I’m accused of liking bad movies, but this isn’t true. Last night I tried watching Ice Pirates for the first time in two decades and just couldn’t get past the scene in the castration factory. That’s a bad movie. What makes Ice Pirates bad and the eighties version of Flash Gordon good is simple to define: one’s a Star Wars cash-in which tries too hard to be funny and the other is a genuine love letter to its source material. Can you imagine a Flash Gordon reboot today? I’m guessing it’d have dubstep and loads of unnecessary CGI. Zardoz is in the same camp as Flash Gordon. Casual moviegoers may snicker, but then again casual moviegoers are the reason Katherine Heigl still has a career.
The 70s was the absolute best era for movies. Filmmakers were consistently dragging their cameras out of the studios and onto real locations. Realistic portrayals (and consequences) of sex and violence emerged. Movies were made for adults rather than teenagers. Not only that, but the film stock itself just looked better than it does today—it’s the difference between a painting on canvas and a painting on copy paper. I want film grain back, damn it.
“Big budget” back then meant maybe a million or two million dollars. Filmmakers had to get creative with problems rather than simply throw money at them. This is the decade that gave us The French Connection, A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, Rocky… are you beginning to see why it’s my favorite era of film? Woody Allen was in his prime, Scorsese was at his most visceral, and Richard Donner gave us the definitive, most enjoyable film version of Superman.
Director John Boorman was right at home in the era. Hell, he still makes movies reminiscent of the 70s style. I immediately think of two movies whenever I hear Boorman’s name: Deliverance and Zardoz. He’s made other kick-ass films that I admire very much, but Deliverance is the one I think about every time I go on a float trip and Zardoz is the one I like a little more every time I see it.
Zardoz is pulp fiction at its finest. It’s 2001: A Space Odyssey if directed by Fellini. It’s colorful, ambitious, blasphemous, and equal parts pessimistic and optimistic. Speaking of Kubrick’s 2001, cameraman Geoffrey Unsworth turns in cinematography here that could’ve, no should’ve, won an Oscar. Besides all that, where else are you going to see a movie star of Sean Connery’s stature in a red diaper and knee-high boots? (Before Connery signed on, the role was supposed to be played by Burt Reynolds, but he got sick.)
The only problem with Zardoz? A lot of people didn’t get it. This is painfully obvious in the scene tacked on to the very the beginning of the film, which basically has a principle character explain to the audience what they’re about to see in a showy, William Castle-esque intro. Boorman admits they added it in an attempt to clear the confusion after initial audiences scratched their heads. He also admits the scene “didn’t work.”
The year is 2293. Sean Connery plays Zed who’s part of a post-apocalyptic group of barbarians who worship a floating head statue called Zardoz. Zardoz shows up from time to time and commands Zed’s group to rape and kill the peasants who live on the countryside. The god even supplies the weapons and ammunition in exchange for sacrifices. This goes on for several decades until, one day, Zardoz commands them to start agriculture. The Brutals begin to question their god, so Zed smuggles himself aboard the floating head to get answers. He then finds himself within The Vortex, a domed city where the Immortals live.
Then things get weird. Well, weirder. The Immortals don’t like life so much. It turns out that after you’ve lived for an inhuman amount of time, life gets rather boring. As their advanced machines have eliminated the need—and subsequently the desire—for sex, one can easily see why they’re so bored. Most of them are thrilled to find Zed has infiltrated their compound. It’s the only exciting thing that’s happened in ages. At one point the more academic of Immortals decide to test exactly what kind of stimuli gives Zed an erection. The scene is nothing short of hilarious.
Immortals, by the way, don’t have policemen or prisons. Criminals are aged by way of telepathy, and repeat offenders end up in a the senile home. Which reminds me: this is some of the best aging effects I’ve ever seen in movies. I’ve seen movies with a thousand times the budget that couldn’t age an actor worth a damn. Zardoz, which cost less than two million to produce, manages to age half a man’s face more convincingly than most films.
To explain the plot any further, which doesn’t unfold sequentially, would be ruining a good deal of the fun. It’s a hell of an entertaining picture, one that John Boorman felt that he had to make. The result is apparent. Maybe the people who made it weren’t stoned out of their minds, but it sure makes the audience feel as if they are.
In the last month, I’ve rewatched both Logan’s Run and The Omega Man, but Zardoz sits high above them. It’s not so bad it’s good, it really is good. Silly? Sort of. But isn’t the future already looking a bit silly in real life, too? Boorman’s vision of the future is no less legitimate than any other we’ve ever seen. Who says everyone won’t be wearing colorful towels on their heads while speaking telepathically? It’s better than trying to have a conversation with someone whose face is glued to a phone screen.