‘Dune:’ The movie masterpiece (maybe) that never was

Near the beginning of “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” a fan describes Alejandro Jodorowsky’s legendary adaptation of Frank Herbert’s book “the greatest science fiction movie never made.” Director Frank Pavich spends the rest of the documentary trying to prove that point and gets reasonably close.

“Legendary” remains the right word, because the film exists only as an immense catalog of 3,000 drawings, which would have been translated into shots. Jodorowsky and producer Michel Seydoux made multiple copies of this book and sent them to studio heads 40 years ago, hoping to raise $15 million.

They were met with polite, puzzled head shakes everywhere: Why would Hollywood entrust what was then a large sum of money to a writer-director who had made three surreal, symbolic, scatalogical features that resonated only with cult audiences?

Science fiction in the pre-“Star Wars” days was considered a secondary genre with no box office potential. Nobody was going to entrust the bank to a guy whose initial shot in “Dune” was supposed to traverse the entire universe. Jodorowsky, who had never read the book before agreeing to film it, probably didn’t help his case by explaining how unfaithful to this beloved novel he planned to be: “I was raping Frank Herbert, but with love.”

Pavich gives the Chilean-born Jodorowski his full say in the documentary, partly in Spanish and partly in expressive if slightly fractured English. At 84, he seems like a Don Quixote recalling a mad, noble quest with the last sparks of creative fire in his eyes. He regrets the missed opportunity, rejoices in the hash David Lynch made of “Dune” when he finally filmed it in 1984 and recalls story after story from the ’70s with perfect clarity (if, perhaps, questionable accuracy).

Were Mick Jagger and Orson Welles really going to star in Jodorowski’s “Dune”? Was Pink Floyd really going to write some of the music, as he claims? Pavich doesn’t (or in the case of Welles, can’t) give them a chance to respond. He takes everything at face value, so the results are entertaining without being evidential. Only “Star Wars” producer Gary Kurtz suggests ruefully that the studios’ collective decision to pass made financial sense.

Nobody can dispute that Jodorowsky prepared “Dune” with collaborators who became influential in science-fiction filmmaking. Artist H.R. Giger created the look of the “Alien” films. Dan O’Bannon worked on screenplays for “Alien,” “Total Recall” and “Invaders From Mars.” And that set of 3,000 illustrations may have influenced shots and sets in movies from “Star Wars” to “Prometheus.”

Jodorowsky directed his first film in 23 years, “The Dance of Reality,” last year; it’s making the rounds of film festivals and does have a U.S. distributor, ABKCO Films. He wrote, directed, produced, starred as his elder self and based it loosely on his childhood in Chile. You have to admire a filmmaker who never gives up.

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