The period of American movie making between the late 1960s and mid-1970s was a strange time. With the so-called death of the studio system and the birth of the ‘New Hollywood’, films were made that never would have been before. In this we got the early brutality and potential criminal glorifying Bonnie And Clyde, the gritty drama of Taxi Driver and, ultimately, the surreal sci-fi that is John Boorman’s Zardoz.
Following Boorman’s acclaimed, Academy Award winning, Deliverance the director was given somewhat of a carte blanche by 20th Century Fox. What emerged was a kind of post-apocalyptic vision-cum-parable drawing on pretty much all dystopian literature that came before it.
From the opening monologue of Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy), aka Zardoz, telling us that this is a story of a story and a parable its clear that this isn’t going to be entirely straightforward. That though seems to be part of the point, while the film does have a message and clearly many meanings can be drawn from it, it seems the best way to deal with it is to let it wash over and around you and take from it what you want.
The plot revolves around Zed (Sean Connery) a ‘Brutal’ hunter from the barbarian wastelands of 23rd century Earth who finds his way into the ‘Vortex’ – world of the immortal, psychic, ‘Eternals’, who represent a future peak of humanity.
From there the film explores the notion of immortality and a kind of ‘perfection’ in human society with, for me, one message at least being that there is no such thing as perfection. Beyond this it becomes thematically even more abstract as Connery’s hunter goes on to become a beacon of rebellious hopeful destruction for the Eternals who are bored with immortality, leading to a fairly shocking dénouement that really is unlike any I’ve seen in a generally positive film – a kind of bleak positivity, if you will.
Probably the most well-known thing about Zardoz is Sean Connery’s costume, amounting to little more than a red pair of trunks for the majority of the film, but when seen in context they lose something of their sense of ridiculousness (as much as they ever could). The overall production design and look of the film very much fits in with the aesthetic seen in other films of the time, notably Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Ken Russell’s Tommy – Zardoz just takes it a level further, as ‘space opera’ tends to do.
Special effects wise it also stands up remarkably well for 1973, certainly a sign that, despite its reputation, this wasn’t a low-budget b-movie. Again, while hugely surreal in places elements like the giant flying heads and humans being grown in sealed bags all still look as convincing as they ever could without modern photo realistic cgi – but what would a photo real giant flying stone head actually look like?
With Connery playing it surprisingly straight and the whole film having that same tone despite its evident surreal nature, Zardoz belies its reputation somewhat and, while clearly a flight of self-indulgent fancy in many ways and being far from ‘a good film’, it is also not quite the abomination that is often suggested and, in my mind, could work as a companion to David Lynch’s Dune in baffling sci-fi with more money than sense.