Plan 9 Cinema: Zardoz


June 29, 2011 by abbyo

Most of the movies I’ve looked at in the Plan 9 Cinema feature so far are low-budget B-movies starring unknown actors, and directed by people who never really overcame their infamous failures. It’s not hard to understand how these movies got released, since there wasn’t a whole lot of money involved in the transaction, just some misguided studios and goofball directors who were never really aiming for the stars to start with (with the notable exception of Tommy Wiseau). But with today’s entry, we get into “how did this get made?” territory. We’re tackling a major studio release with a big-name director and a solid cast that includes two recognizable stars. In short, we’re taking on a straight-up fiasco of a movie. This week, we’re taking on “Zardoz”.

You’ve probably heard of “Zardoz”. You’ve seen the pictures of Sean Connery in his bright red underoos, ammunition lederhosen and uncomfortable-looking over-the-knee boots (if you haven’t, you can now say that you have). You may have even watched the trailer in a moment of late-night YouTube-trolling, although it probably left you even more confused about the movie than you were before you watched it. But trust me, neither of these things can really properly prepare you for the “What on Earth?” glory that is this movie.

Here’s the plot: In the far-off future, the world has been divided into two classes: the Eternals (who, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, can’t die), and the Brutals, a mortal slave-race. Connery is a special kind of brutal, an Exterminator. He’s sort of a slave driver. The Exterminators worship the titular Zardoz, a rhetoric-spouting floating stone head. One day, Connery sneaks into the floating head to see what’s really going on up there, and finds its pilot, who he kills. He travels inside the floating head to the artist/scientist/scantily clad colony where the elementals (led by Charlotte Rampling) live. They keep him as a specimen, and the rest of the plot just winds around in ever more pointless and confusing circles from there.

The biggest problem with “Zardoz” is that it’s a movie that thinks it has something important to say about society and the future of humankind, but has no clue what that message is, or how to effectively communicate it to the audience. John Boorman (who wrote and directed) wanted to present a dystopian future along the lines of Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, but seems to have missed what made “Brave New World” and “1984” relatable pieces of literature: they represented an easily imaginable future. Boorman plops us down in the middle of a confusing, unrecognizable setting with hardly any exposition and expects us to not only understand what’s going on, but to take it totally seriously, despite its campy nature.

Some examples:

  • Sparkling bits of dialogue like: “The penis is evil.” “Kill the Tabernacle!” and (my personal favorite) “We will touch-teach you, and you will give us your seed.”
  • A world in which people have a serious scientific interest in what gets Sean Connery aroused (although, I have to say, I think I can see where they’re coming from)
  • And, best of all, Connery in a wedding dress for no apparent reason whatsoever.

Boorman never really makes it clear as to what aspect of humanity he’s commenting on. Is it our fear of death? Our desire for immortality? The idea that rich, intellectually elite people are just as cruel and horrible as the unwashed masses? That religion is a lie used to manipulate others? These are all ideas that make cameo appearances, but none of them are developed to their full extent.

What’s really strange is that the actors in this movie, legitimate performers with a solid backlog of work and a long list of performances that came afterward, seem to be taking this whole process seriously as well. They’re genuinely invested in this movie, and it’s kind of impressive. In most films like this, bad scripts lead to bad acting, but not here. You can see the effort in scenes like the telepathic eternals taking a vote or sitting in group meditation. These were meant to be high-concept artsy scenes, and I’m sure they probably felt that way to the actors at the time, but the atmosphere on set and the way those same scenes appear to the audience couldn’t be more different. The effect is something like watching a series of pretentious drama school warm-up exercises. I kept thinking that if the people in the scene could only step back and watch themselves, they’d realize how ridiculous they looked, give up this acting lark and become accountants instead.

One more thing: the effects. Most of the budget for “Zardoz” seems to have gone into set decoration, costumes, and a large supply of whatever Boorman was smoking, because, man oh man, there are some unconvincing special effects in this movie. There’s an important scene in which people are brutally killed, but the wounds don’t look fatal at all. A little gauze and some Neosporin, and the victims would be back on their feet, meditating and investigating the mysteries of Sean Connery’s libido (seriously—Connery’s sex drive gets a lot of attention in this movie). The film’s final sequence shows Connery and Rampling aging and dying, but once they die their bodies become skeletons that look like they were stolen from a high school biology classroom. It’s yet one more aspect of “Zardoz” that undermines whatever it was it was trying to accomplish in the first place.

I’m really only scratching the surface of the crazy here. There’s a lot more that could be discussed about “Zardoz.” I’m of the mind that good movies are ones that need to be unpacked and examined. “Zardoz” does require unpacking, but it’s in no way because it’s a good movie. It’s the kind of movie that, after watching it, makes you want to go back through and consider it because you’re utterly baffled as to what it is you just saw. “Zardoz” got surprisingly decent reviews upon its release, and I can see why. Boorman and his cast tried with all their might to make something profound. They just failed spectacularly. Perhaps the madness could have been avoided if they’d just let Sean Connery wear pants. Or a shirt. Or both.


5 thoughts on “Plan 9 Cinema: Zardoz

  1. Miles Whetsel says:

    Giving Connery a shirt or pants would make for a far less watchable experience. Mostly because you keep wondering, “Why isn’t he wearing clothes?” but you never find out. Maybe the eternal folks in the kaleidoscope-y fun-house place could have a clothing drive or something.

  2. joem18b says:

    Just to point out that Zardoz arrived onscreen in 1974, during a truly glorious period of filmmaking (not since duplicated). I saw it when it came out. Everyone was interested in what Connery would do next, as he had famously divorced himself from the Bond films and hadn’t appeared in a movie since, save for a Lumet film that most of us have still never heard of. As I recall, we sat there and took in Zardoz and then walked out scratching our heads – but still with a sense that the thing was somehow in tune with the times.

  3. abbyo says:

    There’s no doubt the movie’s in tune with the times–it certainly feels that way. I think the movie’s heart was certainly in the right place. But it’s definitely not aged well.

  4. joem18b says:

    I’ll be careful not to watch Zardoz again. Don’t want to spoil my memories. And don’t forget, Zardoz spelled backwards is Zodraz.

  5. […] Neverending Story:” the set decoration. While parts of it do resemble repurposed set pieces from Zardoz, it does look really great. Falkor, the Rock Biter, the Southern Oracle and Morla are awesomely […]

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