Sunday, December 11, 2011

Zardoz: The Review Is Evil But The Gun Is Good!

Zardoz speaks to you!

Zardoz (1974) is one of the top five cult films ever made, defining "cult" as "with extreme appeal to a very narrow audience". I love the goofy big lug. It's flawed and crazy and fried out of its gourd, but I have to admit that on the second or third watching, it still never fails to keep my attention.

You can buy the complete dorm-decorating kit from Hot Topic for $29.95.

And while such iconic images as the flying stone head and Sean Connery in his day-glo orange Pampers Pull-Ups are all over the web and memed to death, I wonder how many members of the modern web audience have actually watched this movie, actually trying to follow it. I can... up to a point. It's really not that difficult.

Who the hell designed this set?

Spoliers ahoy!

In a post-apocalyptic future, we start out with Zed and his band of brutal savages (the Exterminators) worshiping the great rock-face (who looks like he was peeled off the cover of a lost Led Zeppelin album) vomiting guns to his followers, who are just police for controlling the population. Understand that the whole stone-head religion hugger-mugger was invented by the Eternals. Zed stows away in the stone head and confronts these Eternals, who are immortal, and have one of two possible fates: either be punished for crimes against their own by being aged until they live forever in senility (the Renegades), or be good citizens but live forever until they are so apathetic that they're breathing statues (the Apathetics). Eternals can kill themselves, but the damn Tabernacle just brings them back to life.

The acid begins to kick in.

Zed goes on a magical-mystery tour within this isolated world of the Eternals, who bicker endlessly about what to do with him. Zed is pulsing with raw, juicy life-force which the Eternals have had pulped out of them, you see, so among other things they're mystified and intrigued by his sexuality. Zed decides, for God knows what reason, to free the Eternals from their existential hell by destroying the Tabernacle, a tiny glass pyramid that talks to people through diamonds and holographic rings.

Don't worry, Sean Connery doesn't understand this story either.

Right about here is where the story loses me. Things dissolve into an acid-fried psychedelic trip for about half an hour, during which things happening might be symbolic, real, dreamed, hallucinated, or metaphorical. But after all that crap, Zed destroys the Tabernacle, his Exterminators swarm the city and shoot all the Eternals, Apathetic and Renegade alike, and Zed takes a wife and has a kid with her and they all age time-lapse and die, for absolutely no reason except to tack on a happy-ish ending.

This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius!

Of course, even as can be seen from the screen shots, I've left out a ton of details. but that's the gist of the whole thing. And you never saw an ending in which everybody's dead, yet works out to be so happy.

Yes, you must give us all a good spanking!

The intriguing aspect of this film is that trapped inside it are about three and a half good science fiction films fighting to get out. Hardcore science fiction fans will notice that in fact Zardoz simply seems to have eaten science fiction themes at random and presents them half-digested:

I am the walrus! Koo koo kah-joo!

  • Future overpopulation requiring killing off - reference Soylent Green.
  • False god used to keep people in line - reference a half dozen original Star Trek episodes, countless science fiction stories, and not to mention a certain children's fantasy which gives this movie its MacGuffin.
  • Division of society into elites and savages - reference the Eloi and Morlocks from The Time Machine.
  • Plants cultivated in bio-domes - reference in Silent Running.
  • Sex (ther penorz) is evil - reference the "Junior Anti-Sex League" in 1984.
  • Giant face controlling population - 1984 again. The film posters even mention that Zardoz is "beyond 1984".
  • Immortality sucks after awhile and will drive you mad - Geez, where to start? Asimov, Heinlein, Tolkien, and even Arthur Conan Doyle took a shot at this.
  • Computer (the Tabernacle) controls human population, keeping them alive but miserable - Once again, countless SF stories - I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream for instance.
  • Society of cruel psychics turning into a mental Big Brother dystopia - Again, half a dozen Star Trek episodes.
Please let this movie end soon!

I could go on all day. But it becomes obvious when you consider that writer/director/producer John Boorman reportedly wanted to film Lord of the Rings first and only came up with Zardoz when that fell through: Boorman (flush from his success with 1972's Deliverance) spent from 1972-1973 smoking hash and watching TV from dawn 'til dusk, along with randomly cramming science fiction paperbacks, and came up with this mish-mosh on the fly. You can even see where Boorman missed the opportunity to build upon these themes he plunders; for instance, no co-relation is drawn between the Tabernacle's control of the Eternals and Zardoz's control of the Brutals. There's also lazy plot holes, like how Zed, for a man who's educated through reading an entire library, sure seems to approach both jack-in-the-boxes and hologram-communicating rings with equal, caveman-like astonishment.

For my next trick, I will pull the entire plot out of my ass.

Yet there's still a lot to love about this pitiful and deformed witch-baby, because while it's biting off so much more than it can chew, it's also getting some big themes onto the screen that don't normally make it this far. Science fiction geeks love it, just so they can sit through it and analyze it.

...and the White Knight is talking backwards...

I, too, have bad news for the future: Zardoz will be re-made some day. Given the way Hollywood auto-cannibalisticly consumes its own tail year after year in recycled remakes, it is inevitable that some producer will re-discover Zardoz, notice its long-standing cult status, and try to fix it. It's only a matter of time. When that happens, it will be a disaster. The appeal of Zardoz is that it's goofy and wacky and insane and incomprehensible - any producer trying to remove that will wipe out the core audience's attraction.

But... wait... but how did... what the... ?