appears to be influenced by the opening scene of Dune as Jodorowsky imagined it.
The first scene of Dune would have been a long shot, admittedly inspired by The Touch of Evil by Orson Welles, starting with the camera traversing the universe, slowly zooming in to reveal galaxies, then stars, then planets and finally, spaceships in combat. Compare this to the opening of A New Hope, where the establishing still of a planetary body and its moon is made dynamic by a tiny space ship moving into frame as it is chased by an enormous star cruiser.
Both directors create the sensation of motion through space, but George Lucas decided against the long shot and divided the sequence into multiple scenes.
3. Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997)
Robert Zemeckis became known as a director mentored by Steven Spielberg, who was also the executive producer of his first two films. The real breakthrough in his career was Back to the Future in 1985, the sci-fi comedy that since became a cult film. He is often being labelled as a director mainly interested in special effects, although his biggest success was Forrest Gump, which did not particularly build on after-effects.
This was followed by Contact, which almost had nine times the budget of Star Wars ($90 million) and involved the work of almost all major visual effect companies, including Industrial Light & Magic, Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital and Pixar’s RenderMan. Until 2004 the opening scene was the longest computer generated long shot in live action film – evoking Jodorowsky’s opening scene for Dune better even than Star Wars.
Comparing it to the plans of Dune’s opening scene, one has to realise that it is literally the reverse of the greatest long shot never made. Zemeckis’ shot starts with a close-up of the surface of Earth and a medley of contemporary music and other radio sounds.
As the camera moves farther away from the planet Earth the radio signs become older and older, and at the same time the solar system shrinks into a single spot of light in the Milky Way only for the camera to further retreat and show other galaxies and a wide shot of the universe.
Without Dune this monumental opening scene would perhaps never have been made. However, it is probable that the limitations of 70s technology would have prevented Jodorowsky from realising his vision quite as fully as Zemeckis in the 90s.