After 1968's 2001, A Space Odyssey, science fiction took a big downturn. Yes, there was a heightened awareness of the genre, but the profundity and technical near-perfection of Kubrick's movie gave most producers the general impression that Sci-Fi was out of their reach. In the confusion of the Easy Rider days, Universal delayed releasing its very good Colossus: The Forbin Project for two years, unsure whether anyone would want to see it. Six years later, Science Fiction was still in a funk, with serious films like The Andromeda Strain, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Silent Running (all Universal) not doing too much business. MGM stumbled with Soylent Green, but the jokey, mock-serious attitude of their Westworld pointed to a future that steered away from sobriety in Science Fiction movies.
Then in 1974 the very sober, heavy duty, sometimes ponderous John Boorman came out with his Zardoz. I believe I remember teaser posters around Westwood, white lettering on black: "I have seen the future. And it doesn't work." Boorman and Sean Connery, what a promising team. Boorman's existential gangster movie Point Blank had been a successful blending of familiar elements with Alain Resnais-ish time-shifting editorial effects, and Hell in the Pacific reduced the 'war' movie to landscapes, men caked in mud, and long, long camera takes. Leo the Last was awful, but Deliverance was Boorman's best movie yet. Now he was going to do Science Fiction: What could we expect?
A dystopian future (or past, this is one of those kinds of films) finds a ruling elite using heightened powers only to sustain an unnatural and unhappy social balance in a sanctuary called The Vortex. These Eternals have perfected the ability to live forever, but are losing basic aspects of their humanity, like sexuality and ambition. They've already consigned the last non-immortal generation to a perpetual senility, and many of their number have become Apathetics, who simply stand about refusing to engage in any life activities whatsoever. One Eternal, Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy) has taken charge of the savages that live outside the Vortex: The Brutals, and the Exterminators. Flying about in a giant stone head, Frayn has created a false God named Zardoz who gives the Exterminators guns and ammunition and teaches them that killing is good and procreation evil. One Exterminator, Zed (Sean Connery) kills Arthur (only temporarily, he's an Eternal, you see), penetrates the Vortex and upsets the society within. May (Sara Kestelman) wants to study him, while Consuela (Charlotte Rampling) thinks he's dangerous and must be destroyed. Zed motivates the Apathetics into activism, and eventually goads the Eternals into seeking Death, which he and his Vortex-invading Exterminators are only too ready to dish out, wholesale.
The schematic and more than slightly simplistic setup in Zardoz would sink a film that wasn't so aggressive; this is the kind of confusing and immature story we expect from a movie like The Time Travellers. The world of the Vortex is conceived practically on the same level as Pepperland, with Blue Meanies and Snapping Turtle Turks. Luckily Boorman takes it seriously and is supported by good photography and excellent acting, so this ridiculous film does not completely collapse in on itself. It has the saving grace of Sean Connery, whose believability factor is so high, anything he's in will play for at least an hour. Zardoz does fall completely apart (Savant gave up trying to comprehend anything about the ending except the basic facts), but the vigor of Boorman's direction almost compensates for the pompous pretension along the way.
Sean, rigged out in a crimson loincloth and bandoliers, with a ponytail wig and swashbuckling boots, achieves the amazing feat of not being laughed off the screen. He's focused and committed to the wafer-thin artsiness of the story. On the other hand, Charlotte Rampling is more animated than usual, giving a physical presence instead of her usual lean, beautiful, vacant perf. The other Irish and English pro actors, mostly walking through underwhelming sets in foolish-looking costumes, also hold up their end of the bargain. By the climax, with dozens of actors milling about and waving their arms in what looks like a bad hippie pageant, everybody manages to keep straight faces, if not their self respect.
Visually, Zardoz is an uneven mix. Geoffrey Unsworth's hazy photography makes the most of the patchwork set design, and his in-camera tricks are sometimes very effective. But the film looks far too cheap for its subject matter; when we're supposed to be pondering one hi-falutin' sci fi concept after another, seeing Connery pretend to fall between mirrors into a new dimension, or watching endless minutes of people with movies projected on them, just doesn't work. Although some of these sequences are interesting, the impression is of special effects that just don't make the grade. From the very beginning, the giant floating head looks no more impressive than a pencil's eraser, superimposed over the sky or a pretty lake.
It's also difficult to get a grip on whatever deeper meanings Boorman may have intended because of the movie's (inadvertent?) exploitative attitude. The immortals' graphic investigation of Zed's ability to spontaneously erect himself is very delicately handled, but not so the female members of the cast who are required to wear titilating costumes and get topless in almost every scene. It's hard to concentrate on the abstract plight of the Apathetics when the visual surface of the movie is providing a constant sex show. If there's some wonderful science fiction philosophy to be found in Zardoz, it gets lost in a fast-moving, confusing wash of unimpressive incident, pseudo-abstract dialogue, and distracting nudity.
But there's plenty of good things to say about Fox Home Entertainment's DVD of Zardoz. The transfer is excellent, far nicer-looking than the grainy original theatrical prints. After its belated start in DVD, Fox's string of Sci Fi can hold its own with any studio, and shows a willingness not shared by MGM, Paramount, or even Warners, to give genre films quality presentations. Their double bills of the Fly movies and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea / Fantastic Voyage last year were simply excellent. Zardoz is 16:9 enhanced and comes with a trailer, but even better is the full-length commentary by director Boorman. His honest and self-critical thoughts on the film are fascinating: here finally is a filmmaker secure enough to offer the admission that his Zardoz is a somewhat dated and silly affair. Boorman's voice has an integrity about it that makes the cardboard movie come to life again, as you correlate his reminiscences with what he created. This was 1973, after all, the era of cinematic embarassments from all across the movieland spectrum, and compared to many, Zardoz is a fairly respectable example of directorial overreaching. He talks about working with Connery and has several insights into his acting style and attitude toward movies. He's very proud of the 'No CGI, no opticals' visuals of Zardoz and even envisions the appearance someday of the same proud opening card that Savant anticipates: "This movie was shot with a camera and what you see really took place without computer generated effects." His opinion on the debasement of movie 'reality' by CGI put a knot in Savant's throat. All of a sudden Zardoz looks better, after hearing Boorman's sage opinions. If you're tired of hearing filmmakers tell hero stories and brag, the Zardoz commentary will play like reality earwash.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Zardoz rates:
Supplements: Trailer, Excellent Boorman commentary, radio spots, still gallery
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: March 28, 2001