What can one possibly say about John Boorman’s Zardoz? Yes folks, this is the infamous Sean Connery in a pony-tail and bright red loin-cloth movie. In the far future there are three classes of humans. At the bottom of the heap are Brutals, assumed to be more or les sub-humans. Then there are Exterminators, whose job it is to keep down the numbers of Brutals. At the top of the pile are Eternals, who live in the Vortexes, sealed off from the lower orders. Sean Connery is an Exterminator, an Exterminator who starts to doubt his god, Zardoz. So he stows away in a the huge floating head that contains the god, and finds himself in a Vortex. He discovers that The Eternals, despite their powers and their immortality, are unhappy. Without death life seems to lose its savour. And with death banished sex is also banished (yes I know that doesn’t really make much sense but hey I didn’t write the movie). The Eternals live too much the life of the mind, cut off from the elemental passions and from the life of the body. At least I think that’s what the film is trying to say. The arrival of Connery, an unruly barbarian still very much in touch with the life of the body, provokes a crisis among the Eternals.
Generally speaking I like pre-Star Wars science fiction and I find pre-CGI sci-fi more visually interesting than the modern species. Unfortunately Zardoz suffers from extremely silly costumes and mostly fairly uninteresting and often absurd sets and this makes the movie difficult to take seriously. This is a problem because it’s a movie that really only works if you do take it seriously - it’s just so self-consciously philosophical. The special effects certainly represent an intriguing attempt to do something innovative and original on a limited budget, and some work very well – such as the images projected on bodies in the sequence where Zed is absorbing the knowledge of the Eternals. Sadly some of the other effects fall very flat. I’m becoming more and more convinced that this sort of thing can only be done effectively by European film-makers. They seem to have the ability to translate surreal images and dream-scapes and disturbing visions of the past and future onto the movie screen, while British and American attempts to do the same often end up being rather embarrassing (with the possible exception of a certain Terry Gilliam). A Fellini or a Herzog or even a Jean Rollin might have got away with this one. And I’m not sure the philosophical and intellectual content is really meaty enough to justify this film, although it’s certainly nice to be reminded of the days when science fiction movies did have philosophical and intellectual content. Connery and Charlotte Rampling manage to look good despite their very dodgy costumes, and they do try to treat the material with the seriousness it demands. Zardoz is one of those interesting failures that is still worth seeing, and it’s still worth a hundred George Lucas movies.