Throwback Thursday: Zardoz is the Alpha and the Omega

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

If your movie begins with an introduction by a floating head with a drawn-on goatee and continues with a giant stone head declaring that “The gun is good!” and “The penis is evil!,” you know you’re in for a unique film. After the success of his Oscar-nominated hillbilly/man vs. nature epic Deliverance, John Boorman could basically do whatever he wanted in Hollywood. What he decided to do was to produce, write, and direct a sci-fi epic with Sean Connery running around in an adult diaper. That film was 1974’s Zardoz.

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Zardoz theatrical poster

Some may say Zardoz is a great example of the excesses of New Hollywood, where directors were given carte blanche, but Boorman is actually trying to tell a cohesive story about where he saw society going.  Made for just $1.57 million, it barely broke even at the box office and it was considered to be a failure. But, it later found a cult audience, and even if you’ve never seen it, Sean Connery’s outfit in the film is definitely legendary (and has been parodied in everything from Futurama to Community).

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Totally. Pulling. It. Off.

Living in a postapocalyptic future (is there any other kind?), Zed (Connery) is a member of the Brutal Exterminators. The Brutals lay waste to the rest of the population of the barren lands and take instructions from their god, a giant stone head named Zardoz. They also force the populace of the wasteland to cultivate crops for the head. On a specific visit by Zardoz, Zed sneaks on board the stone head to find his god. He is taken through an energy shield to the Vortex, one of many quaint country estates where immortal humans meditate and live a boring existence. Zed is just the guy to shake up their status quo.

There is a lot of navel-gazing in this film. Literally. There are Eternals who are so bored that they’ve lost themselves in themselves. Boorman seems to be saying that complacency is a bad thing and we do need to mix things up if we’re going to remain fresh, creative, and vital. On the flip side of that, the Brutals don’t do anything but destroy. Guns are good. Use them. Don’t procreate. The penis is evil. Somewhere between these two dichotomies lies a happy medium.

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Or at least happy pseudo-hippies.

There’s some pretty shots of Ireland, and a few interesting camera angles, but overall the film feels rushed through production. Boorman is a firm believer in metaphor and allegory. Symbolism tends to trump realism in his films (see my review of his Excalibur). When he’s not trying to beat his characters over the head with violence, he almost leans into surrealism, but doesn’t quite want to push his films all the way over.

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Almost.

There’s some fun, interesting secondary characters in the Eternals. There’s Charlotte Rampling as Consuella, who realizes what Zed could do to their society, Sara Kestelman as May, who wants to study him and hopefully come up with another alternative than destroying their society, and John Alderton as Friend (yes, that’s his name; you have to trust him, he’s a friend), who wants to push Zed along to his inevitable conclusion of death and destruction.

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There’s so much going on here!

Coming off of the peace and love spectacle of the ’60s and relying heavily on a communal aspect for the Eternals, Boorman creates a very strict regimen for his immortals. If they die, they are reborn and aged to adulthood. Due to the boredom of eternity, they develop complex interactions that if not followed gets the offender aged by the group. So, if you break a rule, they age you, but don’t kill you; you’re forced to live eternally as a senior citizen. As mentioned above, some of the Eternals get so bored with this life that they just drift off, left in a state of complete ambivalence. It’s definitely an interesting take on the subject, if you can get past the almost too-hippie outfits. Of course, the other side of the costume wardrobe isn’t any better (see Connery above). But sci fi is more than just spectacle; good sci fi is also about ideas, and there’s a lot here to digest.

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A lot!

There’s a quaint ’70s vibe to the whole movie, but if you can work past that (and the low budget), there’s some great, thought-provoking ideas here that might actually get you thinking. This film is not for the weak of heart, though. You could absolutely hate it, but good art is subjective. It works for me, and it’s obviously developed quite a large cult following, so I know I’m not alone in loving this film. And even if I was, that’s okay. I’ll just get into my giant stone head and vomit up guns.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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