What Science Fiction Tried To Teach Us About Jihad, and Why No One Listened
How Alejandro Jodorowsky muddled sci-fi by turning Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ into a New Age manifesto
“Hope clouds observation.” (Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, Dune)
It was, the nerds have whispered to another since the late 1970s, the greatest science-fiction movie never made. The director, the Chilean Jewish wildman Alejandro Jodorowsky, wrote a script that, if filmed, would run somewhere close to 14 hours. All that was left behind was a storyboard, 3,000 images thick, a promise of the glorious madness that might have been.
The storyboard and its illustrious creator are the stars of a new documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune. Its thesis is simple and convincing: By taking a stab at filming the sprawling 1965 desert-based novel by Frank Herbert, Jodorowsky had assembled in 1974 a team of inspired artists who had given contemporary sci-fi its visual language, from the light sabers of the Jedi to the face-huggers of Alien, and helped propel the genre to the peak of pop culture cool.
It’s all true—but it pales next to Jodorowsky’s even grander and more questionable achievement, which was to move Dune—and, with it, much of the sci-fi genre—away from the thorny questions of ideology and social conflict and toward a softer, more luminescent set of concerns, like identity and self-empowerment, that now reign supreme. To adopt for a moment the director’s colorful, inflamed language, Jodorowsky was the prophet of the flight from the real. Instead of Herbert’s geopolitical toughness, he gave us rainbows and unicorns of self-revelation. And the rest of us are paying the price.
Alejandro Jodorowsky was born in Chile in 1929 to Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants who were the architects of his preternaturally unhappy childhood. His mother, Sara, was an unremitting toughie, and his father, Jaime, was a Stalinist obsessed with assassinating the nation’s generalissimo, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo. Like many in his condition, Jodorowsky turned to artistic production, first poetry and then performance, traveling to Paris and becoming a mime, a theater director, and a guru.
That last title is not to be taken lightly. In a decade littered with self-proclaimed seers, Jodorowsky was, literally, a man of vision: Turning to cinema in 1967, the middle-aged and wild-haired artist had a way of distilling complex belief systems into striking images, which he placed just out of consciousness’s reach, leaving viewers, like dogs on too-short leashes, to strain for clarity and meaning. What does the man with no arms carrying on his shoulders a man with no legs represent? Viewers could never be sure, but John and Yoko were big fans—and viewers packed midnight screenings in Europe and in New York, thinking that Jodorowsky might be the herald of an entirely new form of cinematic expression. He ended his third feature, 1973’s The Holy Mountain, by breaking the fourth wall, revealing the movie set, lights, and crew and yelling “Zoom back, camera! Real life awaits us!”
Film number four, then, had to be larger than life. “My ambition was tremendous,” he recalled in a Jodorowsky’s Dune. “I wanted to make something sacred, a film that gives LSD hallucinations without taking LSD, to change the young minds of all the world.” That being his aspiration, there was really only one appropriate target: Dune, the complex, symbol-laden, science-fiction best-seller by Frank Herbert. Jodorowsky had never read Dune, but that hardly mattered: By the late 1970s, the book’s gravitational pull was strong enough—sci-fi maestro Arthur C. Clarke hailed it as second only to The Lord of the Rings trilogy in the fantasy pantheon—to inspire men like the Chilean director. With a considerable financial commitment from French investors, Jodorowsky embarked on his next and greatest cinematic crusade.
Two things are worth noting about Jodorowsky’s Dune. The first has to do with style. Letting his passions run free, Jodorowsky soon accrued not only a talented team of dedicated young artists to help him bring his vision to life, but also a phalanx of older and pampered ones, each with his own demand: Salvador Dalí, slated to play the emperor of the universe, insisted on a rate of $100,000 per hour, which would have made him history’s best-compensated thespian, while Orson Welles was swayed to join the endeavor only after Jodorowsky promised to engage his favorite Parisian chef. And that’s saying nothing of Pink Floyd, Mick Jagger, and other luminaries who were also promised key roles in the extravaganza. Before a single camera rolled, Jodorowsky had already spent millions.
But that wasn’t his greatest debacle. To understand the mess that Jodorowsky made of Herbert’s painstakingly drawn universe, a brief discussion of plot is in order: Fearing the rising popularity of one aristocratic family, the interplanetary emperor takes steps to have it wiped out, unaware that its young son, Paul Atreides, has escaped. The youth finds shelter on Arrakis, a harsh and arid desert planet in which only two things thrive. The first is mélange, a potent and rare spice which is used as currency and is instrumental to life in the future. The second are Fremen, a tribe of warriors that are so skilled at mastering their murderous planet that they’ve learned how to ride the giant predatory worms that emerge from the ground with little notice and big appetites. The Fremen believe in a prophecy of a coming redeemer and grow convinced that Paul’s their guy. The stronger he grows—there’s some wonderful stuff about prescience I won’t even try to explain—the more he realizes that the Fremen’s Jihad—that’s Herbert’s word, one of many he borrowed from Arabic—will end up destroying the world. As the book ends, and this is hardly a spoiler in a tome obsessed with prophecies announcing the inevitable, Paul ascends to absolute power and obliterates his enemies—but realizes that he has unleashed a torrent of violence and that his zealous followers will not stop until the world is soaked in blood.
Herbert’s vision was too grim for the gregarious Chilean. After a concentrated dose of all-purpose mythology—he made Paul’s father a castrato, and inserted a cheerful sequence in which the hero is conceived when his mother inserts a drop of his father’s blood into her ovaries—Jodorowsky arrived at a very different ending for his fable. In his telling, Paul’s throat is slit, at which point Arrakis sprouts columns of light, pretty forests, and shiny rainbows, morphing into a source of untrammeled cosmic joy. It becomes, its creator mused in the recent documentary about his effort to bring Dune to the screen, “a world illuminated, which crosses the galaxy, which leaves it, which gives it light—which is consciousness—to all the universe.”
The differences between the two versions are radical and illuminating. Herbert’s notion of holy war is literal and harsh, the sort of bloody feud that blooms when resources are scarce, passions are high, and resentment is deep. Jodorowsky, on the other hand, would have none of that. His reworking of the book’s ending was a declaration of war on everything that Herbert meant. Like the modern-day apologists who argue that we should interpret the concept of jihad as a struggle for self-control and not as an invitation to behead the infidels, he could accept no drama except for the one that unfurls in our own minds—a colorful and trippy place where happy endings are the norm.
It’s a testament to Jodorowsky’s uncanny ability to so perfectly capture the spirit of the age that his Dune intuited that with the political predilections of the 1960s leaning heavily toward the throbbing questions of identity, science fiction could serve as an intellectual and spiritual Petri dish in which to allow radical ideas to grow. Jungian theories of collective consciousness, Freudian notions of personal psychology, jitters about authority, and an approach to technology that embraces its potential as a tool of salvation while simultaneously recognizing its power to corrode all that is human—these would be the themes of the new art. The novels and stories of writers like Philip K. Dick, the advent of the Internet, and the rise of the cyberpunk movement placed Jodorowsky’s themes at the crux of popular culture, giving us one complex meditation on the nature of the self after another. Some of these meditations are intriguing and inspired. Many others are inane. But none have anything to do with the world of Frank Herbert.
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