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.
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.