Mon
Apr 11 2011 5:29pm
Stay Inside My Aura: Why Zardoz is the Arty Dystopian Film You Can’t Believe Exists

Zardoz is the manFor many, the mere mention of John Boorman’s 1974 film Zardoz, immediately calls to mind an image of a mustachioed Sean Connery clad only in thigh-high leather boots, bandoliers, and a pair of trunks that resemble diapers. Since Boorman’s previous movie was the highly acclaimed horror/thriller Deliverance, this visage of Connery might make you think Boorman continued to frighten audiences; but now chose to have the horror conveyed exclusively via costume design. Not that Connery’s body is the only flesh on display in Zardoz. In fact, just writing about all the gratuitous female topless scenes in this movie makes me think my sentences are NSFW.

And yet, despite being unintentionally funny, visually preposterous, borderline offensive, and a host of other cinematic crimes, Zardoz is not kitsch or cheesy. Instead, it’s a very earnest, very arty science fiction movie, which on paper might have actually been okay. Except, of course, that it wasn’t. It’s not that Zardoz is simply a bad movie. It’s just hard to believe that it even exists.

Zardoz stone headThough one has to sit through the entirety of the film to grasp this, Zardoz tells the story of Zed (Connery), a seemingly barbaric man who clashes with a group of humanoids called Eternals and ultimately changes their society forever. Zed begins the movie as an Exterminator working for an entity called Zardoz, a giant floating stone head aircraft thing which hovers down into a part of the world know as the Outlands and gives the Exterminators guns and tells them to go out and kill. You know what kind of movie you’re getting into right away when you’ve got flying stone heads saying things like “The gun is good. The penis is evil.” Actually wait. You have no idea what kind of movie you’re getting into with lines like this, because there is no example of a movie like Zardoz before or since. It’s like in its own phylum of movie type or something. Like a platypus.

Unlike a corny sci-fi film like Logan’s Run, Zardoz is not awkward or strange on accident; it is intentionally provocative and absurd. In fact, the character “Zardoz” tells the viewer at the very start that what they are watching is an abstraction of actual events and as such tone will be satirical at times. Should this give the movie a pass to be as off the-wall-batshit crazy as it wants to be? In theory, yes, but in practice it doesn’t work. And this isn’t just the fault of the diaper and the bandoliers. But, believe it or not, there’s a story here people. And it’s not half bad. What I mean is that if one were to read the novelization of Zardoz (which apparently author Gary Shteyngart has!) the plot might sound like a sort of cool SF premise. Ready? Here it is.

Smooshy forcefieldBasically, at some point in the future the entire world goes to hell and the rich and privileged of society seal themselves inside idealized habitats known as Vortices. Outside of each Vortex are the Outlands where all the crazy shit with the Exterminators and floating heads goes on. Meanwhile, inside a Vortex everything is supposedly great. These people now live forever and even if they wanted to, they can’t die, because they’ve erased the knowledge of how the immortality technology works. All the men in Vortex completely lack sex drives, because reproduction has totally become a thing of the past. This society of Eternals (as they’re called), also has all kinds of other screwed-up problems. For one, they have a group of people called the Apathetics who stand around literally not doing anything because they are apathetic about their immortality. (Kind of like the characters in the doldrums from The Phantom Tollbooth.) Further, there are a bunch of elderly-looking people called Renegades who simply can’t fit in with the happy-go-lucky culture of the Eternals, and as such are quarantined to a creepy old folk’s home where they are all dressed up like they are in a David Lynch movie. Into this crazy town comes Zed, who despite his outfit actually does seem more like the kind of human being the average viewer would be familiar with. Zed is horny and confused. He quickly becomes a big hit with the Eternals.

Pretty soon however, it becomes apparent that Zed is smarter than he lets on and has purposefully infiltrated the Vortex for revenge. Though it’s not explained well, Zed is a kind of super-smart super mutant who randomly taught himself to read. Everything was going pretty great for him until Zed read Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and realized that the whole stone head Zardoz thing was just like the man behind the curtain. (Zardoz is a sort-of portmanteau of  The Wizard of Oz.) This pisses off Zed and his buddies, so he plots to destroy the Eternals and the harmony of the Vortex. Whoa! You still with me?

Zardoz equals hugsThe neat thing about Zed being a barbarian who ends up educating himself and then seeks revenge is that it feels very much like the arc of Gully Foyle from Alfred Bester’s uber-famous SF novel The Stars My Destination. This, combined with a serviceable performance from Connery, lends a glimmer of credibility to the character, despite the absurd context in which he inhabits. Equally compelling is the performance from Charlotte Rampling as Consuella, who doesn’t seem as out of place in this movie as you might think. Her chemistry with Connery actually works from the first scene onward, and even though she leads the charge to kill him, I think the audience (assuming they sit through the movie) will buy it when she suddenly admits she really likes him. By the end of the movie, Zed is seen as a sort of savoir to the Eternals because he’s figured out how they can start dying again. This makes most of them really happy. He even manages to breathe some life into the comatose Apathetics.

All in all, Zed changes, drops his whole revenge thing and turns out to be a good person who doesn’t want to kill the inhabitants of the Vortex. Even though a really nice attractive woman is asking him to shoot her, he can’t do it. Tragically though, his Exterminator cronies arrive and start killing everyone anyway, much to the Enternals joy. The movie ends in a disturbingly terrible bloodbath with only Zed and Consuella escaping.

In my opinion, all of these themes speak of the best kind of science fiction. But somehow, the ideas are translated into a movie in which a character says “stay close to me, inside my Aura” after making a decision to go on a killing spree because he read The Wizard of Oz when he was having a bad day. Although the good stuff is there, ultimately Zardoz doesn’t work as a movie because most of what’s going on in every scene is too silly to stand. I can’t explain why almost every image from this film is funny (although the creepiness at which sex is handled is well…creepy), but regardless of the silliness, there is something sort of beautiful about the totality of the absurdity that is Zardoz.

High five ApatheticsMy favorite example of this occurs at some point when Zed is bidding several of his followers farewell. There’s a train of people passing by on horses and he literally gives them all high-fives. If you’re watching the movie, and you don’t want a high-five from Zed at that point, there’s a chance that the movie’s not working.

But I’m not going to lie. I want a high-five from Zed. Big time.

Trailer below if you dare:


Ryan Britt is a regular blogger for Tor.com. He thinks Zardoz is a better movie than Inception. He is probably wrong.

This article is part of Dystopia Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
34 comments
Bridget McGovern
1. BMcGovern
It has long been my goal to get as many insane images from Zardoz as possible up on Tor.com (seriously--that first one has been the background on my laptop for years :) Thank you for finally making all my creepy, Connery-infused dreams come true, Ryan! And long live Arthur Frayn...
Tricia Irish
2. Tektonica
ROFLOL. Truly terrible! Unbelievably camp.

And Sean, oh Sean.....how could you wear a red diaper? With bandileros? And a long braid? The trailer looked like an acid trip portrayal.

I'm stunned. I hope to see this someday, with a fast forward button.
williexwill
3. williexwill
YESSSSSSSS!

john mullen
4. johntheirishmongol
It's been on one of the pay channels the past couple of months and I rewatched it, hoping that it was better than I remembered. Unfortunately, it was even worse than I remembered, since I must have successfully forgotten some of the horridness. I disagree that there were any good performances in it. Connery sleepwalked thru it, and Rampling wasn't even that attractive by my standards even then. If I was the director or producer, I would have burned every copy before release. What were they thinking???
williexwill
5. Chris Heinz
It was recently $4.99 on iTunes. How could I resist?

p.s. May still be $4.99 on iTunes. Well worth it ;->
Joe Romano
6. Drunes
I barely remember seeing Zardoz when it first came out and hardly recall what I thought of it back then. I must have wiped all recollection of it from my mind, though. Which would explain why I never think about this movie unless someone else brings it up.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
9. tnh
There are scads of SF movies with dumber premises than Zardoz. What went wrong was that they didn't yet understand how important good art direction is when you're translating SF into a visual medium. Every detail matters. It doesn't take many wrong choices to make the whole thing look ridiculous.
Irene Gallo
10. Irene
TNH:
Funny, that's just what my brothers and my mom have just been saying on my FB page. Wish I could move the conversation here but the consensus in our family seems to be, it had a lot of great ideas but didn't quite know how to present it. (Of course, the fact that my mom brought three kids age 4, 8, and 10 to see the movie might say something else about our family. ;- )

Ryan:
Thanks for the great write up. I feel no shame in loving and hating this movie.
Ryan Britt
11. ryancbritt
TNH: I was scanning the credits at the begining for the costume designer's name and trying to picture what kinds of conversations that person was having with everyone involved with the movie. (I picture someone very charming and very crazy that fooled everyone into thinking these costumes were a good idea based on intense one-on-one conversations)

Irene: I re-watched it over the weekend and was shocked mostly by the wasted potential more than anything else. I too feel like I really love it and really want to turn it off at the same time. I'm telling you, there's no other film quite like it. All in all, why hate on Zardoz too much when it's given us so much to talk about?
Ryan Britt
12. ryancbritt
@johntheirishmongol: Have you re-watched the movie recently? I think Connery and Rampling did the best they could with the material given to them. I feel like they really owned it.

Also- fun scenerio to think about- if you Connery was in Logan's Run instead of Zardoz and Michael York was in Zardoz instead of Logan's Run, I think the quality of Logan's Run would have shot way up! Meanwhile a Zardoz featuring York as Zed would have probably been uwatchable. (I know many claim it's unwatchable as it is, but I'm just sayin'.) :-)
Paul Eisenberg
13. HelmHammerhand
I imagine a MST2K treatment of Zardoz would be rather awesome.
Marc Houle
14. MightyMarc
That has got to be one of the funniest trailers I've ever seen. How can I not go out and watch it immediately?
Christopher Turkel
15. Applekey
I am going to stream it via Netflix this weekend. yes, Netflix has it available for streaming.
Chris Hawks
16. SaltManZ
I am simultaneously both repulsed and horribly intrigued.
williexwill
17. a-j
I have a strange and disturbing soft spot for this film that I first saw in my local arts cinema. The story goes that the introduction in which it is claimed that the whole thing is a satire was added after test viewings. I cannot in all honesty recommend it to others least they become as I am.
Ryan Britt
18. ryancbritt
@a-j: Interesting tidbit about the introduction! There was something about that little sequence that struck me as out of place. If that is true, it totally makes sense. Did I just say something about Zardoz totally making sense? I did.
williexwill
19. H C Cryden
it feels very much like the arc of Gully Foyle from Alfred Bester’s uber-famous SF novel The Stars My Destination

It's probably helpful to know that Bester's novel is a straight-on retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, which has a couple years on it, and that Boorman's Zed is a wholesale lifting of the Savage from Brave New World
Fabio Fernandes
20. fabiofernandes
Ryan: thank you very much for this remembrance. I feel exactly like Irene: I first watched ZARDOZ as a child (1o or 11) and I liked it a lot but at the same time I found it incredibly weird and creepy. (I wonder if that's one of the influences behind my writing today.)

I love and loathe ZARDOZ at the same time. I watched it again a couple of years ago - and your article made me want to watch it again! I swear by the festering body of Arthur Frayn, I'll do it!! #Zardozmademedoit
Amber Poore
21. Razorgirl
HA! I too have a guilty pleasure kind of love for Zardoz. I must have seen a showing on T.V. as a kid, back when you could catch things like this only on Saturday nights, late. Because literally for years all I had stuck in my head in relation to this movie, was not the name, but the floating head, and Connery in that ludicrous outfit. :-) After re-discovering it finally in my teens and finally putting the name to the visuals, I watch it when I can despite that it amazes me with its weirdness every time! I watched it most recently on Netflix with my husband (also a sci-fi geek) who had never seen it. I loved watching his face as he too discovered, you probably have to be a little high to understand all of the wacky visuals and philosophy going on in Zardoz. Much love, and high fives, thanks for the write up!
williexwill
22. Bruce A.
It is a proud and lonely thing to be a Zardoz fan....
john mullen
23. johntheirishmongol
@12 Ryansbritt

Yes, I saw it on one of the pay channels about a month ago. My problem with it is that it isn't even campy fun, it's just bad.

I love some bad movies, because they don't take themselves too seriously, or are just weirdly over the top, but this tried to be a serious arty film and it just failed miserably. My guess is that Connery and Rampling didn't realize how bad it was and tried to play it straight.

My wife watched it with me and she had never seen it before and she thought it was as bad as me.
Jamie Watkins
25. Treesinger
I came across this movie a couple of months ago and forced myself to watch the whole thing. I mean, Sean Connery in a diaper, Really? Really! My reaction was exactly the same as yours. Now, I want those two hours of my life back.
williexwill
26. Duncan Long
I personally fell in love with this movie when it came out, in large part because it was the first science fiction movie to get rid of the new-and-slick look of the future, suggesting instead we'd likely be seeing a hi-tech mixed with the old and worn-out -- just like we have today (and today is the future the movie was looking toward -- look around your office and out the window).

Likewise, it was one of the first to suggest that future societies might be extremes of the haves (and overlords) and the have nots (check your TV -- you'll see it was right here, too). And right now the big story is the transhuman/life-for-ever movement... Not unlike the superhuman eternals in Zardoz.

Yes, the dialogue is a little strange; the effects cheap (it was pre-computer generated effects and low-budget to boot). But I think it set the stage for the grungy, worn look of future science fiction movies we have today, gave us a new stort of science fiction story that had unexplainable technology, a less than friendly future, and the grime and dirt and confusion. And in some ways, it predicted the future that eventually came to us.
williexwill
27. Fred Tucker
You know, I wanted to be a part of the hip crowd and mock the movie as it is a pre-internet cult classic. So I fired it up on Netflix expecting to be blown away with cheese, but the total oppostie happened. I thoroughly enjoyed it. When taken in it's full context and not just choice screenshots or video clips the movie is pretty damn original.

Surprisingly I am usually the first one to jump on the pretentiousness of so many artists, but I did not see any of that in this movie. Sorry, Mr. Reviewer, but the disembodied wizard with the drawn on beard and mustache floating around the screen is not asking for a "pass" on anything, and it should be obvious what you are in for. So yes it is a bizarre movie, but to me it resembled a Terry Gilliam movie but actually filmed in the daytime under a beautiful Irish sun.

Now there are some rough parts, as I felt the whole Tabernacle/House of Mirrors segment was a bit drawn out and some of the dialogue is ridiculous, but to me the main story is pretty visionary. Considering we live in a society today where self-loathing human culture seeks to use technology to abvolve us of all of lifes inconviences and aging is considered an assault on one's personal civil rights that must be corrected by science the main theme of the story is very compelling in my opinion.

So if your mind can't see past the fact that Mr. Connery is wearing a red loin cloth, then I don't think you are going to give the movie a chance. Wadda ya know...for once I can say "I get it".
Ryan Britt
28. ryancbritt
@27 Fred
I actaully really like this movie, I hope that came through in the piece! I actually don't think I ever mention the drawn on beard once in this article. I basically agree with you saying "..the main story is pretty visionary."

I think it's a deeply flawed movie, with great ideas. And I think if you re-read the piece, you'll find we agree more than we don't.
williexwill
29. Fred Tucker
Sorry Ryan, my comments were not directed at you so much as towards the prevailing mob opinion of the movie of which I totally expected to join in on. We do agree for the most part. I think I was expecting a movie so terrible that I am still in shock how much I liked it.
williexwill
30. Sean Juan
I happen to love this movie about as much as Sunset Boulevard, C.R.A.Z.Y, or The Prestige... when you really boil the subject you can't help but examine your own life and wonder.

I kind of think it as Sloth from the Goonies...
Horrifically ugly to look at, yet strong with a good heart.
(And our favorite Character)

Thanks for the Review! This film needs ardent defenders!
williexwill
32. proactiveu
My philosophy class watched this film. My students were horrified. I insisted that they relate the film to Hardin's lifeboat analogy and tragedy of the commons. I am sure they will make voodoo dolls to get even.
williexwill
33. zard...Oz...
I'm glad to see some tacit Zardoz love circulating on the internet. It lets me know (1) I'm not alone and completly crazy, and (2) that people recognize that there is a real story under the...ah..."execution"...of the film. If you can look past the 70s camp, I think Boorman was actually onto a unique idea.
williexwill
34. Jim Bush
I loved this film in 1974. A few years ago I watched it again and thought it was terribly dated and funny. Last night I watched it again and loved it! Therein lies the secret of this film: No matter how much you criticize it, you love it! Why? It is a mystery why, but something about it reaches deep inside us; something primal and true. It touches places beyond our reason; places related to love and lust, life and death, truth and fiction, mortality and immortality, you name it. It is also unique; there is nothing else like it. I now believe that I will love it until I, like Zed, turn to bones and then crumble into dust. Ah, sweet death :-)
williexwill
35. IJ Wilson
I don't think this movie is completely crazy either; I've read the book, and have always been interested in John Boorman, and I think he was drawing on much of the early seventies philosophy and new age ideas of the time, which involved crystals, Jungian archetypes, dreams and telekinesis. It's probably a hard film to show to a younger generation, as they haven't really grown up in the same era of ideas, and so a lot of it would seem bizarre!
williexwill
36. Juniorgman
I know this page is old internet and no one will probably ever read this but I think a lot of people miss the point of this, the writer sort of got it, and yeah it is pretty cheesy, but there is some serious dystopian shit going on here that is not quite as easy to grasp as skynet or an authoritarian regime but nonetheless is echoed in society in a similar way
williexwill
37. richard schumacher
Zardoz speaks to you.

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