Screenplay : John Boorman
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1974
Stars : Sean Connery (Zed), Charlotte Rampling (Consuella), Sara Kestelman (May), Sally Anne Newton (Avalow), John Alderton (Friend), Niall Buggy (Zardoz/Arthur Frayn), Bosco Hogan (George Saden), Jessica Swift (Apathetic)
John Boorman's Zardoz is a mythically inspired, goofy cinematic debacle so fundamentally misconceived and laughably executed that it takes on a bizarre enjoyment quality all its own. Following a long history of progressive science fiction, Zardoz is primarily a movie of ideas--inspired by everything from Jungian psychological theories to obscure Greek mythology--but Boorman is so enraptured with the symbolic and allegorical meanings of his images that he doesn't take the time to realize just how silly they are in their literal sense.
One of Boorman's major failures as a filmmaker has been his inability to competently transform the cerebral into the cinematic. You can see this at work in his supremely loony Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), although he was absolutely successful in portraying the eternal conflict between nature and civilization in his breakthrough film, 1972's Deliverance. Although it is intellectually invigorating to discuss the ideas behind many of his movies, it is often painful to watch them actually played out on the screen. Boorman is never lacking in imagination, ideas, or visual ingenuity, but sometimes that comes at the cost of coherence and taste. If Boorman is anything, he's ambitious, and when he succeeds, it's in grand fashion. Unfortunately, the bigger they are, the harder they fall, and when Boorman falls, the resounding impact can be heard for miles around.
Zardoz is meant to takes its place among the grandest of mystical movies, an obsession of Boorman's. His screenplay tries to elicit the same mythological connotations of the Arthurian legends or even The Wizard of Oz, a book that figures into the movie's plot. But, despite all this reaching, the resulting movie is more unintentionally funny than intentionally enigmatical or compelling.
The events take place in the distant year 2293, but there is little of the typical futuristic movie-ness to be found. In fact, things seem to have moved backwards, with people riding horses, shooting old-style guns, and living in large, Victorian mansions. It's more Middle Ages than Space Age.
The world of Zardoz is divided into two distinct hemispheres: the Outlands, where all the pathetic, uneducated people called Brutals live, and the Vortex, where a select group of wealthy intellectuals called Eternals live in comfort and everlasting life. These Eternals never grow old, they never engage in sexual activity, they possess psychological powers, and they live in a sort of quasi-utopian communitarian society where everyone is equal and contributes equally to the society. However, if one breaks the rules, he or she is punished by being aged a certain number of years. If someone breaks the rules enough, he or she is aged to the point of senility and imprisoned to an eternal existence in a geriatric home with other aged criminals.
One of the Eternals, Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy ), a squirmy man with a mustache and goatee tattooed on his face, is charged with keeping order in the Outlands and forcing the Brutals to farm so the Eternals can be fed. To do this, he adopts a god-like status among the people by flying in to their part of the world in a giant stone carved like a menacing head. (This flying head is one of the movie's opening images, and it's a dead giveaway of the lunacy to come.) Calling himself Zardoz, Frayn gathers a bunch of Outlanders and makes them into a group called the Exterminators, whose purpose is to kill most of the other Outlanders so they can't procreate and take up more resources. This scenario, of course, has wide-ranging allegorical implications for the social and financial inequality in modern society, as well the use of religion as a tool of maintaining hegemonic oppression, and to Boorman's credit, on an intellectual level at least, this allegory is engaging. But then, from inside his giant stone head, Zardoz bellows seriously laugh-inducing statements like, "The gun is good. The penis is evil," and the whole thing falls apart.
One day, an Exterminator named Zed (Sean Connery), sneaks into Zardoz's flying stone, pushes Frayn out, and goes back to the Vortex. Once there, the Eternals, fascinated by this rare encounter with a Brutal, study him like a lab rat, taking great, perverse care in exploring his sexuality, which is a mystery to them (they have evolved beyond the need for sex). They seem especially interested in his ability to gain an erection, and there is one downright hilarious sequence where a group of scantily clad female scientists show Zed erotic footage on a video screen in an attempt to determine what gets him worked up.
I say "hilarious" because that is exactly what most of Zardoz is. It is obvious that Boorman did not intend it to be so; although there is a disclaimer of sorts at the beginning of the film that it is meant, at least in part, to be satirical, it is obvious that Boorman made this film with the straightest of faces. It is difficult to believe that, as production moved forward, he didn't get even the slightest inkling of how patently ridiculous it was becoming. Just looking at Connery is enough to give one the giggles, as he spends most of the film running around in a red loin cloth that resembles a diaper, a mane of hair braided halfway down his back, a Wyatt Earp-style handlebar mustache, and a pair of thigh-high patent leather boots that would look more appropriate on a cheap Hollywood hooker. Even for the early 1970s, the costume design is absurdly over-the-top.
Boorman made Zardoz right after the critical and financial success of Deliverance,which is the only reason I can imagine a studio would green-light this effort, even for the meager budget it was allotted. He attracted some rich talent on both sides of the camera, including cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey), whose striking visuals are about the only good thing in Zardoz besides the inadvertent humor. Sean Connery had made his last James Bond film in 1971, and perhaps he was looking for a change in pace. He got exactly that in Zardoz, and it's a wonder it didn't end his career.
Like all allegorical science fiction, Boorman intended for this movie to make some grand statements about our current way of life. The only problem is those grand statements are hopelessly muddled. Is Zardoz a treatise about the infallibility of eternal life? Is it a condemnation of those who consider growing old to be a bad thing? Or is it a social statement, something about the inherent negativity of class distinctions and the violence it creates? Karl Marx might like it if he were more like Timothy Leary. Come to think of it, maybe Boorman made it as an extended LSD trip, which would explain his lapses into swirling psychedelic imagery near the end. After all, people high on illicit substances are the only ones I can imagine truly enjoying this overbaked silliness as anything more than a completely unintentional comedy.
|Audio|| Dolby 3.0 Surround|
Dolby 2.0 Surround
|Languages||English (3.0), French (2.0)|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by writer/producer/director John Boorman|
Original theatrical trailer
Six radio spots
|Distributor||20th Century Fox|
|Zardoz is presented in a new anamorphic transfer in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Those expecting a razor-sharp picture will be disappointed at first because the image is quite soft throughout, lacking the sharp contrast and detail of the best anamorphic transfers. However, as Boorman explains in his commentary track, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth shot the film using a large aperture and a smoky filter to purposefully achieve this soft-focus look. The filter also seems to have drained out some of the color, as the overall look of the film is not nearly as saturated as one might expect for a film that is visually dominated by primary colors such as red, green, and blue. Still, this new transfer is a solid piece of work, and it is a quantum leap above the previously available laser disc, which featured a transfer that was not only marred by dirt, but was also in two different aspect ratios (2.20:1 on the first side, and 1.75:1 on the second side).|
|The film's soundtrack is presented in Dolby 3.0 surround, which is essentially a Dolby 2.0 mix with an isolated center channel. The mix is good in terms of clarity and fidelity; David Munrow's eclectic musical score, part of which is based on Beethoven's 7th symphony, sounds quite good. Dialogue is easy to understand and the sound effects are reasonably spaced out, although the overall mix does tend to be somewhat front-heavy. This disc also includes a 2.0 surround mix in French, so those interested can test Pauline Kael's admonition that Zardoz could be taken for a masterpiece if we just didn't speak English.|
| Writer/producer/director John Boorman provides a screen-specific commentary track that, for many, will be one of the main reasons for purchasing this disc. The commentary is certainly interesting as Boorman explains what he was trying to accomplish in the film, but it is unfortunately spotty, meaning that Boorman tends to talk for two or three minutes at a time, separated by intervals of silence equally as long, if not longer. Much of the commentary is taken up with his simply trying to explain the plot, as he admits at the very beginning that most audiences didn't understand it, even after he tacked on a semi-explanatory prologue. He is quite frank at times, at one point noting that, when watching the film now, he is surprised at his "own hubris." My favorite moment, however, is when, after discussing how a particularly odd sequence was inspired by obscure Greek mythology, he muses, "Perhaps there are too many ideas in this picture." Yes, perhaps. |
The disc also contains a brief stills gallery of production photos, concept art, and one-sheet posters from the press book. The included original theatrical trailer is an entrancing piece of work that plays up the film's psychedelic aspects and, as one of my friends put it, goes a long way toward explaining why no one went to see this film during its initial theatrical release. Lastly, the disc contains six original radio spots.
©1998, 2001 James Kendrick