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Consumed With Hate: Zardoz

🍆 Woke Up This Morning, Got Yourself a Gun...

The Crime: Zardoz
The Guilty Party: John Boorman
Overview: The director of Deliverance follows up his Oscar darling with a bizarre big idea flick.

Why I Hate It...

We all know that Star Wars reinvented science fiction movies when it exploded onto the scene in 1977, but do you ever stop to think about what it reinvented the genre from? Before Star Wars, the most popular and influential sci-fi film was Stanley Kubrick's ponderous epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, and every science fiction movie that followed, or at least every movie that didn't have Planet of the Apes in the title, was copying it in pace and tone. Throw a little U.S. cultural context on top of that--permanent recession, crime waves in major cities (especially New York), the vestiges of the free love and psychedelic movements, and a wave of popular conspiracy thriller films--alongside technical and budgetary constraints, and the result is nearly a decade of genre films that are bad in very consistent and specific ways. They are slow, ugly, badly plotted, often hyper-sexualized, trippy as balls, and overwhelmingly dystopian. Much like their literary forebears, they tend to be much more interested in exploring ideas than telling a compelling a story, however, much like their literary forebears, their ideas aren't nearly as clever or interesting as the creators think they are [insert image of author looking askance at Fahrenheit 451]. And yet, even arriving right in the middle of the era that delivered such turkeys as Futureworld and Logan's Run, Zardoz stands out as being particularly bad.

And, reader, it is bafflingly bad. It was conceived by John Boorman as a side project while attempting to develop a film adaptation of Lord of the Rings. When that fell through, he moved forward on his science-fantasy-dystopia-big-idea mélange which he wrote, directed, and produced himself. The result is one of those movies that you have to see to believe, and even after you've watched it, belief that you have just seen it cannot be guaranteed. And yet! It honestly thinks it's a big important movie with big important things to say, despite the overall student film vibe. And this, if I'm being honest, makes it that much more special. It's one thing to make a bad film, it's quite another to absolutely strut while doing so.

Zardoz opens with a floating disembodied head (incorrectly) identifying itself as Zardoz and speaking in a posh and trilly British accent complete with the flipped rhotics and everything! The head tells us that we will be hearing a tale of dark satire and mystery. Instead, we cut to a giant floating stone head--also called Zardoz--that cries out "The gun is good! The penis is evil!" before vomiting a bunch of firearms at men in knee-high boots and skimpy red outfits so they can rape and murder their way across the irradiated wasteland countryside.

And it just gets less coherent from there. The film stars Sean Connery as Zed, a role that was originally given to Burt Reynolds who had to pull out due to illness. (Quick sidebar: when you also consider that Indiana Jones was supposed to go to Tom Selleck, it stands to reason that there's an alternate timeline in which Reynolds and Selleck are father and son in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade who defeat Hitler with the power of their superior mustaches). Zed is a "Brutal Exterminator" whose heroic introduction is rapey and murdery because Save the Cat wasn't a thing yet. We follow Zed as he stows away on the head of Zardoz, gets abducted and then subjugated by psychics, becomes a handyman, prowls around a farmhouse, falls in love with an immortal "Eternal" named Consuella, learns to read, discovers that Zardoz is actually a sly reference to... wait for it... the Wizard of Oz, foments a revolution, kills a whole bunch of people, then has a child and ages to dust on camera. Why does he do all of this? Because he was genetically bred by the floating disembodied head from the prologue (who is fully embodied in non-prologue scenarios and still not actually named Zardoz) to overthrow the Eternal civilization because immortality had made them so bored and literally impotent that their existence had become meaningless. Ergo, they lived vicariously through the Exterminators because deep down they all also want to be rapists and murderers and the world is better off without them.

Now, while the plot is a bunch of garbage nonsense, it's not the reason the movie is bad. Lots of perfectly decent movies have nonsense plots. But Zardoz also fails on multiple storytelling levels. The protagonist is thoroughly unlikeable and has zero agency in the story. When it starts to feel like he has agency, it's then revealed that he is a slave to his genetics, actually, and will only ever be a pawn in elite games. The tone is all over the place, so it's difficult to know what you're supposed to take seriously. In the end you have characters making pithy jokes while everyone around them is being murdered. The visual tone is all-over-the-place as well. We have Exterminators in mankinis butchering people in 70s-era business suits. Also, it was shot entirely in Eastern Ireland, which is probably why this hellish dystopian tale is mostly set on a lush little farm in the country. The costuming is hilarious--Connery's bright-red dominatrix outfit has been memed to death, but it's less ridiculous than disembodied-prologue-head's Pharaoh nemes and drawn-on facial hair.

Now in the context of its era, you can sometimes forgive a badly made science fiction movie if it at least how something worthwhile to say. Silent Running is a dull slog with an unlikeable hero and an incongruous score by Joan Baez, but it still has a fanbase because its very-on-the-nose message of "maybe don't murder all the plants" is coherent and laudable. But even though Zardoz seems to have a lot on its mind, none of it gels into what you might call a theme. What is this movie about? Who can say. Is it a criticism of the English class structure or royal family? Nothing seems to indicate that, there's nothing about wealth in there at all, and the main thing afflicting the Eternals seems to be their immortality. Is it a condemnation of sex and violence in media? Hardly--the film positively revels in exploitative sex and violence. Is it a commentary on eugenics? If it is, it seems to think that eugenics is ultimately good. Since we eventually learn that Zardoz is a fraud, perhaps the actual message of this film is an inversion of his opening proclamation. Perhaps the moral of the story is that the gun is actually evil and the penis is actually good.

I can get behind that, I guess, but I wouldn't want to watch a movie about it.

Next week, we're going to look at some individual songs that get under Kurt's skin, including one about a small town girl living in a lonely world...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.