Mon
Feb 6 2012 4:00pm

Why Zardoz Isn’t the Kitsch Disaster You Think It Is

For 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 film 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 accidentally funny, visually preposterous, borderline offensive, and a host of other cinematic crimes, Zardoz is not intentionally kitsch or cheesy. Instead, it’s trying to be 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.

Though 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.

Basically, 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?

The neat thing about Zed being a barbarian who ends up educating himself and then seeks revenge is that it’s a classic arc in the vien of  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.

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.

My 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 want a high-five from Zed. Big time. And that’s because despite all the pot-shots I’ve just taken at it, the movie is comprehensible and in terms of story, fairly tight. Nearly all the bizzare imagery and nutty lines of dialogue are explained and justified within this fiction universe. Further, there’s a bit of communication with zeitgeist, which lends the film some artistic credibility. Between the references to Wizard of Oz and the use of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 as the film’s theme song, the movie theoretically has a profound,  operatic quality.

But the paradox here is that the final scenes of the film in which Zed and Consuella rapidly age, only to become to skeletons holding hands is both confusing and on-the-nose simultaneously. The theme of the movie is how great it is that we can all die, and yet, the movie is trying to be life-affirming with that theme. Death gives life puporse, blah blah blah. And even without the weird production value, and strange artistic choices, a story with this theme at its core, would always leave an audience with mixed feelings. Which is why Zardoz is so weird. It tried to tell a simple story in the most complex way possible, and then layered on the most baffling aesthetics of possibly any mainstream movie ever filmed.

But if you squint just a little bit, it might actually be brilliant. You don’t have to like something, or even be able to sit through it, to admit it may be good.

Trailer below:

This article first appeared in a slightly different form on Tor.com in April 2011.


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He knows from experience that you should NOT screen Zardoz at your birthday party.

31 comments
john mullen
1. johntheirishmongol
I saw it when it came out and hated it. Saw it again sometime last fall, and if anything, thought it was worse.
Dr. Thanatos
2. Dr. Thanatos
This film is guarranteed to lower your IQ by at least 30 points. Doesn't mean it can't be fun
R O T
3. rogerothornhill
Is it Zardoz Week yet at Tordot? I fully expect this eventuality.
Christopher Turkel
4. Applekey
I watched this movie after it was first mentioned on Tor.com. You can stream it via Netflix! Anyway, all I can say I have no idea whether it was good or not because it was just was. It's like it's own pocket dimension. There is nothing else like it in the universe.
David Thomson
5. ZetaStriker
Wasn't this article put up last year? So much of the wording sounds like deja vu, and I know an article like this on Tor.com is what finally made me watch Zardoz last year.
Ryan Britt
6. ryancbritt
@5 Yep, but it's a little different. But we copped to that right at the bottom. Hey! We love Zardoz.
Chris Hawks
7. SaltManZ
Zeta @5: Not quite a year. Still haven't watched this yet, but the itch to do so is getting stronger.
Dr. Thanatos
8. Hilary
I saw Zardoz and The Apple at the same Christmas party a few years ago. Both are examples of movies that tried really hard to say something, but only could have succeeded if they'd left about half the scenes on the cutting room floor. Instead, the movies are fractured nonsense that becomes hilarious in its absurdity. In my circle, we refer to Zardoz as the ludicrously overwrought ode to Sean Connery's penis, and to The Apple as dire predictions of American Idol. Personally, I consider both movies to be proof that creators can have great ideas, but be utterly unable to convey them clearly if they're just given free reign and no critique as part of their process.
Matthew Schmeer
9. mwschmeer
Before you watch Zardoz for the first time, go read the rulebook for the Encounter Critical role-playing game. Seriously.

The movie makes more sense after that. Really. It does.
Dr. Thanatos
10. Ozzard
I saw the movie when it came out and loved it. Thought it was mind-blowing. I was also about 15 years old, and probably high.
Dr. Thanatos
11. Tatzelwurm
Oh so this was the trippy movie I once saw in the middle of the night on the Sci-Fi channel. I thought it was a dream!
Dr. Thanatos
12. BR
I kind of dig this film. There are a few wonderful images and lines, but it's also so, so silly. "It tried to tell a simple story in the most complex way possible," is probably the best way to discuss it. Zardoz is an experience, plain and simple, good or bad. Great article.
Dr. Thanatos
13. critter42
I will be the first to admit that my taste in cinema runs to the strange. That said, I have loved this movie since I first saw it on USA's Night Flight. I think there's a "go for broke" quality about it that appeals to me
Dr. Thanatos
14. wingracer
This is the best quote I have ever heard about this movie:

"It’s not that Zardoz is simply a bad movie. It’s just hard to believe that it even exists."

Brilliant.
Dr. Thanatos
15. a-j
As I commented the last time we passed this point in the time loop, the introduction which suggests that the whole thing is meant to be a satire was added after disastrous test showings, or so I seem to have read somewhere.
And yet I still have a soft spot for this film, mad and bad as it is, and wish it well.
Dr. Thanatos
16. Ben Sumner
I recall my film teacher in college telling us that 'smart people enjoy this film.'
Great article.
Dr. Thanatos
17. Flaming Telepath
In case it was glossed over (it was), this film features CHARLOTTE RAMPLING. Reason enough.
Dr. Thanatos
18. AlcholicJedi
This movie is indeed a mindblowing disaster, but man oh man, Charlotte Rampling.
Dr. Thanatos
19. RonW
I think the author got most of this movie right, but missed a major point.

The controlling computer was programmed to both give everone anything they wanted, and to keepthem alive forever. The only problem is that what the majority of people wanted was death. It put the idea into Arthur Fame's mind (the one controlling Zardoz) to breed a superhuman that could defeat the computer (I forget but I think it was called the tabernacle). In a way the tabernacle found a way to destroy iteslf to give the eternals what they wanted.

I know the movie was a flop, but I love it and have watched it several times.
Dr. Thanatos
20. lorq
I think "Zardoz" has an interesting tone and texture. Its quiet, depopulated, dreamy future seems to be very much an artifact of the early '70s. (Think of the films of Nicholas Roeg.) And its attempt to be all symbolic-philosophical-mythic clearly places it as a post-"2001" film. Unfortunately, the symbolic-philosophical-mythic part is too goofy and (as the article says) "on the nose" to hold up. It's a lot like other stuff from the same period: "Space: 1999" and Robert Altman's "Quintet" come to mind. All three actually do achieve a certain kind of atmosphere and feel, but don't have strong ideas backing them up. (I think one reason both "Star Wars" and "Alien" worked so well is that they deliberately did *not* go for Capital-S Seriousness.)
Dr. Thanatos
21. RonW
#15 a-j I think you are referring to the director's commentary on the DVD, where he explains that he added it to help explain the movie when nobody understood it. His final comment was "It didn't help"
Dr. Thanatos
22. Philip Hawes
I think "Zardoz" is a very clever movie. The people who don't like it are the ones who had difficulty understanding the plot. I love Zed's mental journey. Zed was once a faithful adherent to the religion of Zardoz but now is a nonbeliever. He was once illiterate (did I spell that correctly?) but now has total cosmic understanding. Zed was bred to have super high intelligence, and so he was able to overcome his lack of early education by educating himself.

I just ordered the novel from Amazon and I cannot wait to get it!

Philip Hawes
SAT, PSAT, ACT, and LSAT Prep Tutoring
Dr. Thanatos
23. Joseph Grau
Zardoz is the second greatest science fiction film of all time. Period. The first one is 2001 A Space Oddssey.The people that hate this movie are the people that the film predicts would exist in the future--now-- The brutals. The generation that now exists. Like the idiot who wrote this review. He thinks he understands this film by posing as an intellectual writing an art piece for this blog. He's can't simply applaud this film and its merits without repeating all the lamebrain comments from the kool-aid drinking fanboy fanbase. Why is Logan's Run, another excellent effort, immediately shot down as silly as compared to Zardoz by this reviewer? Do you get what I am referring to? He is simply a wannabe. At any rate, I can't go on with my comment because I just realized that this is a monumental waste of my time. John Boorman's Zardoz and Anderson's Logan's Run are very good examples of cinematic science fiction filmmaking for people with brains. Star Wars, Star Trek, X-men, and all the upcoming Marvel and DC movies are for the brutals. Zardoz, 2001, Logan's Run, Blade Runner and now -Prometheus are made for people who can appreciate the finer side of cinema.
Dr. Thanatos
24. Zardoz
So, I love this movie. If you have imagination and pay attention it all makes sense.
Dr. Thanatos
25. PatR
To think I avoided watching this film for twenty five years all because of Connerys costume! I finally watched it one weekend in 2013, and absolutely loved it! But to love it, you must first learn to understand it, which is something many people dont seem to be capable of. In my opinion this is the sole reason why the film is so maligned: People just dont get it!! Zardoz, is one of the most intelligent piece of sci fi ever to have been put to the silver screen. And no, I am not one of those people who love bad movies for the sake of their awful-ness, because despite what people thing, Zardoz is not a bad movie. It is a great movie, which I will unashamedly... and whole-heartedly defend. It is a criminally under-rated film. In terms of the concepts on offer here.... to this very day, Zardoz is a whole head and shoulders obove other offerings in the genre. In that way, it is... at the very least... on par with Kubricks 2001. Every costume in Zardoz(Yes, even Connerys costume), and every character have specific reasons, as to why they look, talk, and act the way they do, in the film. This is an important point, because a lot of peope are put off, by the style of the film. However, instead of judging the film, based on how dated it SEEMS to look(I was:past tense!), just allow yourself to roll with it, and you will begin to see it all, in a new light. The concepts on offer here are dealt with in a way that is far beyond anything you will be used to in modern day science fiction. Intelligent Sci Fi, to say the very least!
Dr. Thanatos
27. Tom Hartman
The author finds it hard to believe the film "even exists"......really? What then must you feel about "Plan 9 From Outer Space" or "The Brain Eaters"?

"Zardoz"....definitely is a bizarre film but I can tell you watching it in the theater way back when it first came out was indeed an experience! I certainly did come out thinking I had seen a great film, but I have never forgotten it, as there were moments in it that were just wonderful. Definitely can think of worse ways to spend a cinematic evening....
Dr. Thanatos
28. SA WOlf
Read the book before I saw the film, back in the 70's. Quite an intense experience when you understand what is actually going on, BEFORE the visual experience. A very good Science Fiction story and a well done rendition of the novel.
Dr. Thanatos
29. Paul L
In a world of cinematic banality, bland cliche, and routine "seen it all before" boredom, Zardoz is an original, stimulating, atmospheric and thought provoking movie. If only the movie industry today would occasionally take a few chances like this movie and spare us the safe drivel we get nowadays. Come on movie execs, live a little ! You never know it might pay dividends!
Dr. Thanatos
30. Robert XA
I love Zardoz (the movie that is).
Dr. Thanatos
31. DrewMW
As a progressive Christian minister, there is plenty in 'Zardoz' to appreciate. First, the classic Have/Have Not 'social Gospel' conflict - like contemporary theologians/philosopers are saying about Empire vs Earth Community. Second, the exceptional confrontation between Zed and the Tabernacle - as if Christ were confronting the Internet itself:"Would you destroy God?" and Zed answers, "Such vanity!" (affirming the concept of 'God' as beyond the mere immitation of omniscience). Third, some of the oldest icons of Christ feature him with a ponytail - like Sean Connery's Zed.
Dr. Thanatos
32. Pierz
I didn't find it kitschy or ridiculous, maybe because I watched too many artsy films from that era. It rather makes an impression of ambitious/artsy film. It's ok, though I find the main message and motives rather naive and bland.
I also doubt it was intended as comedy or as ironic as some people assume. Obviously some scenes were supposed to be more or less funny or grotesque, but that was the part of the story.

Decoration, costumes and art are typical for those times, they seem all right to me. Sure, nowadays we can see it's just some British estate and a lot of foil, but it's still bearable.

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