People love to rag on Zardoz. It has been described to me as the worst Sean Connery movie ever made, and close to one of the worst movies in general. Not only that, but it is a constant source of internet amusement. Even if you haven’t heard about this movie, you probably seen pictures from it. You see, Zardoz is currently remembered mostly due to it’s horrible, horrible costume design. If you have ever participated in some online community, or lurked in an online forum, you must have seen this image at some point:
Who in the hell would think that putting Sean Connery in a crazy get-up like this was a good idea? John Booman, that’s who. Booman previously made a landmark film called Deliverance. It was a picture that collected nothing but accolades from the critics. Pulling off such a feat is not easy, and so most movie makers who do it get a free pass on their next project. Studios are going to green light just about anything you pitch them, no matter how crazy or outlandish it may sound. No one wants to shoot down a goose which just started laying golden eggs.
Booman spent his free pass making Zardoz, which is probably best described by this one picture review by Tim Hamilton:
Actually, once you look past the silly wardrobe it is not that horrible. I wouldn’t say it is a great movie, but it is… Somewhat interesting. It does touch on some intriguing ideas and the reason why it caught my attention should become obvious once I give you a short plot description:
It is year 2293 AD, and human civilization has fallen. Scattered packets of illiterate, impoverished human survive in the ruins of old cities and in the countryside. They are ruled over by a warrior case known as the Exterminators, who are supplied with gunpowder weapons by their living god Zardoz. This deity manifests itself to them as a gigantic flying stone head – it hands down the laws, pukes up weapons, and gobbles up grain and other kinds of food.
Zed (Sean Connery), one of the Exterminators decides to find out what makes this God-head tick. He sneaks inside the head, and allows it to take it to it’s destination: the Vortex – a futuristic hippie commune inhabited by post-human immortals. It turns out that the head is simple population control tool and delivery system. The immortals who live inside a protective, indestructible force field bubble need a stead input of grain and other food stuffs to maintain their high standard of living and so they harness the work of poor, downtrodden and illiterate outsiders. Their immortality is both a gift and a curse to them. They are constantly rejuvenated, and resurrected by an overprotective AI (the Tabernacle) that watches over the compound. And AI which is not much unlike the Prime Intellect in that it cannot, and will not let anyone die. Ever. Foolishly, the Eternals (as they call themselves) erased their memories of how to disable or even control this machine. Now they are trapped, forced to live forever.
Zed is a novelty, an a person of great interest to these immortals. For one, he is the first outsider who has ever breached the protective bubble in many centuries. Two, he is a trained killer – an instrument of death and destruction. They created him to keep the outsider population at a manageable level and to harness their work. But now, inside the Vortex he is at the very least an interesting distraction, and perhaps even a hope for some sort of deliverance.
Can you see why I picked it up? Immortality, overprotective AI, post apocalyptic Earth. Right up my alley! If it only wasn’t for all that body hair, hooker boots and crazy costumes…
Sill, I have to admit that Booman does have some intriguing ideas. For example, he comes up with an interesting way immortals could punish infractions, and violations of their internal laws. If you think about it, conventional methods simply won’t work. Imprisonment is a bit meaningless when you live forever, death penalty is not applicable, and torture is just barbaric… So how do you punish frequent offenders? You age them. The Tabernacle cannot let any of the Eternals die, but it is quite flexible on what are acceptable physical parameters under which they live. So if you commit a crime, they will crank up your apparent age a bit. Small infractions will only cost you a few years, but these small adjustments will quickly add up making you look older, less desirable as a mate, and most importantly visibly marking you as a pariah. Mess up enough times, and you will be spending the rest of the eternity in a body of an octogenarian. Quite an insidious idea actually. And it is definitely something that a decadent society of spoiled immortals would come up with.
Of course you already know my stance on this. If not, read my review of Metamorphosis of the Prime Intellect. Essentially, my position is that forced immortality is foolish and useless. It is in human nature to desire that which we cannot have. Thus it is only a matter of time before an immortal who is not allowed to die, will get completely obsessed by the very idea of death. Paradoxically, the only way to keep immortals living, is to allow them to die.
Sean Connery’s Zed is also an intriguing character. Initially, a simple barbarian – strong, curious, smart, driven and irreverent. He is a true Nietzhean übermensh who kills indiscriminately, and without a second thought. But that changes after he takes in the combined knowledge of the Eternals. The assimilated, wisdom and culture alters his mind and his perception. Without his barbaric innocence and fierce ignorance he loses his ability to kill. Quite an interesting touch, especially considering that Booman paints the Eternals in mostly negative light as spoiled, depraved and decadent culture. And yet, their wisdom imparts compassion and conscience onto a ruthless killer.
[SPOILER]Eventually it is revealed that he essentially a Kwisatz Haderach for the Eternals – a end result of centuries long breeding project, to create a mortal capable of resisting the psionic mind powers of the Eternals and subconsciously attuned to the Tabernacle. He was bred, manipulated and awakened to knowledge specifically to bring about the end of the Vortex.
Booman’s ideas might be a little bit ahead of his time. Zardoz is a movie that tackles issues surrounding singularity, transhumanism and tries to paint a socio-psychological picture of a post-human society. It lacks the modern vocabulary, but it is still an interesting watch. It features Herbertian influences, interesting philosophical quandaries and a solid dose of speculative science fiction.
That said, the movie is hokey and cheesy at times. Perhaps Booman was trying to achieve a out-there surrealistic style akin to something that Terry Giliam nailed in Brazil few years later. If so, he missed the mark by a bit, and the visuals are definitely campy. The special effects from mid 70’s look very dated and silly, but they are not nearly as hilarious as the costumes. They are absolutely ridiculous and over the top, even for the 70’s. Some goes for many of the dialogs. Granted, some conversations may be simply old-fashioned and old-timey rather than inherently silly. Booman’s Vortex is essentially a hippie commune – something that audiences back then might have found out-there and progressive. Modern viewers can’t help but see it as a silly anachronism. On the other hand, the antics of the renegade Eternals are just plain old silliness and comic relief – no question about it.
A lot of the flaws above may stem from the fact that Booman had a complete creative control over this pictures. And as it usually happens in such cases, he went all George Lucas over his creation. His vision is grand in it’s scope, and very colorful but the execution is flawed – it lacks polish. The plot is muddled, it drags, loses and re-discovers it’s direction multiple times. Booman loses himself in absolutely pointless, highly stylized, artsy sequences that would usually end up at the cutting room floor, but here they drag on for eternity.
For example, there is a scene where the Eternals try to transfer all the human knowledge to Zed via “touch learning”. Basically a massive data dump transferred via skin contact. I got what they were doing in the first 30 seconds – that’s all the time that was needed to convey the message to the viewer. But the data transfer imagery continues for like solid 5 minutes during which you see nothing but various manuscripts, mathematical formulas and geometric shapes projected directly onto Sean Connery’s face using various psychedelic color filters. It is one of many, many such sequences – they are everywhere. Every single time the characters want to watch something, Booman makes it into a looping, psychedelic sequence with background music. It’s basically dead air, and I ended up fast-forwarding through most of these. The impart no useful knowledge, they don’t move the plot forward, and they don’t engage the viewer. They are just pointless, idle visual bullshit.
Curiously enough, you will almost never see anything like this in a modern movie. Even radical indie films try to stay away from such dragging, dead-air sequences these days. You can only find this kind of stuff older movies, but I Zardoz seems to be aiming for some sort of a record. Again, this is the sort of thing that happens when you give one guy complete creative control over a project like this. They overindulge in things like this. I’m suspecting that these lengthy sequences of “nothing” were actually supposed to be special-effect showcase. But alas, special effects don’t age well.
This is actually something to remember – the breath taking special effects of today, will look like absolute shit one day. 40 years from now, someone is going to pick up of the Michael Bay blockbusters such as Transformers and will try to watch it on their ultra-high definition hardware. And it will be 15 minutes of Meghan Fox wiggling her ass in the air, 10 minutes of Shia Labeouf going “No, no no no!” and two hours of absolutely unimpressive, laughably over the top action sequences that will make the future viewers yawn.
But I digress… Zardoz is not a terrible movie once you look past the ridiculous get-ups, the hippie vibe and Boomans indulgences and occasional bizarre attempts at comic relief. Just keep in mind that it was made in 70’s, and everyone involved was probably taking a lot of drugs during the production. Yes, they made some pretty bad aesthetic choices and a the plot is muddled but the subject matter is interesting. I say it is worth watching once. If nothing else, you will probably chuckle at, or be disturbed by Sean Connery’s classy hooker boots and a loincloth diaper.