Cannes Review: 'Jodorowsky's Dune'

What would you do if you could change one fact of history? Kill a major dictator when he was still a boy? Go back to the dorm elevator and ask that one girl out that only now, with the gift of hindsight, you recognize was flooding you with signals? Hardcore cult cineastes know what they would do - they'd return to pre-"Star Wars" 1975 and convince, by any means necessary, the big movie studios to cough up the $15 million necessary to make Alejandro Jodorowsky's adaptation of Frank Herbert's "Dune" a reality.

Arguably the most legendary of unmade film projects, Jodorowsky's "Dune" (the subject of "Jodorowsky's Dune,") just becomes further heartbreak the more you read about it. The cast and crew assembled - the "spiritual warriors" as the great Chilean-born Mexican-French filmmaker of Ukranian descent describes them - are an "Avengers"-level team-up. However, Frank Pavich's new documentary (which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival's Director's Fortnight sidebar) goes out of its way to remain optimistic. It shows that the painstaking work that went into the film's preproduction, as if by the force of its very existence, has created a legacy with rippling effects that have significantly altered science fiction.

Some quick facts for the noobs. Alejandro Jodorowsky began his career in 1960s Mexico in experimental theater. His first feature film "Fando Y Lis" was a a trippy and surreal fantasia but it had nothing on "El Topo" from 1970. This violent religious parable is considered by many to be the world's first "Midnight Movie." John Lennon was an early champion and Jodorowsky followed up with the even more mind-bending psychedelic freak show "The Holy Mountain." It was a hit in Europe and inspired film students wrecked on cannabis to shout "I am a champion horizontally!" at 3 am at least until as late as the 1990s.

When asked by French producer Michel Seydoux what he wanted to do next he barked back "Dune!" He hadn't read "Dune," but a friend of his was reading it and it was the first thing he thought of. He was given seed money and Jodorowsky, now at the peak of his form and with a consciousness-expanded ego, set out to create a movie that would change life, art, the Universe and everything.

Through talking head interviews, Jodorowsky and others describe how he assembled his creative team, his "spiritual warriors." The team-up of nascent heavyweights seems shepherded by a divine hand. After discovering the work of Jean "Moebius" Giraud he literally bumps into him in Paris. After a meeting with "2001: A Space Odyssey" effects king Douglas Trumbull that did not go well (he was a technician, not an artist, Jodorowsky recalls) he seeks refuge in a Hollywood movie theater showing John Carpenter's "Dark Star." From there he seeks out co-author/co-star/effects man Dan O'Bannon and brings him aboard. A recording from the now deceased O'Bannon describes his mesmerizing meeting with Jodorowsky involving his ability to stop time and have energy radiate from his face. (The meeting was preceded by sharing some especially strong marijuana.) Later crew additions included designers Chris Foss and H.R. Geiger.

Pavich's sharpest move is in animating some of the storyboards that exist in a humongous hardbound "look book" that Jodorowsky created for the studios. The opening shot was to have been a massive, seamless sweep through the entirety of the Universe until we zero in on a ship raided by Spice pirates (something of a reverse from the opening shot of Zemeckis' "Contact.")

There are a number of amusing stories about accruing commitments from musicians (Pink Floyd and Magma) and would-be cast members. Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Orson Welles and, yes, Salvador Dali were all on board. Dali demanded $100,000 for every moment he appeared on screen (and alongside a flaming giraffe), so Jodorowsky and team prepared a way for his character to also be represented by a Dali-esque automaton for the bulk of the time.

Obviously, this version of "Dune" (which was spitballed at 10 hours long) was not meant to be, but "Jodorowsky's Dune" makes great effort to stay positive. Were it not for the team of spiritual warriors, Geiger and O'Bannon would not have met to create "Alien." That means no "Blade Runner," possibly no publication for William Gibson, no "Matrix," et cetera. Talking head contributor Devin Faraci geeks out on behalf of us all to describe Jodorowsky's "Dune" as a closely orbiting meteor whose space spores impregnate our creative ecosystem. (Or something like that.)

That's just one of a number of laugh lines in a very up-tempo film from Pavich. Jodorowsky's broken English makes for some stellar moments, like when he gets himself worked up into a frenzy extolling the virtues of "creative rape." He quickly backtracks when he realizes this isn't translating well, adding "but with love!"

At the end of the day, however, I can't recommend "Jodorowsky's Dune" for folks who aren't hardcore movie nerds. It never quite elevates itself above something like a really well produced behind-the-scenes featurette on a high end Blu-ray. But if you've got that Jodorowsky T-shirt aping the Judas Priest logo, you may as well start lining up now.

SCORE: 7.4 / 10