The main thing you need to know about John Boorman’s 1974 sci-fi classic, Zardoz, is that, for most of the movie, Sean Connery wears this costume:
I’m glad not only that I live in a world in which Zardoz exists, but also that I live in the world in which the circumstances that allow Zardoz’s existence could happen. That is, the window for Zardoz’s possible existence is only that period in 1974 when it was released: two years after director John Boorman made Deliverance and three years before Star Wars changed science fiction, as well as the entire filmmaking landscape, to this day. Add to this also three years after Sean Connery had left the James Bond franchise for a second time, and he was hungry enough to take on this film (though Boorman’s original choice, Burt Reynolds, had to bow out of the film due to illness, and I wouldn’t mind living in the parallel universe that got to have Zardoz starring Burt Reynolds).
The very existence of Zardoz stems largely from the success of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972). As often happens with such success, Hollywood studios give the directors of such successful films carte blanche to make their next film, which often means the director tries to make a dream project. This can sometimes result in a creative and commercial success (Inception), a creative success but commercial failure (William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, an incredible, intense remake of The Wages of Fear that Friedkin got to make after The Exorcist, but which failed for a wide variety of reasons and damaged the director’s career), or both a creative and commercial failure (Martin Scorcese’s New York, New York). It can also result in incredibly personal projects that have no real reason for existing otherwise, have almost no commercial appeal, and defy evaluation. This is where Zardoz comes in.
Like our best dreams, Zardoz also defies summarization, as any attempt to impose narrative order on the film ultimately results in leaving out something crucial. At its most basic, Zardoz is about the conflict between two classes in the postapocalyptic world of 2293: the Brutals and the Eternals. Among the Brutals are the Exterminators, a group of men who worship a giant floating head named Zardoz who vomits up weapons, tells them how bad penises are, and commands them to kill the other Brutals:
“The gun is good. The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds and makes new life to poison the earth with a plague of men, as once it was. But the gun shoots death and purifies the earth of the filth of Brutals. Go forth and kill!”
Interestingly, Zardoz sounds a lot like my mom.
One of the Exterminators, Zed (Sean Connery), stows away aboard the giant floating head and shoots the man who controls it: Arthur Frayn.
The giant floating head makes its way back to the Vortex, home of the Eternals. This is a scientifically advanced collective that had conquered death and developed special mental powers. Because they cannot die, they’ve also done away with reproduction and sexual desire as well. Peace is maintained among the Eternals by controlling negative thoughts: such thoughts are punished by aging the Eternal a certain number of years. If one is aged too much, then he or she becomes a permanently senile member of the Renegades. The Apathetics make up another group of Eternals; they have some mental disorder that causes them to stand around with glazed looks and occasionally bump into each other.
The movie takes a while to set up the rules of this future society, and much of it doesn’t make sense, which is just fine in the context of this film. At some point, one just has to go with it and accept what happens without question. The Eternals have lived for hundreds of years in their idyllic communities, with no contact with the Brutals other than the excursions for resources that Arthur Frayn made with the giant floating head. Zed’s presence among the Eternals throws their ordered existence into chaos, with some wanting to kill him outright, while others want to examine him. After a vote, which involves some random hand-gestures that make no sense, these logic-dominated humans decide that he requires further study, especially since he is so physically and mentally different from them. For one, he still needs sleep, while they do not. Two, he can get an erection. In one of the movie’s great scenes, the Eternals, led by Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), try to study Zed’s erection. They show him various pornographic films–one of a woman bathing, the other of naked mud wrestling–but they have no effect. However, looking at Consuella gets him to pitch a tent, and everyone is impressed.
Zed’s sexual power becomes a big issue for the Eternals. At one point, a group of female Eternals offer a trade: “We will touch-teach you, and you will give us your seed.” In other words, they will give him the sum total of all human knowledge, and in exchange, he gets to screw them. That may be the definition of “win-win.” Later, an Apathetic licks Zed, which leads them to snap out of their catatonic states and have an orgy. This is exactly what I imagine happens whenever anyone licks Sean Connery.
Zed also manages to seduce Consuella, who leads the faction that wants to kill the outsider. His presence among the Eternals turns out to be no accident: back in the Outlands, Zed found a library, learned to read, and discovered by reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that his god is a sham. So, he seeks revenge on Zardoz for the manipulation of his people.
As the movie moves toward its conclusion, a lot of random shit happens. The film features a pretty basic dichotomy of logic vs. emotion, or reason vs. instinct, with a cautionary tale about a society that leaves emotion behind in favor of scientific achievement and longevity which I guess is a warning we need. It may also be saying something about the fictionality of religion. However, there is also another metafictional level functioning in this movie. The film opens with the floating head of Arthur Frayn explaining that he is the creator of the story we are about to see (this scene must have been even crazier on the big screen). Later, when Frayn is resurrected, he explains to Zed that he has manipulated events to put Zed in this position to destroy the Eternals: he selected Zed’s parents for optimum genetic characteristics, and later led him to the library and encouraged him to read. But Zed never really confronts the fated nature of his position–it just becomes another thing that this movie throws at us.
Zardoz is the apotheosis of a period when sci-fi movies like this, Silent Running, Soylent Green, The Planet of the Apes movie, Logan’s Run, A Clockwork Orange and others tried to be about something important. Zardoz tries a little too hard at that, but that’s part of its charm. It’s a crazy ride that has no reason for existing, but I’m glad it does.