I adore this film. It's one of the most self-important, pretentious science-fiction movies surely in existence, yet there's just something about it that endears it to my heart. I don't even like Sean Connery that much, yet I can happily watch him in this. Director John Boorman has created some amazing and unique visions with the Exorcist 2:The Heretic, Deliverance and Excalibur. Many people find his works overblown, but at least it's seemingly his own vision up there on the screen. Zardoz has that great seventies look to it as well, the photography having a wonderfully glazed, washed-out sheen, and you can easily sense the hippy-ish counter-culture influence throughout. Even if at times this influence is embarrassing, I just don't care, I love it all! Let's look at the extremely convoluted plot, and see if we can make some sense of it.
It's the future, the year 2293. A giant, angry-looking stone head flies over a barren wasteland. Below, ragged humans known as "The Brutals" bow to what seems to be their God, calling it "Zardoz". The Exterminators, the superior breed of Brutals, pick up the guns that fly out of the head's mouth. The giant head speaks to the Brutals. "The gun is good. The penis is evil." Hmm, it's hard not to get a snigger out of this, and the general way the extras act out their enthusiasm at receiving their guns. Later, we see that an Exterminator called Zed (Connery) has sneaked into the mouth of Zardoz and is now flying with it. Naked people hang all around in plastic, the reason for which we never find out. He sees a strange, mystical-looking man, Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy) in a robe walk past. Startled, Zed shoots him and Frayn falls out of the head to his death. The Zardoz head soars above the invisible shield that separates the Outlands, where the Brutals live, to the Vortex, which Zardoz always told them was Heaven. Zed discovers that it's not Heaven at all, but a simple-looking rural village inhabited by odd people called "Eternals". Three hundred years earlier, a scientist had created "The Tabernacle", a supercomputer, and as a result of its incredible powers, these people would live for eternity within the confines of this protective shield. When they die, the Tabernacle just recreates them. The rest of the survivors of the world lived in misery and wretchedness, outside the Vortex.
Each Eternal wears a crystal in their forehead, and wears a crystal ring. The crystals give them the power of common thought and contact with the Tabernacle, which supplies them with all their knowledge of the world. However, their hearts had been hardened to the suffering of those now dubbed "The Brutals" outside their closed environment. Zed is taken prisoner by the Eternals. May (Sara Kestelman), who found him first, wants him to breed with the women of the Vortex and provide some new blood, as the men of the Vortex are impotent. Consuella (a gorgeous Charlotte Rampling) wants Zed, calling him "the Monster", killed. She's obviously attracted to him, and he to her. They look into Zed's past, seeing acts of rape, murder and brutality toward the Brutals, all commanded by Zardoz. They also see that he became a slave-master, forcing Brutals to sow wheat for Zardoz. When some Eternals become depressed with their sterile lifestyle they becom motionless apathetics, others are aged into becoming renegades by violating the complex social rules of their society. The Eternals need help feeding these groups, thus needing a slave underclass to serve them via the Exterminators. They left Arthur Frayn to enforce this through the fear of Zardoz.
Zed learns from Friend (John Alderton), a rebellious Eternal, that the Apathetics and Renegades crave death rather then live for a hellish eternity. Friend is turned into an aged Renegade in a ridiculous second-level meditation scene that must surely have had the cast in stitches filming it. This is certainly one of the most pretentious moments in the film, but I kind of like the naivity of the film-makers in putting it in! Zed confesses to May that he decided to come to the Vortex to seek the truth, after he learned that Zardoz was a fake. In a Library he was led by Arthur Frayn to discover the Wizard of Oz, about a man just like Frayn who scared people by hiding behind a mask. May believes he's in the Vortex for revenge. Consuella discovers Zed and May having sex, and psychically blinds him. Straight after though, another Eternal, Avalow, cures him. I'm not sure what the point to this scene was! Consuella and other eternals hunt for Zed, smashing up the place as they do it, before he can learn the secret of the Tabernacle. To hide him, Friend and other Renegades disguise him as a bride. Going back to May, she and the others teach him everything they know through some sort of osmosis. They seem to have an orgy. Yes, folks, there's quite a bit of nudity in this film, another pleasant bi-product of it's seventies era of creation. Consuella finds Zed but suddenly falls in love with him as, "in hunting you I have become you." Indeed.
After studying it, the newly-enlightened Zed enters the Tabernacle after finding a flaw in the crystal. He destroys it in a bizarre mirror scene taken straight from the climax of Enter the Dragon! Time goes backwards slightly. The invisible shield dissapears, allowing the vengeful Exterminators to come in as Zed had planned earlier with them, and they kill everyone they see. Some blood flows quite freely in these scenes, as dozens of Eternals are shot and slashed to death. Most Eternals are grateful though, even though they were now capable of death anyway, which confuses me. Why didn't they just go on and live a normal life? Zed says farewell to May and the others he had impregnated, and they ride off to begin a new life somewhere else. Zed and Consuella take up residence in a cave, Zed hanging up his guns forever. They have a son, grow old and die.
Phew! Notice how much plot I had to get through? I even needed outside help with this, poring through film books to make sense of it all! No matter though, you take from Zardoz what you wish. Boorman has inserted so many ideas and philosophies into this film that you need multiple viewings to process them all. It's obvious though, that the main one is the usual "don't mess with nature" concept. People are meant to die, and the anticipation of that death drives some of us to do great (and not so great) things. With no death, utter apathy sets in. The acting in this film, including Connery, is quite wooden, verging on high-school in some scenes, as if even these switched-on people had trouble grasping what was going on. There is no-one particularly to relate to in the story, everyone, including Zed, is somewhat of a mystery. Still, If you take Zardoz as an ideas film rather than an acting tour-de-force, you'll no doubt get a lot more out of it. Me, I just like seventies science-fiction for all it's earnestness and naivity, and this is a prime example. I admit I laugh a bt in some scenes, but overall just appreciate the imagination, creativity and single-mindedness behind the director's efforts.
As I often seem to be writing in these pages ... you just don't see movies like this anymore.
© Boris Lugosi 2005.
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Review written: 05/25/2005 12:04:16