This is a re-post of a review I originally wrote for the Popgun Chaos blog. I have re-worked it a bit as I had written in response to a review of Zardoz which took the view that the movie was a bad movie.
Zardoz, when distilled to its most-basic concept, sounds absurd. Sean Connery plays a man named Zed. Zed lives in a post-apocalyptic society where an elite class called “Exterminators” worship a floating head named Zardoz, who gives them guns so they can hunt and kill those who breed. One day Zed enters Zardoz and is taken to a society of immortals who are bored and want to die. In the end, Zed brings about death. Sean Connery wears a red speedo throughout the movie, and has a 70s Burt Reynolds mustache. The film was directed by John Boorman, his first film after Deliverance, a movie which was a success. Connery was fresh off the James Bond films, and still trying to get work. Obviously Zardoz didn’t hurt his career. It may not have helped it either. Taking in this movie full of comatose youths, pyramids constructed from mirrors, a giant stone head, Connery’s speedos, images projected on nude bodies, a man with a Sharpie-drawn goatee, green bread, and bare-breasted women on horseback one is left to question just what everyone involved was thinking. However, I think there is a sincerity that permeates the film. Sean Connery plays the part straight, as if he were dressed in an Armani suit or, at the very least, something more conventional. None of the actors give any indication that they think poorly of the material, nor do they seem to resent the parts. In some episodes of Doctor Who, when a professional theatre actor appears on the show, it becomes apparent that they don’t quite understand the part or the story, even if they give it their best shot. This doesn’t happen in Zardoz. If anyone didn’t get the story, it certainly doesn’t appear on screen.
The film, while not a cinematic masterpiece, is effectively shot. With a budget of a measly one million dollars, Boorman chose to shoot in the Irish countryside, practically in his back yard. Even the lake where The Vortex is located is at the home of one of Boorman‘s friends. Much was done to save money, and I personally don’t think Zardoz looks cheap. It doesn’t look slick or polished, but it could look much worse. In fact, I rather think for the concepts in this film, it was very effectively, if not magnificently shot. The main problem is that what we see is, much of the time, rather unusual. As I said above, when you actually have to explain it, or when you distill what you are seeing into words, it starts to fall apart.
So what about those words? What is the story in detail rather than summarized? Bear with me here because even outlined it gets a bit convoluted. At some point in the future, the Earth began dying, her resources becoming extremely limited. A group of scientists create arks, called Vortices, where a selected group could cultivate and protect the remnants of human culture. The scientists had enough foresight to know that one day the Earth would be completely unsuitable for all life, and thus they unlocked the key to immortality, where upon they and their offspring could continue caretaking, but also develop a way for the Vortices to leave the Earth. It is hinted at one point in the film that this actually happened, but there was no place for the survivors to settle. The Vortices and immortality itself are controlled by a device called The Tabernacle. The location and operational nature of Tabernacle was then erased from the minds of The Immortals to dissuade anyone from undoing what had been done. The Immortals were then sealed off from the rest of the world, with all other humanity ignored outside. Over the centuries The Immortals developed telepathic links with one another through both biology and technology. They also eliminated the need for sleep. Boorman also speculated that an immortal society, one that was attempting to control its own resources, would have no need for children, thus all concepts of sexuality die out in all but an intellectual sense. As Consuela says at one point while lecturing on the concept of erection, “we know the mechanism involved, but we don’t know [how it happens]”. A concept of sexual stimulation no longer exists. As the centuries pass, many Immortals grow bored with their existence. Those who refuse to cope any longer become Apathetics and enter a trance state. Those who turn to psychic or other crimes that buck the system become forcibly aged according to the severity of the crime. Imagine being immortally trapped in a senile body. These people are called Renegades and spend their eternity in what appears to be a community center poorly decorated as a dancehall. Finally, one Immortal is given charge of monitoring the population outside The Vortex. His name is Arthur Frayn, but he travels in a floating head called “Zardoz”. Arthur has a flair for the theatrical, and sets Zardoz up as a god. His activities are largely unchecked, so when he and another Immortal named Friend come up with a plan to undo The Immortal Society, no one is there to stop them.
Zardoz travels the outside world and chooses men and women to be Exterminators. He gives them guns and tells them who to kill, which is largely anyone who breeds. Only the Exterminators are allowed to breed. What no one realizes is that Arthur via Zardoz is conducting genetic manipulation. He is selecting people who will produce certain offspring. Once the right generation has been born, an Exterminator will be chosen to enter a Vortex and that Exterminator will have abilities that allows him to resist Immortal powers and find The Tabernacle. That Exterminator is Zed, played by Sean Connery. Arthur began Zed’s journey by catching his attention and leading him into a library, leaving him a book that taught Zed to read. Eventually, Zed begins to doubt Zardoz when he reads The Wizard of Oz, a book about a man who hides behind a façade and commands the lesser people. Zed and The Exterminators formulate a plan by which Zed will infiltrate a Vortex and try to discover the truth and maybe get some revenge as well.
I feel that most Hollywood films, especially in that much-maligned genre of science fiction, are formulaic and unimaginative. In recent years we have had very few science fiction movies that did less than offer CGI explosions and space battles. For me, good science fiction shines light on life and the human condition, even if there are no humans in it. I could care less for special effects. I am a fan of old Doctor Who, after all. Science fiction seems to have had difficulty recovering from Star Wars. Don’t misunderstand me, I love the original trilogy, but Star Wars really changed the way science fiction films were made. Logan’s Run, Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odysseywere all pre-Star Wars. While the pace of these films wouldn’t be considered rapid by today’s standards, these films provided their own forms of action and suspense and, most important, world-building. A science fiction film probably has to succeed in the third most of all. World-building helps immerse us into the rules of the film so we can understand the concepts it presents to us so we can care about what happens, no matter how “other” it might be. Before Star Wars much of this had to be done in script as well as through sets and effects. After Star Wars, science fiction becomes more focused on action, and the world-building is left to the visual effects. Thus, the world-building engages our eyes, but not our minds.
The concepts and world-building involved really attract me to Zardoz. Boorman put a lot of thought into Immortal Society, and some of this comes through in the movie, some through the commentary. As mentioned earlier, there is a sincerity on all sides of the camera. Of course, sincerity doesn’t make a movie good art. If it did, Ed Wood really would be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Where Ed Wood fails and Zardoz succeeds is a level of technical competency and consistency. Sure, some of the costumes in Zardoz range from unusual to ridiculous, but they are of a consistent vision. On a technical level, Zardoz is a showcase of what one can do with visual effects with nothing more than cameras. There are no computer enhanced shots in the entire film. Everything was achieved on set. From a technical standpoint, this film is impressive. Sadly, in our current age of film, such technical achievements are not as easily appreciated because a computer could accomplish similar effects, yet do them “better“. In many ways, Boorman praises his film for this achievement, and I agree with him that one day it would be possible to put “This film was made without computer effects” on a poster and it would be a remarkable thing.
Effects aside, how is the story itself handled? This is a mixed bag. While I feel that the information on the society is given out at a fair pace, some scenes are less clear than others. First, Boorman is correct in his criticism of the scene where The Immortals connect psychically. The problem is that he wasn’t entirely sure how to convey this on screen. Thus we get hand motions or people mouthing what they are thinking. In hindsight, this doesn’t work so well. Second, some shots go on too long. In particular, the sequence in The Tabernacle, which exhibits one of the failings of pre-Star Wars science fiction in that it is extremely trippy and not very clear from a narrative standpoint. Another problem, or a positive depending on your view, is the nudity. This is another trope that pre-Star Wars science fiction indulged in. Granted, a society with no concept of sexuality would not think much of nudity, nor would it be erotic. However, our society does consider nudity erotic, and Hollywood has often exploited this in order to attract more viewers. How much of the nudity was necessary for the effect of the world-building, and how much was there to keep bored adolescents (or adults) entertained?
Sadly, the bottom line is that this movie doesn’t work. It is a shame, really, as there was a genuine attempt, and not a half-hearted one. My wife told me about a story she heard that covered The Museum of Bad Art. In this instance, bad art is defined as art that doesn’t quite work. Either a specific rule was ignored to the detriment of the piece, or the artist just doesn’t quite have the experience to convey the idea, but in this case bad art isn’t trash. It is still art, just not good art. Michael Frank, curator of the museum says, “We collect things made in earnest, where people attempted to make art and something went wrong, either in the execution or in the original premise.” Based on this criteria, I would throw Zardoz into the pile of bad art. It doesn’t work, but that doesn’t mean it is worthless. It was too ambitious for the budget without a doubt. In some places the narrative structure doesn’t quite work, and the directing occasionally fails to stand up to what it is trying to achieve. But the world is striking and in many ways it sticks with you. Zardoz should be hailed, not as a great film, not even as a good film, but as a work that truly tries to be original, and in many ways meets that goal.
The quote from Michael Frank can be found here:
English, Bella. “Doing a Good Deed with Bad Art“. The Boston Globe, February 8, 2009